Scott Morrison federal ICAC
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Scott Morrison’s claim yesterday that a national integrity body is a “fringe issue” should haunt him all the way to his political grave. The Prime Minister likes to deride issues he’s not comfortable with as emanating from the “Canberra bubble”, but dismissing Australians’ growing belief that the political system doesn’t work for them but for special interests is the ultimate example of a politician trapped inside a bubble, disconnected from reality.

Let’s consider some numbers. In the wake of the 2016 election, ANU’s election study found that just 26% of voters thought people in government could be trusted — the lowest level ever recorded. The global Edelman Trust Barometer series’ 2018 edition showed that trust in government in Australia had fallen to 35% — significantly lower than in brutal dictatorships like Russia (44%), Turkey (51%) and China (84%). A joint Griffith University and Transparency International Australia study in August this year showed a significant rise in the proportion of voters who believe federal politicians are corrupt, amid rising levels of distrust of government. Australians have never been fond of politicians, but they are increasingly convinced the political system doesn’t serve their interests but those of politicians and those who can reward them.

Nor is it just voter perception. Transparency International compiles its corruption perception index from nine separate sources — international bodies like the World Bank, business surveys, NGOs, media groups and private sector bodies. Australia has fallen out of the top ten least corrupt countries in corruption perceptions in recent years, from a score of 85 in 2012 falling to 77 last year, taking us to 13th.

So when federal politicians and senior public servants blithely assure us there’s very little problem with corruption within the Commonwealth, no one believes them — not even public servants, one in 20 of whom have directly witnessed misconduct. Indeed, the only people who claim there is no need for an anti-corruption body are the politicians and senior bureaucrats who benefit from the lack of one. They insist the so-called “multi-agency approach” that is in place currently — in which a clutch of half-arsed public service oversight bodies, the Ombudsman and the tiny, useless Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity — is good enough. These are the same people, remember, who famously declared that ASIC was a “tough cop on the beat” in regulating corporate crime. 

Facing defeat on the floor of the House of Reps on the issue, the government is now stalling for time and looking for ways to neuter the push for a proper federal ICAC. Expect it to end up proposing to expand one of the existing bodies, like the ACLEI, with some more funding thrown at it, but with no real remit to investigate ministerial or cabinet decisions, and with all proceedings to be conducted in secret. This will likely be The Australian‘s idea of a federal integrity body: that outlet has been campaigning against the NSW ICAC for years, perhaps because ICAC exposed massive wrongdoing by NSW Liberals and their business mates, but most likely because of its petty jealousy of Kate McClymont’s brilliant ongoing investigative journalism exposing the networks of patronage and corruption that have always infested Sydney. 

However, it is critical that the federal body be a new, NSW-style body with strong coercion powers, the capacity to investigate ministerial decisions and examine departmental and cabinet documents, and to hold public hearings. All politicians have watched with horror as a variety of political and business figures (right up to premiers) have had to make the perp walk into ICAC in Sydney. All of them would have read about having to be grilled in public under oath — with no chance of bluster or escape or evasion, no capacity to call an end to it as they can with press conferences, stuck in the spotlight with “I don’t recall” as their only defence. It’s critical that that fear extend from Sydney to Canberra and embrace everyone up to the prime minister and the head of PM&C and the nation’s most powerful business figures, lobbyists and union leaders.

Nothing else will satisfy voters who are convinced the system no longer works for them and that politicians and vested interests are conspiring to look after themselves, not the electorate.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey