After 15 years’ work, it’s time: Australia’s national integrity commission solution explained

Fifteen years after Transparency International Australia and Griffith University researchers first assessed Australia as needing a comprehensive federal anti-corruption body, the full legislative plan is finally on the table.

And it’s thanks to an ever-widening coalition of support, again led by a joint TI Australia/Griffith research team, conducting the current second Australian Research Council-funded national integrity system assessment of Australia.

The first of two National Integrity bills is set for introduction into federal parliament on Monday (26 November), by Independent MP Cathy McGowan with the support of Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie and a coalition of cross-benchers.

As Ms McGowan has told Guardian Australia and ABC Radio National, the structure, content and much of the drafting of the final package has been led by ARC project leader Professor A J Brown, of Griffith University’s Centre for Governance & Public Policy — who is also a board member of Transparency International, globally and in Australia.

Professor Brown and Transparency International colleagues will be in Canberra for the introduction.

“The key to this package is understanding the choice between the three options set out in our August options paper,” Professor Brown said.

“We can do nothing, or just tinker with a federal integrity system which is so full of holes any international organised criminals could drive a container ship through them.”

“Or, second, we could attempt a poor, or even good, copy of Australia’s state anti-corruption commissions — which would be better, but still not deal with other huge weaknesses in the federal system, and not address the different roles played by our federal government.”

“This is why a third, more comprehensive, option is the answer.”

Professor Brown said the Australian National Integrity Commission proposed by McGowan and Sharkie included all the necessary elements of a strong State anti-corruption model, but with five additional advantages:

  1. A strong focus on corruption prevention and anti-corruption coordination, lifting the bar for State governments and internationally;
  2. Parliamentary codes of conduct to ensure federal politicians are held to account, and a parliamentary standards commissioner to help ensure the Australian National Integrity Commission can keep its focus on serious corruption;
  3. Adoption and improvement on existing Commonwealth law enforcement and integrity powers, including for holding public inquiries and public hearings;
  4. A long overdue federal whistleblower protection commissioner, to help triage information on corruption and other wrongdoing whether coming from the public or private sectors nationally, and ensure whistleblower protections are actually enforced;
  5. A legislative path for dealing with other outstanding federal integrity issues, including political donations reform, lobbying reform, and the most appropriate form of oversight for judicial integrity.

“Support for action would not be as universal as it now is, without other powerful organisations joining the campaign — especially The Australia Institute and Melbourne-based Accountability Round Table,” according to Professor Brown.

“The Key Principles for designing an anti-corruption body, released by The Australia Institute and Transparency International Australia in late 2017, were pivotal in defining the core investigation functions, powers and accountability of any such body.”

“However, we are pleased that, when it comes to embedding these principles in Australia’s federal system, with all its special gaps and challenges, the further options developed by our Australian Research Council-funded team have stood the test.”

Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie tabled the Griffith University/Transparency International Australia options paper in federal parliament on September 12th, calling it “the most recent authoritative investigation of the serious options for an Australian national integrity commission.”

Liberal Senator Dean Smith and Labor Senator Jacinta Collins later hosted a bipartisan parliamentary briefing on the options paper.

The paper was authored by Professors Brown and Janet Ransley of Griffith University, and Flinders University researchers Adam Graycar and Kym Kelly, Professor Tim Prenzler of the University of Sunshine Coast, and former Speaker of the Victorian Parliament, Associate Professor Ken Coghill.

Dr Coghill, who led a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association report on political integrity, is also an architect of Ms Gowan’s National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill, set to be introduced next week.

Read the summary of Cathy McGowan’s proposals here.