Time to move forward on a national integrity commission

4 November 2020

Transparency International Australia welcomes the Exposure Draft of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) Bill.

‘TIA has been calling for a federal anti-corruption agency for 15 years and this is an important step towards establishing one,’ said Serena Lillywhite, CEO of Transparency International Australia.

‘The Commonwealth Integrity Commission is an opportunity for once-in-a-generation nation building reform, but we must ensure it’s built on solid foundations.

‘We look forward to strengthening the proposal through further consultations with the government and all political parties. We remain committed to building an effective and robust pro-integrity agency that will strengthen our democracy, improve the conduct of our elected representatives, and foster a culture of integrity.

‘So far, the Exposure Draft Bill only partially meets TIA’s six key criteria for a strong and effective anti-corruption and pro-integrity agency:

Broad jurisdiction & strong powers

Strong powers are essential for a fit-for-purpose integrity commission. However, the CIC’s full royal commission powers would only extend to 20% of the federal public sector. This means that 80% of the federal government, including politicians, would not be subjected to the same level of scrutiny. Such a model suggests one set of rules for the public sector, and another for politicians.

For this 80%, the CIC will remain focused on criminal offences only, unlike the 20% of the sector where it can deal with any corruption issue – such as conflicts of interest and undue influence. This will severely restrict the agency’s capacity to get to the bottom of so many of the corruption and misconduct issues that have eroded the public’s trust in government – such as the Sports Rorts scandal, travel rorts, government contracts awarded with opaque  tender processes, and many more.

Despite its objectives including corruption prevention, the proposed CIC involves no specific powers or frameworks for pursuing this vital role, with its powers to conduct integrity inquiries, even on referral from the government, limited to private means. It also falls short of other proposals in providing no powers or responsibilities for whistleblower protection, or for coordination and consultation with the states or other parties on priorities and strategies for fighting corruption nationally.

 

Accessibility to the Commission

Another gap in the proposed model is the inability for public service whistleblowers and members of the public to report corruption concerns directly to the Commission in relation to 80% of the public sector. There is also a risk under clause 70 of the bill that public sector whistleblowers could face prosecution for making an unwarranted allegation. This is a concerning clause. It effectively acts as a gag and also contradicts the purpose of our federal whistleblower protection legislation.

 

Public hearings, transparency and fairness

The proposed CIC would not enable public hearings for 80% of the federal government. Without any capacity to hold such hearings when in the public interest, TIA considers that trust and confidence in this institution will be low.

 

Accountability to the public

TIA welcomes the proposal for a joint parliamentary committee and inspector-general to provide oversight over the proposed CIC. This is a first step towards a more robust system of accountability to the public. For greater public accountability, the Commission should also involve community and civil society input, public and whistleblowers access to the Commission, and public hearings. The integrity commissioner should also be made a full independent officer of the Parliament, akin to the Auditor-General.

 

Adequate, guaranteed resources

We are pleased to see the government commit $106.7 million over four years, on top of the $40.7 million spent on ACLEI, which will be absorbed by the CIC.

This is a major step towards the spending needed on federal reforms to address corruption, strengthen political integrity and protect whistleblowers, which we estimate to require at least $100 million additional spending per year.

Australians are loudly demanding that our parliament and public institutions act with honesty, transparency and integrity. A strong, effective and well-coordinated national integrity commission is key to forging a stronger and healthier democracy.

This is also important for our international standing. Australia’s position in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has been in decline for many years. Australia fell out of the league of the world’s top ten least corrupt back in 2014 and continuously fails to lift its game. Establishing an effective national integrity commission would help improve Australia’s position and would provide a bedrock to meet international commitments made to both the OECD and the United Nations to implement the relevant conventions on stopping bribery and corruption.

Later this month, we will release a comprehensive report that lays out the blueprint for what a strong and effective pro-integrity system could look like in Australia.

See also the analysis by our board member, AJ Brown, in The Conversation.

Photo by Social Estate on Unsplash

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