Drop in Australia’s corruption ranking signals urgent need for Integrity Commission

Australia’s dramatic fall in the latest World Corruption Perceptions Index reinforces the need for urgent reform that is based on research and includes bipartisan solutions for the design of a new federal integrity commission, according to Griffith University accountability expert Professor A J Brown.

On the 100-point scale, ranking countries from cleanest to most corrupt, Australia fell a further four points, placing it at 73, and in 18th place. A decade ago Australia enjoyed a score of 85 and was ranked seventh.

Professor AJ Brown delivers the Henry Parkes oration.

“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,” Professor Brown said.

Transparency International Australia (TI), which recently partnered with Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy and other agencies to devise an Australian Research Council-funded integrity reform blueprint, has pointed to a suite of stalled reforms as explaining Australia’s worsening result.

TI Australia CEO, Serena Lillywhite cited the “unfinished business” of government commitments to establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission over three years ago, as underscoring the “need to act decisively to tackle corruption and restore trust and confidence in government and our democratic institutions”.

Griffith University research points to new solutions for the design of the commission, with ways of improving safeguards and ensuring due process — including protection of reputations — without compromising the full royal commission-style powers needed by an effective anti-corruption agency.

“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,” Professor Brown said.

Serena Lillywhite, CEO Transparency International

He said the issue was set to play out in the federal election, with the Prime Minister and Attorney-General indicating they planned to stick with a model with no public hearing powers for corruption issues involving parliamentarians and 80 per cent of the federal public sector, despite a first 20 per cent of the sector being already subject to those powers.

Professor Brown said other challenges include the inability of whistleblowers to directly access the proposed commission, despite Assistant Attorney-General Senator Amanda Stoker having outlined historic commitments to better whistleblower protection at Griffith’s recent National Whistleblowing Symposium.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Professor Brown said, adding that how Australia fares in future indexes will likely hinge on whether all parties properly heed the research supporting new solutions — before the election and after.

Griffith University has partnered with TI on corruption measurement and national integrity research for more than 20 years.

Professor Brown is also a global board member of TI, which produces the widely cited index.