Transparency advocates say a federal anti-corruption commission with powers akin to a royal commission would restore faith not just in politicians but all government agencies.
Speaking at the National Press Club, Pauline Wright, from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said corruption left unchecked and the perception of it harmed the government at all levels.
“It undermines confidence in all levels of government and its agencies — they’re fundamental to the delivery of citizens’ expectations and aspirations, for Australia to be a fair, prosperous and ethical society,” Wright said on Wednesday.
The federal government is facing criticism for not yet introducing legislation for a federal integrity body it promised at the last election, while independents, Labor and a range of experts oppose the government’s proposed model.
The Centre for Public Integrity’s Geoffrey Watson, a former assisting counsel to NSW’s ICAC, told the press club that alongside having the powers of the royal commission, a federal anti-corruption agency should be able to investigate on the basis of reasonable suspicion of public sector corruption.
“An investigation is not the same thing as a public hearing; that is a later step to open an investigation,” he said.
Members of the public should be able to refer complaints; the definition of corruption should allow it to investigate private individuals seeking to mislead or corrupt public officials or processes; and it should cover criminal and non-criminal matters, Watson says.
“The commission must have the power in certain cases to conduct public hearings. That should be used sparingly, as all of the [state and territory] agencies do, but it must be available,” he added.
“Nothing deters this kind of conduct more than a public hearing.”
The government’s proposed federal integrity agency allows only ministers or department to refer suspicion of criminal misconduct for investigations to begin.
Wright believes this bar is too high and undermines the likelihood of evidence unveiling during the investigation process.
“That’s what investigations are designed to do – to uncover evidence. You shouldn’t need the evidence to begin with, that’s what the investigation is for,” she said.
“While criminal conduct should, of course, be a priority for any anti-corruption body, it should be able to investigate other forms of misconduct – for example, links between financial contributions and political favours should be explored – even if an improper motive which is required to meet the criminal threshold can’t be established.”
Transparency Australia chief executive Serena Lillywhite pointed to the Museum of Australian Democracy’s research showing if nothing was done by 2025, fewer than 10% of Australians would trust their politicians and political institutions on current trends.
“The single biggest problem for integrity in Australia is diminishing public trust that decision making is fair, honest and free of undue influence,” Lillywhite told the press club.
“The lack of a federal integrity commission is a gaping hole in Australia’s integrity framework. It’s the most important piece of legislation that we need right now … for solid, forward-thinking policies that put the public’s best interests first and always.”
She said a new federal agency was not a “silver bullet” but could improve transparency in collaboration with existing accountability agencies, including the National Audit Office.
“It is unique, potentially a once-in-a-generation … to design a cohesive integrity framework that has a robust integrity commission as its linchpin.”