Discussion paper

Out in the open: federal ICAC with public hearings key to tackling perceived corruption

Corruption Political corruption Public servants Federal government Federal government departments Public service Australia

The perception of corruption is a growing problem in Australia. Since 2012, Australia has continued to fall in the annual international Corruption Perception Index. Recent polling commissioned by the Australia Institute reveals that 85 per cent of people think that there is corruption in federal politics, and only 10 per cent have a high level of trust in federal parliament.

Public trust in government is at a record low in Australia. A study conducted by the University of Canberra in 2016 found only 5 per cent of Australians trust government. A similar study by the Australian National University in 2016 recorded the lowest levels of trust since the study began in 1969, finding that 74 per cent of Australians think politicians are ‘too often interested in themselves’.

Observing the ongoing scandals in federal public administration can reveal why perceived corruption is increasing and public trust is falling. Many allegations of serious corruption are falling through the gaps of our integrity system, including allegations involving water buy-backs in the Murray Darling Basin and procurement processes in the Department of Defence.

There are significant gaps in the jurisdiction and investigative powers of the federal agencies responsible for scrutinising the public sector and government. No agency can investigate misconduct of MPs, ministers or the judiciary. The agencies that do have strong investigative powers, such as the federal police, can only use them when investigating criminal charges. No agency holds public hearings, meaning that corruption and misconduct is not properly exposed to the public.

Public inquiries investigating allegations of misconduct are key to increasing public trust and tackling the perception of corruption. While investigations are carried out entirely behind closed doors, there is a public perception that allegations of corruption are not taken seriously by government. Polling commissioned by the Australia Institute shows that 78 per cent of people want federal corruption investigations held with public hearings, and that 85 per cent think public trust will increase if a federal corruption watchdog can hold public hearings. Conversely, if a federal corruption watchdog conducts investigations solely in private, the poll showed 57 per cent of people thought public trust would fall.

A federal anti-corruption commission is needed to fill these gaps in our integrity system. To ensure any corruption and misconduct in our federal government and public sector is investigated and exposed, a federal anti-corruption commission will need broad jurisdiction and strong investigative powers, including the power to hold public inquiries.

No federal agency has the investigative powers or jurisdiction to expose corrupt conduct in the federal government and public sector. The establishment of an anticorruption commission would contribute to restoring people’s confidence by sending an unambiguous signal that government takes corruption and accountability seriously. A federal anti-corruption commission would fill the gaps in our integrity system, tackle the perception of corruption, and increase public trust in government.

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