Stamping out political rorts requires a cultural change, not more bodies to police it

The Greens have renewed calls for a federal body to investigate corruption in politics. AAP/Lukas Coch

Calls for a federal Independent Commission against Corruption-like body are growing following Health Minister Sussan Ley standing aside while several of her travel entitlement claims are investigated.

However, a federal ICAC will not solve the sorts of problems Australian politicians have recently embroiled themselves in: wasting money riding in helicopters to a party function when they could have driven; meeting with business contacts while impartially representing the government; or claiming travel allowances for trips that do not on the surface meet the “pub test”.

Why a federal ICAC won’t help

A federal ICAC won’t solve problems of greed within the current set of rules for MPs. Instead, we need to foster a culture of integrity rather than entitlement.

Australians can pride themselves that they are not afflicted on a regular basis by corrupt politicians and officials gouging what they can from a hapless public. Australia does not have a culture of corruption, though it does have transgressions from time to time.

Australia has processes for good administration and good procurement, solid administrative law and regulatory agencies that generally are not captured by the interests they regulate.

Notwithstanding this, Australia has been slipping in Transparency International’s respected Corruption Perception Index. Australia was ranked 13th out of nearly 170 countries in 2015, having fallen from eighth in 2010.

There are many explanations for this fall. One is not that opportunities for corruption were ever-present, but that people took advantage of these opportunities – and even created them.

An ICAC can only point the finger after the event. Humiliation is a common outcome, but a conviction is rare.

Of the 12 countries that currently rank above Australia on the Corruption Perception Index, only one has a national anti-corruption agency. Singapore, ranked eighth, has a long-standing hardline law-enforcement body.

Australia could never hope to have an agency of similar stature at the federal level. Not only would the resourcing have to be substantial, but it would create a massive turf war with other agencies – and all of this without understanding the problem we are trying to solve.

If the problem is an ingrained culture of corruption, then an ICAC might be considered. If it is arrogant and greedy MPs rorting their allowances, then there are other avenues to fix it.

What can be done?

What Australia needs is a stronger culture of integrity. There needs to be a clear understanding that public office is for public benefit and not personal gain.

Yes, people need to be recompensed for doing their jobs. That comes through a salary and allowances for expenses. At the federal level the allowances are generous, and no formal body is going to be able to stop an MP going to a New Year’s Eve party in another state and claiming they conducted business because they met with an important person at the party.

Anybody on the make will always be able to contrive any situation; an ICAC won’t stop these situations. What will stop them is honestly understanding the nature of public service, that they are public property and their behaviour is on the public record.

Contriving travel allowances is not necessarily fraud, but it is certainly waste – waste driven by greed. It is not possible to make a rule for every possible situation, so those who skate on thin ice will always be able to say they have not broken any rules.

However, that is not the solution. The solution is a culture of integrity that is driven from the top. Leaders must lead, be above suspicion themselves and show they have a zero-tolerance approach to the manipulation of the system. Unethical is not necessarily illegal.

A federal ICAC would be expensive, inefficient and divisive. Instead, Australia should opt for an Independent Anti-Corruption Council that would work independently, feel the pulse and refer cases for investigation to appropriate authorities such as the Australian Federal Police, the Public Service Commissioner, the Australian Taxation Office and the Ombudsman. These in turn would take matters to the Director of Public Prosecutions as appropriate.

People are always going to be on the make, but leadership and integrity are a better way to solve the problem rather than another executive agency.