Corruption in Australia
Corruption appears to exist at all levels of society. A commonly agreed
definition of corruption—albeit a narrow one—is 'the misuse of entrusted power
for private gain'.
It can take many forms depending on local culture and context.
Corruption can distort the making of public policy or the implementation of
public policy. 
The Attorney-General's Department provides an explanation of the place
corruption occupies on the continuum of human behaviour:
Corruption could be viewed as one end of a continuum of other
undesirable behaviours, including maladministration and improper conduct.
Corruption can occur on many levels, from small illicit
payments as part of routine bureaucratic processes, to the large scale
diversions of public resources to corrupt individuals. Corruption affects both
the public and private sectors and can be facilitated by bribery, embezzlement,
money-laundering, nepotism and cronyism.
Corruption has a negative effect on the countries, communities and
institutions in which it is able to thrive. The Attorney-General's Department's
2011 National Anti-Corruption Plan discussion paper expanded on this point:
Corruption is a corrosive global phenomenon that has a wide
range of devastating impacts. It undermines democracy and the rule of law;
discourages investment and distorts markets; diverts resources from important
services like schools, hospitals and roads; and provides a breeding ground for
organised crime and terrorism.
Corruption in Australia – a very wealthy country by global standards –
is not the same as corruption in a poorer country. Professor Graycar informed
the committee that the kinds of corruption risk in a rich country are not
typically small scale bribes to low level officials, but in corrupt conduct
that influences the creation of new laws and awarding of government business.
Reporting on community perceptions of corruption, a report from the
Australian National University (ANU) dispelled the idea that corruption is a
problem that only affects poorer countries:
In rich countries corruption certainly exists and has
implications for governance, the delivery of services, the development of
infrastructure, and general economic conditions, not least if there is a
widespread perception that corruption is rife or increasing.
Perceptions of corruption in Australia
Corruption has been found in Australia at the local council, state and
Commonwealth level. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index,
Transparency International (TI) ranked Australia number 13 globally, out
of 168 other countries.
Australia was ranked seventh in 2012.
The authors of this index emphasised however that: 'transnational perceptions
of corruption do not provide an objective, let alone relative measure of
corruption or anti-corruption efforts in any given nation in actuality'.
Transparency International Australia (TIA) expanded upon some of the
reasons for Australia's decline in the TI rankings:
It is a corruption perception index, not an index of actual
corruption or corruption findings. But the perception, I think, has essentially
been driven by complacency in the government, particularly in the fields of
financial bribery in illicit financial flows into Australia and perhaps out of
Australia. There are a number of other issues as well, which are well known.
Complacency has driven the index down because Australia is perceived to have
not acted promptly.
In a survey conducted by the ANU— ANUpoll on Perceptions of
Corruption 2012 (ANU Poll)—it was found that evidence of corruption is
Australia is generally low:
The results confirm international surveys that show that the
proportion of Australians who report an act of bribery involving a public
official is consistently low. Less than one percent of the Australian
population report that they have ‘often’ experienced bribery, and a further 3
percent report that they have experienced it ‘occasionally’, and 4 percent said
it had ‘seldom’ happened. More than nine out of every 10 respondents said this
had not happened to them or a family member in the previous five years.
Despite the poll showing that people have virtually no personal or
family experience of corruption, there is a public belief that
corruption is increasing. Forty-three per cent of respondents indicated
that they felt that corruption was increasing, and a further 41 per cent see
corruption as having remained the same.
The ANU Poll also surveyed community perceptions of corruption at
different levels of government:
Of the three levels of government asked about in the
survey—local, state and federal—local government was seen as corrupt by just 19
percent of the respondents, followed by 25 percent who mentioned state government.
The federal government was seen as corrupt by almost one in three of the
Submissions to this inquiry expressed concerns about the level of
potential corruption within Australia:
I am extremely concerned that there is corruption within our
political system. I am greatly concerned that corruption results in decisions
being made by state and federal parliaments that [are] contrary to the wishes
of the electorate. I am concerned that our political processes are being
subverted by lobby groups and businesses with big wallets. I am concerned that
political decisions are being made that [result] in actions that have
deleterious impacts on our economy, social fabric, and natural environment.
Veteran anti-corruption campaigner and journalist, Bob Bottom OAM, put
it to the committee that the number of online petitions—altogether attracting
over 10 000 signatures—indicate the concerns in the community about
corruption in Australia.
TIA hypothesised for the committee how an average Australian might view
the current anti-corruption framework:
'What do the people of Australia think about this?' They see
that every state and territory has an ICAC but the federal government does not.
They would be mystified completely by that, and if you said to the community at
large, 'That's because nothing's going wrong in Canberra or in the federal
sphere,' they would just laugh.
Somewhat paradoxically, TIA has argued that Australia's perception of
being mostly free from corruption may actually be a weakness:
TIA considers the single largest corruption risk in Australia
to be that of complacency—the frequent assumption that because things do not
'appear' to be as bad in Australia as elsewhere, or as bad in some Australian
jurisdictions as others, that specific corruption-related conduct is occurring.
State governments and corruption
All Australian states now have broad-based anti-corruption agencies. The
NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the Queensland Crime and
Corruption Commission (Qld CCC) and the Western Australia Corruption and Crime
Commission (WA CCC) have been operating in some form since the late 1980s. The
Tasmanian Integrity Commission (IC), Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption
Commission (IBAC) and the SA Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)
are more recent; all being establishing after 2010. The Northern Territory
government has indicated a plan to establish an independent anti-corruption
body in the first quarter of 2016.
These agencies share a number of similarities. Specifically:
They all have jurisdiction over the public but not the private
sector (although the extent of jurisdiction across the public sector varies);
All, with the exception of the Qld CCC, have investigative,
preventive and educational functions;
They all possess coercive powers similar to those of Royal
Each is overseen by a Parliamentary committee.
The reason for the establishment of most anti-corruption commissions in
Australia was grounded on the belief that corruption was going unchallenged and
that the existing frameworks did not have the ability to combat corruption. In some
cases the perception of corruption was sufficient to lead to the establishment
of anti-corruption bodies. A key theme in the establishment of anti-corruption
bodies has been the restoration and maintenance of public trust in government
The report of the Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities
and Associated Police Misconduct (the Fitzgerald Inquiry) in 1989 in Queensland
provides an summary of the typical role, purpose, and powers of the
anti-corruption agency model (which at the time was limited in Australia to the
ICAC in NSW):
An ICAC's central role is to detect and investigate
corruption. It is therefore also concerned with organised crime.
An ICAC is a permanent structure which endeavours to identify
patterns and trends in official misconduct and to expose root causes of crime
and the crises and disruptions it causes in public administration. Its main
concern is with these larger problems, but in addressing them it amasses
evidence concerning individuals which is passed over to prosecution authorities
It is inquisitorial, that is to say, it conducts hearings,
usually closed, with a view to establishing facts and makes inquiries which
involve questioning witnesses on oath, exercising powers of search and seizure,
conducting covert surveillance and interceptions, compelling the production of
documents and the provision of information and, sometimes, detaining people for
interrogation and investigation.
It has its own investigators, including police and other
specialist investigators, such as accountants, lawyers, bankers, analysts,
statisticians, and computer operators. It is subject to obligations of
confidentiality and secrecy. It is obliged to report generally on its
activities, but not specifically on particular investigations. Some ICACs may
be directed to investigate particular people or matters. Usually they cannot be
directed not to investigate matters within their charter, but may have matters
referred to them for investigation by the government.
An ICAC may also carry out community education and public
relations exercises. It may conduct an information campaign aimed at public
servants, businessmen and professional advisers. Such campaigns may contain
information about what constitutes official misconduct in relation to tax
evasion, stock exchange fraud and insurance fraud. This is done with a view to
raising standards and increasing community awareness of the insidious impact of
The NSW ICAC was established in 1988 following revelations of corruption
by government ministers, members of the judiciary and the police force. In his
second reading speech for the Bill to establish the NSW ICAC, the then Premier
highlighted the importance of an independent body in restoring trust and
legitimacy in the political system:
No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while
there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt that has hung over government in
New South Wales. I am determined that my Government will be free of that doubt
and suspicion; that from this time forward the people of this State will be
confident in the integrity of their Government, and that they will have an
institution where they can go and complain of corruption, feeling confident
that their grievances will be investigated fearlessly and honestly.
In 1989 in Queensland, what has become the Qld CCC was formed in
response to the findings of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
The Fitzgerald Inquiry, over a period of two years and 238 days of public
hearings, heard evidence of widespread corruption within law enforcement and
Similarly in 2004 in Western Australia, the establishment of what is now
the WA CCC was the result of a recommendation of the interim report of the 2002
The WA CCC replaced the Anti-Crime Commission, which the 2002 Royal Commission
found had lost the trust of the public to prevent corruption:
In the circumstances, it has been possible at this stage of
the work of the Commission to conclude that the identifiable flaws in the
structure and powers of the ACC have brought about such a lack of public
confidence in the current processes for the investigation of corrupt and
criminal conduct that the establishment of a new permanent body is necessary.
Tasmania set up its IC in response to the 2009 report Public Office
is Public Trust prepared by the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on
Ethical Conduct. The report found that the development of standards and
professional codes was ad hoc in nature, that the current mechanisms for
investigation were inadequate, and that there was a lack of advice available to
public officers in relation to the conduct of their duties.
In Victoria, the IBAC was established in response to the 2010 Review
of Victoria's Integrity and Anti-Corruption System (Proust Review), which
was commissioned in the wake of several reports into misconduct and corruption
in 2009. The Proust Review found that:
There is a comparatively high level of concern within the
Victorian community regarding the effectiveness of current efforts in
addressing corruption, despite international rankings that rate Australian
jurisdictions as being amongst the least vulnerable to corruption in the world.
The Proust Review's recommendation to establish a new, dedicated
anti-corruption body was partly to address a lack of coordination between
existing agencies and jurisdictional gaps:
There are opportunities for Victoria's integrity bodies to
operate as a more collective and cohesive system. Victoria’s integrity infrastructure
has evolved over time, with the creation of new integrity bodies, each
undertaking valuable but disparate functions. The resulting fragmentation,
system gaps and overlaps have been exacerbated by legislative restrictions on
the capacity of integrity bodies to share information.
Barriers to coordination between integrity bodies have been
highlighted by recent examples of different bodies investigating the same area.
Findings of misconduct by one integrity body have been dismissed or not upheld
by another due to different evidentiary requirements or different
interpretations of what constitutes misconduct and corruption. The result is
public confusion and uncertainty about whether the investigated person or body
misbehaved. The removal of legislative barriers to coordination and the
establishment of a coordination forum of integrity bodies should strengthen the
efficiency and effectiveness of the integrity system as a whole.
The establishment of South Australia's ICAC in 2012 was not in response
to allegations of serious corruption or substantive failings of the existing
integrity system, but to pre-empt any future corruption problems:
Unlike some States, South Australia has fortunately thus far
not been in a circumstance where cases of corruption, be it systemic or
otherwise, have required an anti-corruption body to be established so as to
attempt to restore faith and confidence in public institutions. Given this,
some may question why an integrity body such as the ICAC is required in South
Australia. My answer to that is that with modern society becoming increasingly
complex and the financial resources of public funds being stretched to meet the
ever increasing needs for essential government services, the temptation to
engage in corrupt conduct for personal gain by abuse of public office will
exist. A modern and sophisticated society should pre-empt this risk and
proactively act to safeguard and preserve community confidence in the integrity
of public administration. Establishing an ICAC constitutes that pre-emptive
strike and safeguard.
Anti-corruption bodies have been established in response to either
serious incidents of corruption, or to address a public belief that corruption
was a problem. Although there are variations between states regarding powers,
jurisdiction, independence and accountability afforded to anti-corruption
agencies they share some common themes. All are stand-alone bodies designed to
detect and prevent corruption, and through doing this improve public trust in
government and public administration.
The following chapter will consider calls to establish a similar
anti-corruption structure at the federal level.
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