By Anthony Whealy, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19th May 2021.

The budget is now well and truly out and about. At face value, it looks attractive and is likely to succeed as a political lever to the government’s continuation in power: childcare, aged care, women’s protections. The overall theme, “recovery budget”, strikes a positive note . “Australia is coming back!” the Treasurer exclaimed. Time will tell.

However, in one important respect we are not “coming back” at all. The most obvious item in the budget reflecting this government’s lack of concern for integrity is the “0″ appearing in the staffing allocation for its proposed integrity commission. A donut for integrity!

Let there be no doubt. This is a very serious failure. It undermines public confidence and casts a pall over Australia’s international standing. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index demonstrates that Australia’s corruption rating, having fallen significantly over the past decade, continues to stagnate.

The government’s continuing failure to introduce a commonwealth integrity commission bill into Parliament, coupled with this contemptuous item in the budget, demonstrates it does not want any appropriate or effective scrutiny of its actions, now or in the immediate future.

Perhaps this would be less distressing if it had a good record in performing at high levels of integrity and accountability. Alas, the very opposite is the case. The long list of poorly investigated scandals continues to grow. Central to these is the misuse of public monies for political or partisan gain. There are many other shortcomings in integrity at government level, too numerous to be detailed here.

The point is that, without an effective federal anti-corruption agency, these scandals and shortcomings will not be fully investigated. Of course, the government has published a draft bill for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission but it has been soundly denounced as an utter failure. The fact that it enshrines a special protective division for politicians and most public servants speaks volumes for its duplicity and ineffectiveness . It is designed to shield politicians from scrutiny.

Recently I met Dave Sharma, the member for Wentworth. It was a pleasant meeting and Sharma is an amiable and pleasant man. Chillingly, however, he told me quite openly that he and his colleagues do not believe their decisions and actions should be scrutinised by an outside agency. Rather, he argued, they should be judged solely by the electorate at the forthcoming election.

Two points. First, the electorate will never be in a position to investigate and judge the intricacies of government decisions. This can only be done effectively by a specialist body with specialist powers to compel the truth. Second, elections, sadly enough, are a time of political untruthfulness, hyperbole and deception. Federally, we do not have laws that compel truthful statements at election time.

If ministers are asked about a serious problem, they fudge their answers, avoiding the issue through a cloud of spin and evasion. Sadly, we are so used to this we merely shrug and go on our way.

Perhaps the saddest feature of budget night was the array of glossy photos showing politicians, dressed to the nines, rubbing shoulders with the well-suited leaders of the big end of town. Politicians mixing contentedly with the barons of business and sundry billionaires.

Why does this depress me? Along with the loss of integrity and failure to be accountable, the growing perception of the undue influence of money in politics is a blight on public confidence in honest government. Loss of integrity, like a pandemic, is an illness. Once it spreads through the political community, as a nation we may never recover.