An Open Letter to Scott Morrison About Creating an Effective Corruption Watchdog

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Dear Prime Minister

A cute, fluffy dog holding a thick roll of cash.

I’m sure you’ll agree that Australia’s democracy is one of the most core foundations of why this nation is such a great place to live and work.

I’m sure you’ll agree that political corruption has no place in a representational democracy if it is to fairly deliver the outcomes that its citizens expect and deserve.

I’m sure you’re not so naive as to believe that all those who find themselves in positions of political power are pure of heart and entirely selfless. We’ve all heard that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. and our own Australian Public Service Commission recently revealed that 4,300 federal public servants believe they witnessed corruption in just one year.

Seeing as we likely agree that a fair, untainted democracy is of critical importance and that political corruption is essentially inevitable if left unchecked, I’m sure you’ll also agree that it makes sense to invest in protecting our democracy. Obviously, the way to do that is by detecting and removing corrupt actors, and ensuring measurable punishment occurs to deter those who would seek to follow that path. No doubt this is the reason why you proposed in December last year the creation of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

However, I find your current plans for addressing corruption in our parliament and our public service lacking the conviction of someone who truly believes the problem should be dealt with.

In the past, you have described the idea of a corruption watchdog as a “fringe issue”.[1] You have put forward a proposal which has been widely criticised by experts in corruption law and investigation.[2] When an alternative proposal was just this week passed as a bill by our Senate[3], your government voted to not even let the House of Representatives discuss it.[4]

As I understand it, your own proposal does not allow for public hearings or findings[1], but instead seeks to do everything behind closed doors. It isn’t too hard to imagine that an organisation whose purpose is to investigate corruption, but which has no oversight and no public reporting, might itself be susceptible to corruption initiated by those who it would benefit greatly to not be investigated. If we’re going to properly address corruption, it’s clear that transparency is a necessary ingredient in the process. (See what I did there?)

In announcing your government’s plan, you characterised it as a “measured” approach.[1] Were you suggesting that there needs to be restraint in pursuing corruption? Are you insinuating that the proposals made by other parties are excessive? Your government’s proposal commits a cool $30m to the new Commission, although large parts of that are continuing funding from the current activities of existing bodies. $30m probably sounds like a huge expense to most Australians but, put in the context of the government’s $500b of estimated expenditure in the 2019-2020 budget year, it represents only 0.006% of the budget. When we are talking about the protection of our democracy, I don’t think many people would see it as unreasonable that we spend 0.01% or even 0.02% of our budget on ensuring our government is not compromised. A measured approach to policing corruption may sound appealing to a miser, but a well-funded and highly effective approach seems far more desirable.

Finally, it is reported that your planned Commission is to be prevented from undertaking retrospective investigations.[5] I can’t imagine any moral justification for binding the watchdog in this way. People aren’t asking for new anti-corruption laws by which politicians and public servants must now abide; it’s simply about commissioning law enforcers. When a new police office joins a police force, are they prevented from investigating crimes that occurred before they joined? Of course not. Why should those who broke the law in the past be protected simply because there was insufficient law enforcement at the time? This kind of restriction would serve only to give the public the impression that you or your mates have been acting corruptly and are seeking to protect your past actions from scrutiny. Why else would your government not want past corruption investigated?

So, it seems we agree on a lot of fine principles, but your proposal for moving forward with eradicating corruption from Australia’s political system and public sector is pretty woeful. Thankfully, the way forward is clear: make this a core issue instead of a fringe issue; treat the opinions of other parliamentarians with respect instead of silencing their voices; ensure the corruption watchdog is itself protected from corruption through adequate transparency; invest whatever needs to be invested to get the best outcomes; and give the commission the scope to investigate whatever it thinks is most important. After all, what we all want is an independent corruption investigation body to protect our democracy. However, a commission which has been created without adequate funding, without protection from corruption inside itself, and without the ability to look into the past isn’t really that independent, is it?

Yours faithfully,

Graham Lea

[1] Scott Morrison announces anti-corruption commission, buckling to crossbench pressure, December 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-13/scott-morrison-creates-federal-integrity-commission/10614658

[2] Government’s proposed federal ICAC ‘a sham’, say former senior judges, Sydney Morning Herald, January 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/national/government-s-proposed-federal-icac-a-sham-says-former-senior-judges-20190125-p50tpa.html

[3] Senate votes to set up federal anti-corruption body, SBS News, September 2019, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/senate-votes-to-set-up-federal-anti-corruption-body

[4] Adam Bandt, https://twitter.com/AdamBandt/status/1171338568905580544

[5] Morrison government announces new federal anti-corruption commission, The Guardian, December 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/dec/13/morrison-government-announces-new-federal-anti-corruption-commission

Image credit:
Cute Dog with Money‘ by OTA Photos

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