(Image: Private Media)

This is the eighth and final day of The Dirty Country: Corruption in Australia. Read the full series here.

Australians, and especially our governing class, have normalised soft corruption. They literally no longer see a great deal of it because it has been accepted as a standard part of Australian political life.

If voters dislike pork-barrelling and understand the danger of property developers buying favourable planning decisions, they look past political donations and readily tolerate former politicians and public servants working for the industries they once regulated and funded.

Politicians are much worse: they collaborate to preserve secrecy and embrace in government the soft corruption they decried in opposition. Only last September, the Coalition and Labor combined to pass laws that would prevent state political donation requirements — which provide for greater transparency and prevent property developer donations — from affecting federal donation rules, ensuring state laws can be circumvented.

Soft corruption is the cosmic background radiation to public life in Australia, ever present but never seen, the persistent static in a system skewed toward vested interests.

Understanding corruption in Australia, then, requires relearning to see it.

If a politician can no more see it than a fish can see water, those further from the process — the media, voters — have the capacity to refocus on the extent to which what is political business as usual here in fact is not business as usual at all in comparable countries; that the day-to-day processes and institutions of government have been perverted to operate in the interests of influential, well-connected parties at the expense of the public and the public interest.

But the inability, or unwillingness, of political decision-makers to see pervasive corruption has implications for how it is regulated. The utility of greater transparency — long held to be the key mechanism by which corruption can be fought — is limited if politicians, bureaucrats and regulators regard the perversion of processes and institutions as not something that should be hidden from sight, but a normal, healthy functioning of the system.

Influence-wielding is mere “consultation”. Buying access is “the cost of supporting the democratic process”. Pork-barrelling is just “legitimate investment in the regions”. The revolving door is simply men and women using the skills they’ve acquired to help others navigate the democratic process.

Moreover, politicians have little incentive to address pervasive corruption. The lesson of former NSW premier Nick Greiner, one of Australia’s great state leaders, brought down by the ICAC he established, is one that every major party politician will have observed and learnt.

The fact that the Rudd government’s commitment to greater transparency only gave a hostile media more ammunition to fire at it also signals that there is no upside to voluntarily embracing transparency and integrity. That’s why it took the federal Labor Party until 2018 to commit to a federal ICAC — something the federal Coalition still refuses to contemplate even now, offering instead a risible body that would help the corrupt protect themselves.

It is no coincidence that the state that has had the longest-running anti-corruption body is also the state that has moved to undertake the most significant curbs on corruption — even if it is still rife at the political level.

Anti-corruption measures must therefore go beyond transparency and anti-corruption bodies like ICAC to address the structural incentives for corruption. Academic Cameron Murray argues for approaching incentives from both ends — replacing political decision-makers with independent experts and removing the “honey pot” that encourages private interests to seek to influence decisions, as much as possible. As Murray notes, this is easier said than done in some policy areas like tax law, where competition for lucrative exemptions and concessions encourages fierce lobbying and donating.

It also raises questions about the nature of democracy itself: politicians insist, with some justification, that as elected officials they should be the ones making decisions about the distribution of resources and the way governments affect societies. Replacing them with independent experts (cue derogatory phrases like “technocrats”) is anti-democratic.

But it is politicians themselves who have crueled this argument: the concept that direct regulation should be in the hands of independent bodies rather than politically controlled departments is central to regulation across the Australian economy. Competition policy is based on the idea that politically motivated governments agencies can’t be trusted to compete fairly with the private sector.

The Reserve Bank was made formally independent in the 1990s. It was the NSW government that replaced local councils with expert local planning panels to decide on development applications. It’s not a trend that is going away: the aged care royal commission report is adamant that key parts of the administration of aged care — or perhaps all of it — needs to be removed from the control of politicians.

Regulation. Competition. Monetary policy. Planning decisions. Maybe aged care — all things that politicians accept are too important for them to be allowed to control.

Why not the administration of government grants, to minimise pork-barrelling? Either shifted to bureaucrats, with politicians confined to legislating the purpose of a program, or entire programs, such as infrastructure funding, transferred to Infrastructure Australia — another independent body — to allocate funds on the basis of the business case for each project.

Australia’s greenhouse emissions targets established by an independent body, as proposed by independent Zali Steggall, but with the power to determine the most effective way of achieving them, and shaping energy policy accordingly.

Media policy determined by an independent expert body, rather than politicians keen for favours from media companies.

When the NSW government implemented local planning panels, it declared it would “free up councils to focus on long-term strategic planning”. The same statement could be made in relation to most policy areas — politicians and governments, deprived of the opportunity to engage in the pervasive soft corruption that characterises contemporary politics, could focus on “long-term strategic planning”.

If a political system in which politicians only establish the strategy and “experts” do the rest is improbable, and perhaps not even desirable in a democracy, the logic behind regarding key areas as too important to be left to politicians can go much, much further than it currently does.

Taking a more structural approach to the problem of soft corruption would extend to removing the incentive for political parties to raise funds by capping campaign spending and limiting donations (for example, to $5000), as well as banning access-based fundraisers, and subjecting non-party political groups to similar restrictions to prevent third-party election campaigning.

The logic applied by the High Court to donations from property developers holds true for all donations: “the reality of the risk of corruption and the loss of public confidence which accompanies the exposure of acts of corruption” flows automatically from them, especially under current rules.

Compelling action from the political class to undertake such reforms will be a struggle. But the first step toward it will be seeing the corruption that pervades Australian public life, understanding the systems that enable it, and calling it out.

What steps should Australia take to fight soft corruption? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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