About two-thirds of Australians have either low or very low trust in federal government, polling shows
An overwhelming majority of Australians have lost trust in federal politics and want a strong, well-resourced anti-corruption commission, new polling shows.
Integrity experts and Transparency International Australia will on Monday 15 April launch a sustained push on the major parties to make substantial commitments to boosting integrity in the lead-up to next month’s election, including the establishment of a properly empowered federal integrity commission, reforms to donations and lobbying, and better protections for whistleblowers.
Their push coincides with polling released by the Australia Institute showing trust in Australia’s federal parliament is low and declining further.
About two-thirds of Australians have either low or very low trust in federal government, and rates have declined since 2017. A staggering 80% of Australians want an integrity commission, and the support is shared across the political spectrum. An integrity commission is supported by 76% of Greens voters, 82% of LNP voters, 89% of One Nation voters, and 80% of Labor voters.
Respondents strongly supported (76%) the commission having the power to hold public hearings – something which the Coalition has ruled out in its proposal.
More than 80% agreed it should be able to act on complaints from whistleblowers.
Australia looks guaranteed to have some form of federal anti-corruption body, regardless of who wins next month’s election. Labor and the Liberals have both made commitments to an anti-corruption body, though their models vary significantly.
The Coalition’s model would not be able to hold public hearings into government corruption, and critics say its remit is far too narrow. It would not be able to act directly on public tip-offs and requires a high threshold of evidence before it can begin an investigation. Advertisement
Stephen Charles, a retired Victorian court of appeal judge, said the Coalition’s body would not be effective in its current form, and would act to shield politicians from serious scrutiny.
“What is clear is that if the Coalition is re-elected we are not going to get an effective anti-corruption commission in Canberra,” he told Guardian Australia. “Just bear in mind that in November last year, 34 judges wrote an open letter to the prime minister, asking for a strong, independent commission. I’ve never before known 34 judges to agree to a letter such as this.”
The Coalition used its recent budget to give $104.5m in funding over the forward estimates for an integrity commission – though additional money will also be given to existing integrity bodies to enhance their functions.
Prof AJ Brown, an integrity expert at Griffith University, says the government appears to have provided a total of $42.3m a year for an integrity commission. Brown was critical of Labor’s lack of firm commitment to a funding amount for its proposed body, describing it as “ridiculously silly”.
Labor has confirmed it would match the Coalition’s funding at least, and would provide more resources if required.
Labor’s model would give the anti-corruption commission the powers of a royal commission, including an ability to hold public hearings where it is deemed in the public interest.
The shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, said Labor would legislate within 12 months of taking office and begin with “an extensive process of consultation and expert advice”.
“We note that the Government funded a National Integrity Commission with $104.5 million over four years in the 2019 Budget,” Bowen told Guardian Australia. “We will at least be matching that commitment, and if additional resources are required after the design is finalised we will ensure those resources are provided.”
Transparency International Australia research shows at least $100m per year would be needed to properly fund such a body. The current commitments of both parties fall well short of that mark.
The group’s acting chief executive, Nicole Bieske, said the bodies proposed by Labor and the Liberals were “just a first step”.
“Both major parties need to back a larger plan for promoting political integrity to ensure our democracy is as fair and representative as can be,” she said.
“We want to fix the flaws in the system – where the people with the most money get the best access to politicians, and people who blow the whistle on crime and corruption are silenced.”
Transparency International released on Monday five election priorities for both parties, to help guide reform and arrest declining trust in politics.
Top of the list was a “strong, properly resourced national integrity commission”, with the power to hold public hearings, a wide jurisdiction and proper funding. It also wants greater control on political donations by introducing real-time donation and campaign expenditure disclosures, and lowering the threshold amount requiring public declaration. The group also wants to see caps on donations and campaign expenditure, and nationally consistent donation rules and enforcement.
On lobbying, it has called for measures to end the revolving door between parliament and lobbying firms. This would be achieved by increasing the cooling-off period barring ministers and senior staff from lobbying for a certain period after leaving office. Advertisement
Stronger codes of conduct and sanctions for lobbying breaches should be introduced. Transparency International also wants to see a properly resourced whistleblower protection authority. Labor has so far pledged $3.2m over the forward estimates for such an authority, which would only allow for five full-time positions.
Brown was critical of the low level of resourcing announced by Labor and its decision to employ the five staff through the office of the commonwealth ombudsman.
The Australia Institute used Dynata to conduct its polling. A nationally representative sample of 1,536 Australians were surveyed.
First published at The Guardian Australia – Monday 15 April 2019