Neither of the main parties appear to understand that integrity in government is much more than establishing an institution such as an Independent Commission Against Corruption or an integrity commission. Certainly, an effective institution is central to improving the quality of governance but there is more, much more than that involved in establishing a robust integrity system.
An effective integrity system involves a mix of institutions, laws, regulations, codes, policies and procedures and, importantly, attitudes and behaviours. These combine to form a framework of checks and balances to tackle corruption, misconduct and maladministration. The broad goal of this mix is to establish a culture of ethical behaviour among all participants in government.
It is clear that establishing a culture of integrity does not resonate well with contemporary political parties in Australia. There exist some rules, policies and governmental bodies but without a clear articulation and acceptance of the culture, politicians have shown they will invariably seek ways of circumventing them. Behaving with integrity requires acting within the spirit of rules and policies.
On the bright side, and in significant contrast with the USA, our electoral system functions well and is a great exemplar for democratic nations. Results of boundary changes and overall election results are rarely disputed, and the Australian Electoral Commission has strong bipartisan support. But there are major policy gaps in the integrity of the election system when it comes to truth in election advertising, publication of financial donations to parties in real time and the much-vexed question of whether or not private companies should be able to donate to political parties at all.
Unfortunately, other integrity agencies such as the Australian National Audit Office, the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Australian Human Rights Commission have not fared as well as the Electoral Commission. Their funding remains at the whim of the government and they are often "punished" by funding cuts or public criticism by politicians when negative reports are made. Remember the pile on to Gillian Triggs by the then-Coalition government? If these integrity agencies reported to parliament rather than to the government of the day, as happens in some other countries, this practice of trying to muzzle agencies, and therefore accountability, may be minimised.
Sadly, acting with integrity is generally not front and centre in our current political culture. The Morrison government's approach to grants is exemplified by the commuter car park and sports rorts. Add in the Western Sydney airport deal, the water buyback scheme, appointments of supporters to government boards and agencies irrespective of merit, misleading and downright lying to the public indicate a culture which constantly presses against the boundaries of integrity. The most recent Coalition ads have been fact checked by one journalist to reveal that of the nine claims made in the ads, one is correct, two are deceptive and six are described as "barefaced lies".
The Coalition's plan for an integrity commission has been roundly criticised by judges, media and academics. The proposed commission tasked with cracking down on corruption has been blasted by the Centre for Public Integrity as the weakest watchdog in the country, not having sufficient power to investigate major scandals over the misuse of public money. The Coalition's proposed commission would be limited to investigating criminal offences, excluding matters that involve conflicts of interest or breaches of the ministerial code but stop short of criminal behaviour and does not commit to any actions which might improve the culture of integrity.
Labor has released a manifestly inadequate two-page document which is supposed to outline its intentions for a future integrity commission. Independent Helen Haines has apparently prepared draft legislation but neither major party has yet to buy into her much more comprehensive approach.
Although Labor has been rightly critical of the lack of integrity by the Morrison government, we are still waiting for an explanation of how it might manage things differently. This includes appointments to government boards, allocations of grants monies, the role of ministerial discretion in those allocations and how it intends to encourage a culture of integrity if elected to government.
There is much research to show that faith and confidence in government continues to be eroded by weak transparency and the belief that governments really only look after their mates and supporters. Transparency International generates an annual index of corruption, taking a very broad view of corruption as lack of integrity. In 2021, this international body reported that Australia had slipped from 8th place in the world in 2012 to 13th just nine years later. This is consistent with a recent Vote Compass survey which found that 85 per cent of Australians believe that corruption is a problem in this country.
These polls have consequences. The election of Donald Trump was based on views that the major parties had created a self-serving swamp is one. The undue influence of wealthy people such as Clive Palmer another. However, disillusion with the major parties does also pave the way for the election of more independents promoting a clear message that failure to address integrity poses an existential threat to majority government.
Current poll predictions bear this out as the primary votes for major parties remain stationary or continue to fall. If the current polls are broadly accurate, the injection of more independents to support Zali Steggall, Helen Haines, Andrew Wilkie and Jacquie Lambie is very likely and might actually improve the culture of integrity and enhance the quality of democracy in this country. Minority governments are dismissed pejoratively as "hung parliaments" but they do force parties to openly negotiate their policies and be more accountable for their actions.
Perhaps this is a self-correcting mechanism. Loss of votes through dilution of trust and confidence in the major parties might well force those parties to behave with greater integrity. It could also sharpen some of the laws and build more robust integrity agencies.
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