By Adam Graycar
When an anti-corruption agency issues a 688-page report with findings a former premier engaged in “serious corrupt conduct” and breached the public’s trust, it puts all public officials on notice.
In an extraordinary report released on Thursday, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) found former New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian had taken steps to award government grants in a “desire on her part to maintain or advance” her relationship with former state MP Daryl Maguire.
The commission also faulted her for not disclosing her relationship with Maguire and for failing to report any suspicions she had about Maguire’s activities to the ICAC, calling this “grave misconduct”.
Is Australia a corrupt country?
Compared with most of the world, Australia is not a highly corrupt country. Yet, its ranking on the global Corruption Perceptions Index slipped significantly between 2012 and 2021, before stabilising this year.
The ICAC report on Berejiklian’s conduct will further diminish Australia’s standing, but does it mean we necessarily have more corruption?
We always need to distinguish between situations in which corruption is the norm – such as in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria who are at the bottom of the Corruption Perceptions Index – or the exception, as in Australia.
In countries like Australia, citizens can go about their daily lives without the fear of being shaken down by a public official or being asked for a bribe to receive a public service, as they are in countries at the bottom of the standings.
However, in countries like ours, there is much more fury when corruption is uncovered because, above all, it is a betrayal of trust. We trust our politicians and public servants to act in the public interest, and when it is found they have not, we are rightfully outraged.
As cases like this demonstrate, corruption in richer countries often involves conflicts of interest, the misuse of information and the purchase of government access. This is why investigatory bodies like the ICAC are so vital to maintaining government integrity.
Criticism of anti-corruption bodies
On the federal level, the government has finally established a National Anti-Corruption Commission, which commences operation on July 1.
This came into being after a long discussion about whether we really needed such an agency. When the allegations against Berejiklian first came to light, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison disparaged the idea of an anti-corruption body, likening it to a “kangaroo court”.
He also accused the ICAC in NSW of making “shameful attacks” on Berejiklian and tarnishing the reputation of public figures.
However, the whole point of anti-corruption agencies is they ensure the integrity of our public system is not compromised. This work does take time and careful consideration.
Anti-corruption agencies bark, but they do not bite. If they make findings of corrupt conduct, they leave prosecution to the discretion of the director of public prosecutions. If there are findings of misconduct or maladministration, it is up to government departments and public service commissioners to address them.
Not only do we now have a National Anti-Corruption Commission, but at the top of the Australian public service, there is now a huge focus on integrity and better behaviour and better processes.
This is no longer politics as usual
Most politicians and public servants in Australia operate with great integrity, but we have had significant shocks to our system in recent years.
The list includes the Robodebt fiasco, the sports and car park rorts scandals, an Australian National Audit Office report on community health centre funding breaches and allegations of a plan to funnel kickbacks to a minister for steering contracts to a favoured company.
Then, of course, there is the ongoing PwC saga, where allegations of conflicts of interest have been raised, alongside a confidentiality breach.
This catalogue of alleged activities stains our public sector (though PwC did not involve public officials) and must be investigated. They raise questions not just of behaviour, but go to the root of what is the public interest.
In the case of the former NSW premier, it seems a personal relationship ended up compromising her judgement. In the other cases, there was political advantage to be gained by breaching standards and acting inappropriately. Generally speaking, these are not things that make politicians or public servants rich. But it may make some of their mates rich.
The response from politicians typically has been “that’s politics” or “if you don’t like it, vote me out at the next election”.
These are not adequate responses to integrity breaches. We have started on an integrity-building process in the Australian public service and around the country. More action needs to be taken on areas like pork-barrelling (about which the NSW ICAC has written an extensive separate report) and election funding.
These findings by the NSW ICAC signal that holding public office is a matter of great trust, with standards that are expected are high. Excuses do not wash anymore.