Is corruption on the rise in Australia? That’s the perception

By Professor Adam Graycar

Australia has fallen out of the top 10 list of least corrupt nations – this reflects the diminishing integrity and accountability displayed by  government.

Each year when the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) is published, countries that rank well or show improvement crow about it. Ranking well is a sign to investors and businesses around the world they can be confident that there is integrity in a country’s public administration, that decisions are made with due process and that public funds are not misappropriated or manipulated.

For more almost 20 years Australia ranked in the top 10 (least corrupt). In 2012 Australia ranked seventh out of 180 with a score of 85. By 2021 it had fallen to 18th with a score of 73. No comparable country has suffered such a drop, and the only countries to have fallen by more are Saint Lucia, Cyprus and Syria.

It is not surprising that Denmark, Finland and New Zealand occupy the top spots, as they have for a decade. Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the UK have all risen over the decade but Canada and the US have fallen, although by not as much as Australia. Australia should be doing better.

While many countries would envy Australia’s score and ranking, the slip is a matter of concern. This past year has seen many questionable behaviours on the part of government, a lukewarm debate over whether there will be a Commonwealth ICAC, and considerable pushback against anti-corruption agencies in NSW and South Australia, while the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commissioner was hounded from office.

The CPI is not a measure of corruption, but it is a perceptions index. It is globally used and respected. Using rigorous methodology, the index assesses perceptions of business leaders and experts, not the general public, to score and rank countries. [A short video on the index is here Corruption Perceptions Index Explained | Transparency International (short version) – YouTube].

The pandemic has been a double-edged sword for trust in government. At its worst, during 2020, trust in government soared but at the same time risks of dodgy procurement and poor decision-making have raised concerns.

Corruption in rich countries is different to that in poor countries. Instead of bureaucrats shaking down citizens before providing services, the characteristic in rich countries is the manipulation of access. This leads to allegations of conflict of interest and concerns that cronyism is business or politics as usual. When allegations of pork-barrelling were raised, the then NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said this was politics as normal. At the Commonwealth level, issues such as sports and car park rorts and dodgy contracts brought no response from the government other than comments that the other side did it too! Various allegations were investigated internally and not independently, and this did not improve confidence in the process. Examples of incompetence or bloody-minded malfeasance such as Robodebt do not register on corruption scales.

This raises the fine line between corruption as an offence proscribed by law and corruption as manipulation, rorting, cronyism and conflict of interest, much of which would be difficult to prove in court. Also, measuring corruption is not like measuring numbers of COVID tests or deaths, car thefts or hospital attendances. Most corrupt activity occurs in secret, and what comes to light does not reflect its full extent.

In Australia, we have seen a significant diminution of standards at the highest levels of government. While these might not match the standard definitions of corruption, it creates a perception that things are fast and loose. While Australia is not a high-corruption country, there has certainly been an integrity deficit.

The way forward is to document and call out questionable behaviour. However, threats to the resourcing and independence of our anti-corruption agencies reduce the focus. Whether we will have a Commonwealth integrity commission is less of an issue than what sort of commission it will be. Will it have teeth or will it be a paper tiger?

Anti-corruption agencies are not the sole guardians of public values. This is something that should be at the heart of all public administration and something that should apply equally to low-level officials and ministers.

Our political history is littered with unsavoury events. What is concerning now at the political level is that when there is questionable behaviour there is no apology and seldom any resignations (apart from Berejiklian) – in short, nothing much is done about it. This adds to the perception of corruption in our society.

This article was originally published in Pearls and Irritations on 7 February 2022.

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