Last week in Canberra we had another sorry reminder that in politics people are too often motivated by self-interests rather than by doing the right thing.
The inquiry by former Australian Public Services Commissioner Lynelle Briggs found departed Home Affairs boss, Mike Pezzullo, used his entrusted power and influence for private gain - breaching the APS Code of Conduct on at least 14 occasions.
This follows a conveyor belt of scandals over recent years. Whether its ministers being wined and dined by gambling lobbyists, departmental heads ignoring their staff raising the alarm on the risk of self-harm from robodebt, or secret ministerial appointments, sometimes you have to wonder whose interests are best being served.
So despite a significant list of pro-integrity changes, including the creation of the historic National Anti-Corruption Commission and recommitting to the open government partnership, people in Australia still think the Albanese government has work to do.
Polling commissioned last week by the #OurDemocracy campaign shows Australians believe the government is prioritising the views of big business over ordinary people.
In a cost-of-living crisis, the ALP is no doubt acutely aware that it must address these perceptions.
So as we approach World Anti-Corruption Day (December 9th), there are two areas that are both in the government's self-interest, and the right thing to do when it comes to leading on integrity - changing the rules that govern money in politics, and taking action to protect whistleblowers.
To rebuild trust in our democracy, we need increased transparency over policymaking and political party financing. Australia's political finance laws are woefully inadequate. At a federal level, we have no limits to the amount of money one can give and right now, donations below $16,300 need not be declared at all. On top of that, donations data comes out only once a year - meaning the data published can be up to 18 months old.
The current lax definition of what is considered a "gift" means that exclusive fundraising dinners, where the who's who of corporate Australia can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a literal seat at the table with decision-makers, are not declarable donations. This cash for access practice means that the business elite regularly have the prime minister's ear in a way inaccessible to ordinary Australians.
To make a bad situation worse, in the year of the 2022 federal election, "dark money" (money with no disclosed source) reached an eye-watering record level of almost $120 million. Our analysis suggests that between Labor, Liberal, National and Greens parties, 40 per cent of the money they reported receiving was hidden as dark money. This adds to over $1 billion in undeclared income that has gone to political parties in the past two decades.
This undue influence is turbocharged by the thousands of lobbyists who walk the halls of Parliament meeting with ministers and senior public servants behind closed doors with little transparency. Though there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last week the joint standing committee for electoral matters handed down its final report of the 2022 election.
This cross-parliamentary committee supported by committed public servants worked hard, receiving more than 1400 submissions and holding 11 public hearings. The final report included excellent recommendations such as lowering the disclosure threshold to $1000 and increasing "real-time" disclosures of donations so that the public knows who is donating and when.
Other notable recommendations include donation caps, introducing truth in political advertising laws and changing the definition of "gift" to increase transparency. It also includes moves to increase participation in marginalised groups and increase the number of senators from the ACT and Northern Territory. All very welcome reforms.
The second major area that would be good policy and good politics is to strengthen protections for people who blow the whistle on corruption and wrongdoing. Sadly, these brave Australians are regularly punished for simply telling the truth.
Legal action, job loss, financial ruin and a heavy personal toll are just some of the devastating impacts that whistleblowers go through. Why? Because of the patchwork of weak and inconsistent protections for workers across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
We need simpler, consistent, and improved protections for all whistleblowers under Commonwealth laws, including in the private and not-for-profit sectors. What's more, as Transparency International Australia first called for in 2018, we need a Whistleblower Protection Authority. This new body would be an efficient and effective enforcement of protections and support for all whistleblowers.
Earlier this year, we congratulated the government for passing initial improvements for public sector whistleblowers. We were especially pleased that our world-leading research helped ensure these first improvements will assist federal public servants to speak up about corruption. But there is a long way to go.
Right now, the government has a consultation paper open which sets out the challenges really well. Not only do public sector protections need a comprehensive overhaul, but whistleblowing regimes in the Corporations Act, Tax Act, aged care, disability sector and more are also up for review.
With the next federal election 18 months away, now is the time for the Albanese government to work with the Parliament and introduce comprehensive transparency reforms, as well as continuing to move forward with improved whistleblower protections.
Leadership on integrity and transparency is in the Albanese's government's interests - and the right thing to do. The government should take this opportunity to build a more open, fair and healthy democracy to benefit all Australians.
- Clancy Moore is the CEO of Transparency International Australia.