Just months after Australia legislated to establish the long-anticipated National Anti-Corruption Agency, our standing is back on the rise in Transparency International’s annual Global Corruption Perceptions Index. This is a small but important turn-around following a decade of steady decline.
Australia ranked 13th out of 180 countries in the index released today, up from a low of 18th last year. The index ranks countries on their perceived levels of public sector corruption – the higher the score, the less perceived corruption.
Australia was ranked as high as seventh in 2012. But since then, the country has been trending downward. From 2012 to 2021, Australia dropped 12 points on the index, more than any OECD country apart from Hungary, which also fell 12 points. The only countries to have fallen by more are Syria, Cyprus and Saint Lucia.
It’s no coincidence Australia’s big fall happened during the Coalition’s near-decade-long hold on the federal government, though local events like the quagmire around former NSW Labor minister Eddie Obeid also sent bad signals.
Turning the results around isn’t a quick fix. But the fact Australia has arrested the decline and is headed back up the list is significant, though not a matter for complacency.
The biggest collapse this year was the UK, whose ranking fell dramatically from 11th to 20th, with a loss of 5 points. This shows that resolve and actions of government affect global perceptions of corruption.
Where we’ve faltered
The Corruption Perceptions Index isn’t a direct measure of corruption, but a perceptions index. Using rigorous methodology, the index assesses the perceptions of business leaders and experts on every country’s efforts to prevent and control corruption, and then scores and ranks them.
Ranking 13th out of 180 is pretty good, but we have done better and the public expects better. This was evident in the last federal election, when integrity in government became a focal point. The Coalition had dragged its feet on creating a federal anti-corruption body, a point that was heavily criticised by Labor, the Greens and teal independents.
The Morrison government eventually proposed legislation for an anti-corruption commission in the lead-up to the election. But to many independent observers, it looked more like a protection racket for politicians than an attempt to deal with scandals involving politicians and public money.
The independent Centre for Public Integrity said the proposed watchdog would have lacked the power to investigate the $100 million “sports rorts” affair or the $660 million commuter car park scheme – just two high-profile examples of government ministers allegedly using public money for political gain in recent years.
How we’re getting back on track
Although Australia isn’t a high-corruption country, the passage last November of legislation to establish a National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is an important first step.
The legislation sets a high bar by defining corruption as conduct that adversely affects, or could affect, the honest or impartial exercise or performance of any public official’s power, functions or duties. The NACC will also have broad jurisdiction, operate independently from government, hold public hearings, and make public findings.
However, it would be a mistake to assume the NACC will be a magic bullet.
Politicians are always looking for partisan advantage and government agencies with tens of thousands of employees will always have somebody on the make. This is why, in addition to the establishment of a federal anti-corruption body, it’s important to focus on changing the culture within government agencies too.
Australian government agencies have robust integrity processes, but when there are breaches, the loss is often more likely to be of trust and morale. Services and governance suffer. Eliminating corruption completely is not feasible, but making it even rarer than it is now is something we can achieve.
A way forward
Reporting recently on a national integrity research project, a team led by government integrity expert AJ Brown at Griffith University proposes a five-point blueprint for action. Two of these steps are already underway: a national integrity plan and a strong federal integrity commission.
The other themes focus on the need to strengthen open, trustworthy decision-making in government; ensure we have a fair and honest democracy; and enhance protections for public interest whistleblowing.
These involve much more than nailing somebody who looks the other way for a few dollars or manipulates a contract for a bag full of cash.
Open, trustworthy decision-making involves better parliamentary and ministerial standards, and an overhaul of the lobbying system. We need our politicians to observe the highest ethical standards, and if they deal with special interests, as they must, they need to make that more transparent.
A fair and honest democracy, meanwhile, requires desperately needed reform of our campaign financing laws. We need to ensure all campaign donations are reported in real time, and with lowered thresholds. We need to make sure that political donations are just that – donations and not transactions.
And when things don’t look right, public servants, employees and journalists should be able to call them out without fear of persecution or reprisals. The public sector has fallen behind the private sector in whistleblowing protections, though there are hopefully signs the government will move ahead on reforms.
This bundle of proposals shows that corruption is more than receiving bribes or favouring family and friends in obtaining benefits or jobs. Australia needs to take a more comprehensive approach to ensuring government integrity, and when it does, we’ll be on our way back into the top ten in the global anti-corruption rankings.