Political corruption is a hot topic at the moment, and with good reason. Nearly every day there is a new instance of an elected official eroding the public’s trust. Australia’s global Corruption Perception Index position has fallen since 2012 as reported in 2020, and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t be falling even further as I write this. 

Last year the Reason Policy Committee started working on an approach to tackling corruption and lack of integrity and transparency in federal politics, with the idea of making it a strong election issue. The government must have been listening, because they seem to be going all out in making it a hot topic and demonstrating which side of the line they come down on.

The federal government has the weakest donations laws of any jurisdiction in Australia; the only restriction being a limit, not a ban, on foreign donations. Federal level is also the only jurisdiction without an anti-corruption body, and the one proposed by the current government, under pressure, is best described as: ineffectual by design. 

For the federal government to be held to the lowest standards of integrity and accountability in the country is patently absurd. All levels of government should be held to higher standards than the average, not lower. The power and responsibility that they hold over all of us must come with a comparable level of responsibility, and it doesn’t take much observation to tell us that those standards will only be met if they are enforced. It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Politicians regulating themselves has proved universally to be a failure.

An anti-corruption body, like an ICAC, that can investigate wrongdoing and hold the political class to account is a vital tool in restoring democratic function But prevention is always better than treatment, and so it is equally, if not more, important to also address the factors that allow and even encourage corruption. Streets ahead of any other in this field are political donations. Is there anyone so naive that they truly believe that donations are not given to buy political favours? If we really want to see a decline in corrupt behaviour, especially the varieties that are very, very hard to prove to a courtroom standard, then we must remove the ability for wealthy actors to simply buy the results they want.

One of the reasons this issue can be so difficult to tackle is the cycle it creates reinforcing its own corruption. To get elected these days is very difficult without a large campaign and advertising budget. The most likely way to get the money for that is to accept large donations. Large donations place the receiver in debt to the donor, who will expect a return on their investment. This system ensures that the majority of people elected will be compromised before the votes are even cast. They also know that their re-election prospects hinge heavily on getting access to the money again, so they better make sure they provide good value to their donors. When the people in power were put there by serving corruption they are incredibly unlikely to weaken the system that put them there. The only weapon that ordinary people have to combat this is their vote. To vote for candidates who have not been drawn into the corruption cycle and are committed to changing it.

It is so critical to attack this issue not just because of the moral stink of our representatives lining their pockets, but because it creates a bottleneck preventing so many of the actions that could benefit ordinary people. Causes that have huge, sometimes overwhelming, support in the community like climate change action, combating inequality, better investment in health and education, are neglected, why? Because the politicians are not serving those people, they are servicing their debts to donors. So many of the things that we want to see happen are squashed by dirty money changing hands. If the insidious influence of corruption can be curbed then we have a chance to open the floodgates of positive change.