Necessary but insufficient: Anti-corruption commissions won’t stop corruption

Oct 21, 2020

Unfortunately, it’s patently obvious that we need anti-corruption commissions to expose corruption in Australian politics. But history shows such commissions to be necessary to expose corruption but insufficient to prevent it.

With NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, fighting for her political life after her knowledge of and failure to act on corruption by her colleague and associate Daryl Maguire came to light, we’ve seen renewed focus on the importance of finally instituting a truly independent and well-funded anti-corruption commission at the Federal level. Recent investigations about the massively over-valued land acquisition for Badgery’s Creek airport are just the latest in a long line of allegations about possibly corrupt actions by Federal Ministers which should be investigated by such a commission.

But the experiences in NSW and elsewhere over recent decades should give us pause for thought. The repeated exposure of corrupt actions by politicians and office-holders proves that these commissions are unfortunately necessary. But it just as clearly shows that they are insufficient. Far from enabling us to trust our politicians to act in the public interest, they repeatedly show how little we can trust them.

Are we ready, now, to acknowledge that this is a systemic issue which will require a systemic solution?

The NSW ICAC has brought an end to an extraordinary number of high-flying political careers since it was established in 1989, ironically starting with that of Nick Greiner, the Premier responsible for introducing it. More recently, Premier Barry O’Farrell resigned after revelations in ICAC hearings, and Berejiklian may yet become the third Liberal Premier whose scalp the commission claims, alongside ministers including Mike Gallacher and Chris Hartcher. Of course, it’s not just the Liberals who have been caught out. Eddie Obeid, Ian Macdonald, Eric Roozendaal and Tony Kelly are just a selection of the Labor MPs who have gone from rooster to featherduster, in some cases dusting the inside of prison cells, thanks to ICAC.

If the intention behind establishing ICAC was to expose corruption and hold those responsible accountable, it has been an unquestioned success. And that success should, of course, be celebrated, and must be replicated at the Federal level. But, on its website, ICAC says that its role is “to investigate, expose and minimise corruption” (my emphasis), “to combat corruption and improve the integrity of the NSW public sector”, and to “prevent breaches of public trust”.

With continued exposure of corruption by NSW politicians, more than 30 years after it was established, the question has to be asked: does ICAC prevent corruption?

Despite decades of very public hearings, numerous scalps, and tremendous behind-the-scenes work with public sector bodies establishing good systems, corruption is still, if not endemic, extraordinarily prevalent in NSW politics. The threat of exposure, shame, loss of position, and even prison time seems to be insufficient to actually prevent corruption.

And, of course, ICAC only deals with the corruption which is actually illegal – the blatant quid pro quo, money-in-a-brown-paper-bag corruption which is just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger corruption, the stuff Scott Ludlam refers to as “state capture”, whereby, through political donations, networks of friends, rubbing shoulders, and shared interests, sectors like fossil fuels, consultancies, and international finance maintain a lock on our political parties, slides through untouched.

If we want to actually prevent corruption, we need to dig deeper. If strong, established anti-corruption institutions are insufficient to prevent this behaviour, we have to examine the underlying systems, the culture and the more powerful institutions, that drive it.

What we will find at the core of our current system is the capitalist ethic – the idea that all humans are pure utility maximisers, that we are atomised individuals seeking selfish advantage, and that the path to a good outcome is to enable maximum competition. In our political economy, capitalism and democracy are in an uneasy coexistence, with the people often seeking to constrain capital to deliver fairer outcomes and capital chafing at the bounds, through means legal and illegal. Bribing politicians is one option. Donations is another. The offer of a cushy post-politics jobs a third.

But more powerful than the quid pro quo is the way capitalism has institutionalised its ethics. Having legislated the idea of corporations whose only responsibility is to maximise profit, and then declaring those corporations to be legal persons, by extension, the only responsibility of any person is to maximise profit. Greed is good. The public good is irrelevant distraction.

In this context, how can we be surprised that politicians act in that way? In addition, corporations are duty-bound to seek to change the law to enable them to make as much profit as they can. Capitalism effectively institutionalises corruption.

If we want to establish a Federal ICAC in order to hold particular individuals accountable, by all means, we should do so. And, to be absolutely clear, I believe we must. But, as we do so, let’s be very aware that what we are getting is a veneer of trust, a clean-up job after the fact.

To prevent corruption, we need to replace capitalism with a system designed around the common good. We should not let the important work of instituting anti-corruption commissions distract us from that greater task.

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