Toss another bribe on the barbie

| February 3, 2024

Successfully tackling corruption is more than catching greedy public servants and politicians, miscreants and manipulators. It involves government at the highest level advancing a culture of integrity and setting up institutions that celebrate and facilitate good governance – in addition to catching the bad guys.

The latest Corruption Perceptions Index – an annual survey from Transparency International that tracks how corrupt governments are perceived to be – shows Australia still has a way to go on this front.

Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Singapore came out on top in the latest survey of 180 countries, while South Sudan, Venezuela, Syria and Somalia were at the bottom.

Australia came in at 14th place with a score of 75 out of 100, which is the same score as last year. Zero is considered highly corrupt, while 100 is very clean.

In 2012, Australia had ranked an impressive seventh in the world with a score of 85. By 2021, however, we had fallen to 18th with a score of 73.

The election of the Albanese government with its commitment to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission brought a boost to our anti-corruption reputation last year, vaulting us back up to 13th position. But we’ve levelled off in this year’s report.

While Australia is still ranked ahead of countries like Japan, Iceland, the UK, France and the US, it appears those who assess our anti-corruption efforts are still waiting to ensure we are truly turning the corner.

The anti-corruption commission is just the first step

The Corruption Perceptions Index is not a measure of corruption, but is a perceptions index. It is globally used and respected. Using rigorous methodology, the index compiles independent assessments of a country’s efforts to prevent and control corruption by business leaders and experts. It then scores and ranks countries.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, I was berated by a senior official who said, “You have been director of the AIC for five years and crime is still a serious problem in our community. What a hopeless performance. You have failed miserably!”

Turning around a long-term trend is not something that occurs overnight, and of course, there are many factors that contribute to a country’s corruption score.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission, for example, is not the magic bullet that alone will restore Australia’s good standing on the global stage. Its establishment sends a signal that the government is serious about stamping out corruption, but it will take time to see results.

The previous government had been embroiled in a number of scandals, including “sports rorts”, “carpark rorts”, Robodebt, the Leppington triangle land purchase scandal, and workplace accountability and sexual harassment issues.

While it’s important to investigate these allegations of wrongdoing, the National Anti-Corruption Commission cannot stop every bad policy or practice. The real challenge is how to make sure those in government do the right thing – not because they are told to, but because they want to, and see it as a mark of ethical and responsive government.

Promoting integrity is bigger than the National Anti-Corruption Commission. It is part of the job of every political and public service leader and manager, and it trickles down to the lowest levels of government. This is where the Australian Public Service Commission can be effective – it has taken on board the challenge of creating a framework to better promote integrity within government.

Some sectors are more prone to corruption than others, such as those that engage in significant procurements, extend discretionary benefits to clients, or issue licences and permits. A mapping exercise could better identify these sectors, along with the associated red flags and risks.

Election financing and whisteblower reforms

We also need to look at the bigger picture beyond government services. I wrote last year about a blueprint for action emanating from a research team led by A J Brown, an anti-corruption and whistleblowing expert.

While the National Anti-Corruption Commission is a first step, we still need to implement reforms on election financing, foreign bribery and anti-money laundering regulations, and protections for whistleblowers.

The Australian Electoral Commission was listed in the latest Australian Public Service Commission survey as the nation’s most trusted public service. However, there is more the commission should be able to do if the government makes the appropriate policy decisions on election reform.

If trust in the electoral system is eroded, then our democracy is in real trouble and integrity will fly out of the window.

Three areas need attention:

1) We need limits on campaign financing and better regulation of political donations. It is essential for our government’s integrity that a campaign donation is a donation, not a transaction.

2) Donations need to be disclosed in real time. We need to know who is cosying up to the parties as it happens, not months later.

3) We need stronger regulations to monitor truth in political advertising, in particular on social media.

Ranking 14th on the latest Corruption Perceptions Index is pretty good, but it should absolutely not be a reason to be complacent. Australia can do better.

This article was published by The Conversation.