A genuinely democratic system of government is not just about elections, numbers and power. We also need to know and be confident that all involved in our legislatures, executives and judiciaries are acting in the public interest and not just their own private, parochial or party interests. Indeed, in our system it is an obligation, a duty, that they do so. It’s not just a matter of choice, it’s the law.

In order to back up this principle we’ve developed a range of institutions to scrutinise government in all its aspects, including all who work for or with it. It all started with what we might call our most basic agencies of accountability — our parliaments with all their privileges, our police services with all their powers and our media, with its passion for discovery.

However, what we’ve found throughout the history of democracy is that these monitors, whilst indispensable to the system, are inadequate to the tasks at hand. Parliament has its parties and they have their factions, the police aren’t comfortable with and don’t handle these issues well. The media is limited in its power and all too often in its objectives, too. Much that we would call serious misconduct or outright corruption today once escaped scrutiny, either because of a weakness of oversight or, more tellingly, because it wasn’t then seen as such — or because the doctrine of “whatever it takes” reigned supreme.

From time to time, and when the incentive or pressure to inquire was great, royal commissions could be called into play. They often demonstrated the extent to which so much that happened within government was below the radar or off-limits. Add to that the growth in expectations about what constituted good and proper government, and new thinking about how to protect and promote the public interest was bound to emerge.

So began the long march of public sector reform with its changes to existing agencies like the Auditor-General and the Public Service Commission, and the creation of a range of new agencies of accountability like the Ombudsman and the FOI Commission, with the power to scrutinise and report on the way we are governed.

However, it soon became clear that all of these institutions, both basic and new, had their limitations when it came to uncovering and preventing corruption throughout the public sector, involving elected as well as non-elected officials and commercial partners, contractors and consultants as well as public servants.

[What is the most corrupt state in Australia?]

Major royal commissions in Queensland (the Fitzgerald inquiry) and Western Australia (WA Inc.) recommended the establishment of permanent bodies to investigate claims of misconduct and corruption that included all involved in the business of government. So too could they become educators and advisers to government about how to create resilient organisations and prevent corruption.

Queensland, New South Wales and WA led the way and the other states have followed. Their corruption commissions are workmanlike bodies dealing in an efficient way with allegations, undertaking major inquiries with all the powers at their disposal when it is deemed necessary, and advising government on all matters related to corruption and its prevention.

They have their critics, and their work isn’t without controversy, nor is it free from differences of opinion over design and delivery — for example, on the questions of how to define corruption and whether or not to allow public hearings — but they have been effective (some more than others).

The Commonwealth has its agencies of accountability but not an independent anti-corruption commission of the sort the states have developed. Sometimes they say they are “different” and as a result have avoided the scandals exposed in the states. Sometimes they say it’s just a matter of ensuring better co-operation and co-ordination between the existing agencies with a brief in this area. Sometimes they acknowledge weaknesses and propose change, as for example with MPs’ travel, but resist calls for the establishment of a commission with wide-ranging powers of investigation, arguing that it’s akin to “star chamber” or, at best, just another “bureaucratic layer”.

The truth is, of course, that human nature is what it is and when money, power and influence are at play, as they are to a massive degree at the Commonwealth level, there’s always a risk of corruption. The failure of the Commonwealth to establish a commission leaves a serious gap in Australia’s governance arrangements and undermines confidence in the system, at a time in which the lack of trust is making it all that much harder to deal with a range of structural issues requiring attention.

It’s not as if there is little evidence of a “Commonwealth problem” in respect of corruption. In recent years we’ve seen a number of exposures in a range of departments and agencies. We know it exists but to what extent we can’t be sure. For example, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011 Linton Besser found “that in the past six years investigations into almost 1,000 federal bureaucrats were terminated because they resigned midway through the inquiry”. Such a finding is hardly reassuring.

He points not just to a lack of power to properly investigate many of these matters but to a disturbing lack of will. This raises the question of the culture that underpins the way our nation is governed.

[Mayne: great days for Aussie investigative journalism, no thanks to News Corp]

Both the existing agencies of accountability and the public service are being increasingly pressured by their political masters to cut corners. Politicisation has moved from being an academic concept to an operating principle of government, and the general public have noticed it and don’t like it. Certainly, they support the establishment of an anti-corruption commission in Canberra, as The Australia Institute’s polling has clearly demonstrated. 

When I first became involved in politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Commonwealth was a leader in the promotion of political, legal and administrative reform. It took time but eventually the states came on board too, and in some respects bypassed what had been achieved in Canberra.

No longer is the Commonwealth a leader. Indeed, it’s either lukewarm or hostile to reform and much the poorer are we as a result. Legislating for an anti-corruption commission would be a good way to start the journey back.

*This article was originally published at Crikey sister site The Mandarin