Written by Christopher Knauss. Originally published in the Guardian on March 31 2022
Key integrity bodies suffered direct cuts to their funding in the federal budget, while others continue to be starved of the resources they need to hold the government accountable, analysis reveals.
Tuesday night’s budget reduced funding for the commonwealth ombudsman, the administrative appeals tribunal and the Australian Law Reform Commission, an analysis by the Centre for Public Integrity shows.
Funding for the Australian National Audit Office and the Australian Broadcasting Commission, meanwhile, is far below what is needed, and represents significant cuts in resources in real terms compared with 2012 levels.
The audit office, which has published reports highly critical of the government, would have a budget of $124m had its funding kept pace with inflation since 2012.
The budget was $11m short of that, which the Centre for Public Integrity said represented a 9.7% cut in real terms. The ABC’s budget should have been $1.4bn to account for inflation, the analysis said, but was $255m short of that, representing a 17.67% cut in real terms.
The budget also only allowed $67m over four years for the Coalition’s proposed anti-corruption commission model, which it has so far failed to legislate, despite promises to do so.
The centre’s research director, Dr Catherine Williams, said the budget showed the government was “not serious about delivering on its promise” for the commonwealth integrity commission.
Williams said funding for accountability and integrity bodies must be made independent of the normal budget processes, to avoid government interference.
“Accountability institutions safeguard the rule of law and make democracy work,” she said. “They need to be independently funded, through an Independent Funding Tribunal, to make sure they can continue to fulfil their mandates no matter who’s in power.”
Such a proposal has been championed by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has been lobbying to have its funding secured outside of the vagaries of individual budgets and governments.
The budget papers also revealed a change in the government’s description of the status of its anti-corruption commission. Last year’s budget said the government “has committed to establish the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, though legislation to establish the entity has not yet passed the parliament”.
Tuesday’s budget dropped the reference to this commitment, saying: “The establishment of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) is subject to the passage of legislation. Funding for the CIC is reflected in the Budget and ASL will be reflected once the CIC is established.”
An Australia Institute democracy and accountability senior researcher, Bill Browne, said the change in wording was “hopefully” an oversight.
“The government has been giving mixed messages about the timeline for an integrity commission for years,” he said. “Senior Liberals, including Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, have said that Australia needs a strong integrity commission at the federal level.
“It has been over 1,200 days since the Morrison government announced it would implement a national integrity commission, and there is still none to be seen.”