Australia has generally been considered a relatively "clean" country, in terms of government corruption, but the last few years have seen a worrying increase in cases where the Federal Government appears to have engaged in contracts without sufficient due diligence (See for example, the Paladin refugee services contract awarded with no tender, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation grant awarded with no tender, and the ruckus regarding the over-priced buy-back of water rights before the last election.) There is also concern regarding the increasing influence of lobbyists on government decisions have also caused concerns.
The focus of this page is to bring you up-to-speed on what the Australian Parliament has done and should be doing to address corruption through legislative and institutional mechanisms. In particular, I'm a strong supported of a Federal National Integrity Commission, with strong independence from political influence and strong powers to investigate and push for prosecution in relation MPs and government officials.
The need for a National Integrity Commission
At the state level, most of our States have established some form of Independent Commission Against Corruption (with the NSW ICAC and Queensland ICAC being globally considered good practice examples). However, the Federal Government has strongly resisted setting up a Federal ICAC with strong powers to investigate alleged corrupt conduct including of MPs and government officials. This article on "Government Corruption and the Need for a Federal ICAC" provides a good summary of why we need an institution dedicated to investigating corruption federally.
Work has been done in the past to examine options for a federal ICAC. The Senate undertook a review and produced the 2016 Interim Report by the Senate Committed on a National Integrity Commission, but no action was taken before the 2016 election. On 8 February 2017 the new Senate established another 2017 Select Committee on a NIC. That committee produced a 2017 Report by the Senate on a National Integrity Commission, but again no action was taken by the Government.
Increasingly frustrated but knowing that something needed to be done in the public interest, the cross-bench in the Lower House decided to take matters into their own hands. In October 2017, Hon Adam Bandt tabled a Private Members Bill called the National Integrity Commission Bill 2017. However, this Bill was not taken up at the time. In November 2018, Hon Cathy McGowan tabled a Private Members Bill called the National Integrity Commission Bill 2018 and in December 2018 she tabled the National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2018.
In an attempt to take control of the agenda, on 6 December 2018 the Senate referred Cathy McGowan's Bills to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 5 April 2019. The Senate Committee issued its 2019 Report on the National Integrity Bills in April, with a dissenting report included by the Greens. All of this work lapsed following the May 2019 election.
Improving accountability around political lobbying
Australia needs stronger laws to deal with corruption, but we also need stronger laws to regulate lobbyists. It has become commonplace for MPs to leave their jobs and then move straight across to the private sector to start lobbying their own colleagues on behalf of special interests.
Although we have a Federal Lobbying Code of Conduct which governs federal lobbying and similar codes at State level, research from 2018 showed that not a single lobbyist has been punished for rule breaches in five years either federally, or in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland or South Australia. A federal Auditor-General’s report found that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had not suspended or removed the registration of a single lobbyist since 2013, despite identifying at least 11 possible breaches.
Currently, the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption is probing the weaknesses in the lobbying regime governing NSW lobbyists. The ICAC chief commissioner has warned reforms are now “overdue”.
Additional resources / reading
Federal National Integrity Commission Bill 2018, tabled by Hon Cathy McGowan November 2018;
Federal National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill 2018, tabled by Hon Cathy McGowan, December 2018;
Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies, global guidelines;
Federal Lobbying Code of Conduct, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet;
Deirdre McKeown (2014) "Who pays the piper? Rules for lobbying governments in Australia, Canada, UK and US", Politics and Public Administration Section, Australian Parliament.
“There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused
from scrutiny — they should be setting the example of transparency.”
— Edward Snowden, US Government whistleblower