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NSW ICAC renews urge for federal commission

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Former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has been investigated for corruption during her time in Parliament (Screenshot via YouTube)

Gladys Berejiklian's ICAC inquiry has re-energised the debate about the role of integrity agencies in our democracy and underscores the urgent need for reform at the federal level, writes Matthew Butera.

DEMOCRACY IN AUSTRALIA has been suffering a trust and satisfaction crisis for over a decade. According to the Australian Election Study (AES), following the 2019 Federal Election, voters had never been less trustful of the Government. Just a quarter of respondents agreed that ‘people in government can be trusted’. Similarly, voters expressed a high dissatisfaction with democracy, with 41 per cent of respondents stating their dissatisfaction with democracy, the second-worst figure on record.

In a democracy, a healthy scepticism of those in power is necessary. Such a scepticism, or cautionary mistrust, ensures that we do not simply take our leaders at face value. Competitive elections mean that there will inevitably be a sizeable proportion of the population that does not share the governing party's view of the world.

Given this, we should expect levels of trust in government and satisfaction with democracy to fluctuate over time. However, extended periods of democratic discontent and distrust in leaders, such as Australia has seen since 2007, pose the risk of facilitating the emergence of a generalised distrust in the broader electorate.

Typically, an individual may distrust a sitting prime minister, minister, or MP. Their values, attitudes and beliefs may be in total conflict. As a result, the individual is likely to disagree with the elected official’s policy decisions. Naturally, we expect this individual to distrust the elected official.

Generalised distrust, however, involves the individual's target of distrust broadening to become an all-encompassing attitude towards the political system in general. Rather than focusing solely on the party in power and remaining engaged in the political process to democratically end their term in power, the individual feels a sense of alienation and passivity. Ultimately, they may withdraw from the process and deem the democratic system as illegitimate.

Ultimately, a withdrawn and distrustful electorate is far harder to persuade to accept nation-changing reforms, of which there will be many to combat this century's numerous wicked challenges. These challenges include but will not be limited to addressing climate change, restructuring the economy away from fossil fuels, a rising China and technological shifts including artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

In this context, the urgent need for reforms to stem the bleeding of distrust in Australian democracy is apparent. The ongoing investigation of former NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in the NSW ICAC is a prime example. The ICAC is investigating Berejiklian to ascertain whether she broke any rules by failing to disclose a personal relationship with disgraced former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire. If substantiated, these actions would constitute a breach of public trust, according to ICAC. Such a finding would undoubtedly have made Ms Berejiklian’s position untenable, potentially explaining her decision to resign.

This example is insightful because it highlights one of the two main roles for an integrity agency such as the ICAC. Firstly, as in the above example, its role is to detect and investigate allegations of corruption and improper conduct in the public sector. Secondly, it is to deter public sector participants from engaging in corrupt or improper conduct by increasing the likelihood of detection.

Public sector officials tempted to act improperly are more likely to reconsider their actions in an environment where their conduct carries a higher risk of detection than those operating in jurisdictions less likely to detect instances of improper conduct. One such example of the latter jurisdiction would be the Commonwealth, absent of an equally resourced comparator agency to NSW's ICAC.

Brazen examples at the federal level of conduct that would be subject to further fact-finding from an agency with the NSW ICAC's powers have been in steady supply in recent years.  These include the so-called sports rorts and car park rorts funding programs, which the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) found deficient in their funding allocation decisions due to the lack of a credible merit-based selection process.

The cost of scandals such as these, in addition to the billions of wasted taxpayer funds, is the further erosion of trust in our political process. Scandals such as these justifiably alienate more and more voters, deepening the disconnect between the average Australian and their elected officials. The kicker here is that when these elected officials eventually decide to undertake substantial reforms, they will depend on these same voters' permission. How can these voters be expected to trust in the good intentions of our politicians when endless news stories about misuse of taxpayer funds for political gain become one of their primary touchpoints with the political process?

To stem the tide away from alienated passivity and a further disengaged electorate, reforms must be instituted that will materially reduce the incidence of such scandals. At the federal level, the introduction of an ICAC is a substantial first step. A federal ICAC will represent a major avenue of accountability between the electorate and the elected (and unelected) by investigating past, present and future allegations of corrupt conduct. This accountability will ensure that public sector officials who have engaged in corrupt conduct will be punished for it, in sharp contrast to how the current federal integrity system is perceived to be functioning.

Further, this will decrease the appeal of future corrupt conduct by making detection and punishment more likely. In this way, such an institution is unlikely to spark a wave of restored trust in government and democratic satisfaction. However, it may begin to arrest the drift towards generalised distrust that risks further exacerbating an already alarming state of affairs.

Although not a panacea, an integrity commission with strong investigative powers at the federal level is a critical first step in a broader path of democratic renewal. The aim of proceeding down this path should be to deliver a system that has more integrity, is more responsive to the electorate's needs and is better capable of working productively to address this century's challenges. The tide of trust in government and satisfaction with democracy may turn and that is most certainly in the public interest.

Matthew Butera is a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Melbourne and works in professional services.

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