By Hannah Aulby, originally published in the Canberra Times on 21st January 2020.

The ability for Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie to use public money for partisan political gains, and face no official retribution, highlights serious flaws in our accountability system.

The response to the findings of the Australian National Audit Office has been pretty standard of recent political scandals. Media reports over two to three days heighten the pressure. The politician in question denies any wrongdoing, the opposition calls for their resignation, the Prime Minister comes out supporting his colleague, the crossbench calls for a national integrity commission, and then there are attempts to set up a Senate inquiry. A Senate inquiry report may be published months afterwards, with recommendations that gather dust along with hundreds of other inquiry reports. The politician in question pushes through the initial media storm, and then continues on their way.

Other politicians see the survival of their colleague and take note – allegations of corruption are not properly investigated and retribution is minimal.

The Australian public see the politician survive relatively unscathed and begin to expect more of the same behaviour from their elected representatives. Public trust in government to act in the public interest suffers.

Each of the accountability institutions listed above – the Audit Office, the media, and the Senate – are doing the best they can with the resources and powers available to them. But none have the necessary jurisdiction, investigative powers or enforcement mechanisms to systematically ensure the government is held to account to act in the public interest. At best, political misconduct is currently met with haphazard responses from unco-ordinated agencies with limited ability to improve political behaviour or punish misconduct.

So what changes do we need to make to lift the integrity of elected representatives in the future?

The Centre for Public Integrity researches integrity reforms necessary to fill the gaps in our accountability system and lift public trust. Our board members are corruption experts and former judges including Tony Fitzgerald, AC QC, David Ipp, AO QC and Stephen Charles, AO QC.

Our research shows that ministerial integrity could be lifted by strengthening codes of conduct and establishing a national integrity commission.

Codes of conduct are designed to ensure elected representatives act in accordance with integrity, fairness and the public interest. Australia currently has no parliamentary code of conduct, meaning that the majority of MPs are not bound by any standard of behaviour. Our ministerial code of conduct is weak and unenforced, with no real retribution for breaking the rules. It sits within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, leaving the PM to monitor and enforce compliance within his own cabinet.

Australia needs a parliamentary code of conduct to ensure all elected representatives uphold a high standard of conduct. Our ministerial code of conduct should be strengthened to include a commitment to spend public money in the public interest and adhere to merit-based procurement and granting processes. Both parliamentary and ministerial codes should include explicit penalties for breaches, to be enforced by an independent and well-resourced parliamentary integrity commissioner.

Integrity commissions are independent statutory agencies established to investigate and expose corruption in government and the public sector. Integrity commissions have the powers of a royal commission to question witnesses, hold public hearings and uncover complex webs of corruption. Each state in Australia has an integrity commission, and these have exposed many cases of serious and systemic corruption including the property and mining deals of Eddie Obeid in NSW, the lobbying efforts of Brian Burke in Western Australia and the undue electoral influence of property developers in Queensland.

There is no such body operating at a federal level. There is no agency with the necessary powers and jurisdiction to investigate corruption allegations involving the federal government and public service. The government announced it would establish a weak and ineffective integrity commission one year ago, and has made little progress since.

Australia urgently needs a national integrity commission with teeth. It requires a broad jurisdiction to investigate any conduct of any person which adversely affects the impartial exercise of public office. It needs to be able to call and question witnesses, publish reports, and hold public hearings. Exposure through public reports and public hearings is necessary to dissuade others from engaging in future corrupt conduct, as those considering engaging in corruption will see that allegations are investigated and offenders held responsible. A national integrity commission with strong powers is crucial to increasing public trust and lifting political culture.

The government’s proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission will not be able to investigate or expose corruption. It will not be able to begin investigations of its own accord, will not be able to accept allegations from the public, and will not be able to pursue referrals unless it can show evidence of a criminal offence being committed. It would not have been able to investigate the Bridget McKenzie affair, as there is little evidence of a criminal offence.

It will also not be able to hold public hearings or make a public report. Members of the public will not hear of any corruption investigations unless the Director of Public Prosecutions decides to pursue a case, and this may be months or years after the initial conduct took place. The proposed commission will do more to hide corruption than expose it.

Systemic reform of our accountability system is needed to improve the integrity of our political culture. Public trust will continue to be eroded if politicians engaging in misconduct are not faced with any real retribution. And those in power will continue to believe that they can act for themselves and their mates. Accountability reform must reinsert public interest to the heart of public decision making, starting with stronger codes of conduct and an effective national integrity commission.

  • Hannah Aulby is the executive director of The Centre for Public Integrity.