While the Senate crossbench was already pushing hard for a federal ICAC, the release of the Panama Papers is putting global pressure on governments to improve transparency, fairness and integrity.
The Australian media has an important role to play in this regard, although many of the major commercial players don’t have best-practice governance arrangements or pursue aggressive tax practices themselves.
Look no further than Bermuda resident Bruce Gordon, the private owner of WIN TV and largest individual shareholder in Ten Network Holdings and Nine Entertainment Company.
Similarly, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has been identified by the ATO as the highest risk major commercial player in the Australian market.
Murdoch’s highest paid Australian business journalist, John Durie, has spent his last two columns on ethics and governance issues but we’re yet to see News Corp as a whole let up on its bizarre campaign to destroy the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Fairfax Media is far more enlightened when it comes to fighting corruption.
On Tuesday, it published this compelling opinion piece by Neville Tiffen, a former global head of compliance at Rio Tinto, on why Australia needs an independent federal integrity watchdog.
Given that all Australian states have now established independent integrity authorities to expose and prosecute state-based corruption, the lack of an equivalent federal body leaves a gaping hole in the integrity system of public administration in Australia.
No wonder Australia has fallen out of the global top 10 for governance cleanliness, as measured by Transparency International.
Public confidence in elected officials remains low in Australia and this would be boosted by a well-resourced federal agency with a mandate to maintain high standards in public administration. At the moment, corruption issues in the federal sphere are often referred to the federal police, who conduct inquiries that provide little public visibility into the conduct in question. The recent Stuart Robert saga is a case in point.
An agency with powers to call witnesses, hold public hearings and issue public reports not necessarily associated with the laying of criminal charges would improve conduct and integrity in Canberra.
Victorian local government councillors currently operate under an integrity system, which regulates behaviour far more closely than state and federal MPs on questions such as gifts, donations, bias and conflicts of interest.
ICAC has regularly skewered dodgy councillors over the past 25 years and Perth lord mayor Lisa Scaffidi remains under intense pressure to resign after the Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission recorded a “serious misconduct” finding against her for undisclosed international travel funded by third parties, most notably a $50,000 junket to the Beijing Olympics funded by BHP Billiton.
BHP agreed to pay a US$25 million fine to the US government for contravening its Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in relation to the hospitality program at the Beijing Olympics. If Australia had a decent federal integrity body, it would have looked into this issue; instead, Scaffidi remains the only Australian elected representative officially sanctioned for accepting BHP’s largesse.
BHP chairman Jac Nasser is under growing pressure given his long tenure on the board and the various snafus besetting The Big Australian. The latest was the solid working over it got from Four Corners last Monday over the Panama Papers revelations. When you also consider the record $20 billion in write-downs associated with its North American oil investments and under-performing share price, Nasser is currently near the top of the “time to go” list of major public company chairs in Australia.
Former CBA CEO David Murray may reckon ASIC is carrying on like Adolf Hitler at the moment when it comes to regulating companies, but who regulates the behaviour of federal MPs?
Scrutiny of federal MPs is often difficult to pursue. The situation currently even bans accredited media from filming or photographing any Senator who does not have the call. What a joke!
After a unanimous vote last night at City of Melbourne, the following motion will be put up to the Municipal Association of Victoria state council meeting on May 13:
That MAV State Council:
- Supports the establishment of an independent Federal government agency with a specific mandate to investigate, expose and prosecute corruption in areas of public administration directly overseen by the Federal Government, including the conduct of Federal members of parliament;
- Requests the MAV President write to the leaders of all political parties represented in the Federal Parliament informing them of State Council’s position.
Given that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants to call a double dissolution election based on trade union governance and corruption, don’t be surprised if Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wedges him in the coming weeks by promising that a federal Labor government would establish a federal ICAC.
Cr Stephen Mayne is chair of the Finance and Governance committee at City of Melbourne and was not paid for this item.