Anti-graft experts have intensified their calls for a robust federal integrity watchdog amid the sports rorts affair and a sustained slide in Australia's position in global corruption rankings.
A report by Transparency International shows Australia's Corruption Perception Index reading was 77 points in 2019, an eight point decline since 2012, driven down by concerns around opaque political financing and the undue influence of corporate interests on political decision making.
Australia still ranks highly, 12th out of 180 countries, reflecting relatively low levels of public sector corruption, but it has been highlighted by Transparency International as one of three 'decliners' (alongside Canada and Nicaragua) and is no longer in the top echelon of countries considered to be clean, such as Denmark, New Zealand, Singapore and Sweden.
The issue of transparency and political accountability in Australia has been thrown into sharp focus by the unfolding sports rorts scandal that has engulfed the government since the release of a damning report by Auditor-General Grant Hehir earlier this month.
The report found that the-then Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie had largely ignored the advice of Sports Australia in awarding $100 million of Community Sport Infrastructure Program grants to club in marginal and targeted electorates in the lead-up to the last election.
The government had stood firm behind Senator McKenzie until revelations earlier this week that the minister failed to declare that she was a member of the Wangaratta Clay Target Club, which received almost $36,000 from the program.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison then revealed he had commissioned the head of his department, Philip Gaetjens, to conduct a review into whether Senator McKenzie breached ministerial standards.
Transparency International Australia chief executive officer Serena Lillywhite said the worrying slide in Australia's corruption ranking highlighted the corrosive influence of money and vested interest in politics.
Ms Lillywhite said Australians increasingly distrusted politicians and there was a need for a robust and independent national anti-corruption watchdog.
She said polling undertaken by her organisation found 60 per cent of respondents felt politicians made decisions to benefit themselves, their families and vested interests, and 85 per cent backed the creation of a federal anti-corruption agency.
"In the case of Bridget McKenzie, it really does appear that she has made up her own rules and decision-making criteria" Ms Lillywhite said. "This suggests to us that the process has been corrupted for political ends."
Monash University senior law lecturer Yee-Fui Ng said Mr Gaetjen's review was no substitute for a properly constituted National Integrity Commission with the authority and resources to initiate and conduct its own investigations, including the ability to call witnesses and hold public hearings.
Ms Ng said the Commonwealth Integrity Commission proposed by the Morrison government would be "completely ineffective".
However, University of Adelaide Professor of Public Policy Adam Graycar said that much of the way politicians behaved was unethical rather than criminal and so would be unlikely to come under the scrutiny of an anti-corruption body.
"We need to have a better debate about the nature of integrity," he said. "It's about the way influence is exerted and the way in which government money is used."