Integrity commission debate to loom large in federal election

By Melissa Coade

January 27, 2022

parliament-house-canberra
This year Australia sits in 18th place out of 73 on the Transparency International 100-point scale. (Phillip Minnis/Adobe)

Australia’s ranking on the World Corruption Perceptions Index has fallen again on the annual list, prompting experts to say it’s time to implement a federal integrity commission. 

This year Australia sits in 18th place and a score of 73 on the Transparency International 100-point scale. Ten years ago it was ranked seventh, with a score of 85.

According to accountability expert Professor A J Brown, who is a global board member of Transparency International (TI), the dramatic drop in corruption perceptions showed that it was time to heed research for the design of a new federal integrity commission and move to establish one in Australia. He warned that the issue was likely to play out in the upcoming federal election.

“The promised national integrity commission becoming bogged down in partisan political debate due to government confusion over what scope and powers are needed to strike the right balance has clearly fed into this outcome,” Brown said. 

Prime minister Scott Morrison and commonwealth attorney-general Michaelia Cash have already indicated they will support an integrity commission model that has no public hearing powers for corruption issues involving parliamentarians or 80% of the APS. Professor Brown said that the remaining 20% of public servants were already open to this level of scrutiny. 

TI Australia recently partnered with Griffith University’s centre for governance and public policy and other agencies to develop an integrity reform blueprint funded by an Australian Research Council grant

The research suggested design solutions for the contentious integrity commission model without compromising the full royal commission-style powers needed for an effective body. This included bipartisan ways to improve safeguards and ensure due process.

Professor Brown added that a balance could be struck to ensure a federal integrity commission upheld the standard of laws and justice but had the inquisitorial powers needed to hold those in power to account. 

“New, best practice public hearing powers can ensure such a commission is not turned into a kangaroo court, and controls on the publication of initial complaints – but not ultimate outcomes – can strike the right balance,” he said.

Brown suggested that another problem with the federal government’s preferred model for an integrity commission was the inability of whistleblowers to directly access the commission, contrary to ‘historic commitments’ that LNP politician Amanda Stoker had made to a national symposium.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Brown said, noting that Australia’s future performance in indexes would likely hinge on whether all parties properly heed the research supporting new solutions.

TI Australia CEO Serena Lillywhite pointed to a suite of stalled reforms as explaining Australia’s worsening result. She described the federal government’s promise to set up a commonwealth integrity commission three years ago as ‘unfinished business’ and said decisive action was needed.

“[Australia must] act decisively to tackle corruption and restore trust and confidence in government and our democratic institutions,” Lillywhite said.


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