To Federal ICAC or not to Federal ICAC?

in Medium

Richard Denniss and Senator Kristina Keneally catch up to discuss whether Australia needs a Federal ICAC on The Lucky Country podcast.

Arguments for a national corruption watchdog have been percolating in the Australian political landscape for the last few years. Our polling shows that 85% of Australians believe there is corruption in federal politics at a time when faith in democracy is on the decline.

In Episode 15 of The Lucky Country Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at The Australia Institute talks to Senator and former New South Wales Premier, Kristina Keneally about the need for a federal body similar to the New South Wales Independent Comission Against Corruption (ICAC).

The development of a national watchdog has support in federal parliament from the cross bench, the Greens and the Labor Party. So what gives when it comes to a Federal ICAC?

And, if Richard Denniss and Senator Keneally are right and stamping out corruption and perceptions of corruption could not just save Australia money but maybe even make us money, why don’t we have one already?

As Richard Denniss says,

“The only real reasons to not have a federal corruption watchdog are that you don’t believe there’s any corruption in Canberra, or you think it’s a waste of money.”

As a former Premier of New South Wales and now a Senator, Kristina Keneally has experienced both state and federal politics and finds it hard to believe that a federal watchdog is not needed,

“I wonder about this claim that there’s no corruption in our federal parliament. It’s almost as though the things that we’ve seen at state levels in various states across Australia, somehow that behaviour stops when you hit the border of Canberra.”

And indeed in the midst of the banking royal commission, which the government and banking sector assured us wasn’t necessary because there was nothing going wrong, these kind of blanket claims are hard to take seriously.

According to Senator Keneally,

“Claims that there is nothing untoward happening tend to crumble when we shine the light on where there are concerns or allegations of serious and systemic behaviour. And we’ve seen it with the banking royal commission. We saw it in quite stark and tragic terms when it came to responses to institutional sexual abuse.

“And I would like to think that a national integrity body at the federal level ends up not investigating very many things. But I think those who oppose a national integrity body and think it’s only about investigating miss a fundamental point and that is, these bodies, when constituted well, can also serve as a corruption resistant organisation.”

Then there are those that argue that somehow federal and state politics are different and since the federal government does less service delivery they somehow have less opportunity for corruption. And while Senator Keneally agrees that states do the bulk of the service delivery, she stresses that

“Our federal parliament is one of the key institutions that helps define who we are as a nation, how we shape our society and our community and how we represent ourselves to the world. It is about our identity, it is about our culture.”

If the federal government is responsible for setting our national values and identity mightn’t it be a good idea to prioritise ethical conduct in our government? Especially since 82% of Australians support the establishment of a national corruption watchdog.

Some people feel that, in spite of its broad support, the cost of setting up and running this kind of body is too much. But Richard Denniss makes the point that in fact,

“A federal corruption watchdog is good for the economy. We hear a lot about the need to attract foreign investment — indeed we’re willing to spend $65 billion in cutting taxes to attract foreign investment — but there’s plenty of evidence that a reason companies don’t like to invest overseas is they fear that other countries are corrupt.

“It’s in Australia’s economic interest to have a federal corruption watchdog. It’s a cheap way to assure foreign investors that their money is safely invested here in Australia.”

And, he adds,

“Given the government spends $460 billion a year, the cost of an anti-corruption watchdog would be a small price to pay even if it never found any corruption. I think it would be a small price to pay for a lot of peace of mind.”

And, if that kind of economic rationalisation isn’t compelling enough, Senator Keneally points out this is also about the relationship between the elected and the electorate,

“They’re serving the sacred trust — that is the trust of the people who have elected them… In government where we are dealing with tax payer money, where we are dealing with the trust of an electorate that voted us there and we are making decisions for the common good, the good of the community, that a commitment to integrity, a commitment to ethical behaviour needs to go beyond people just saying that they hold that.”

So the Australian people want one, it’s likely to uncover some corruption, or at the very least exonerate politicians falsely accused, it’ll be good for the economy and it’ll help restore some faith in our democracy.

If those reasons haven’t convinced you or if you want to hear more about it catch the full conversation between Richard Denniss and Senator Kristina Keneally on Episode 15 of The Lucky Country podcast.

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