Stronger efforts needed to stamp out Australian corruption

'Conversations with the Archbishop' tackles causes and cures of corruption in Australia

By Chris Shearer

May 23 2018

Australia needs to confront the spectre of corruption in its midst or risk undermining the very foundations of our society, was the message coming out of this morning's “Conversation with the Archbishop”.

Featuring guests Dr Margaret Simons, an awarding winning journalist, and former Supreme Court of Victoria judge David Harper AM, the panel spoke at length on the need for stronger efforts to root out corruption on the very morning the Federal Government declared there was no persuasive evidence to establish a national anti-corruption commission.

“Corruption,” Mr Harper warned, “is an insidious and very interesting creature. It weaves itself into… society almost unnoticed at first, but even then causing real damage. Then, if it is not stopped in its tracks, or at least if real and effective measures are not taken to prevent its increase, it will consume society as it has done in many countries around the world.”

Archbishop Philip Freier said that because of the inherent flaws of human nature, particularly a lack of self-scrutiny, corruption was always a possibility, particularly when decent people relativise their actions by believing this is how businesses operate.

“It’s been a problem in every kind of way that society has been constituted,” he said. “It almost seems inevitable to me that faced with these questions people come up with default answers because it’s inconvenient to carry out business in the clarity and scrutiny that something like an [national anti-corruption body] would impose on the Federal Government.

“We’ve got to have a commitment as a society to the value of transparency and accountability and power not being unchecked, it being the subject of external measurement against the basic laws and principles on which our society operates.”

Both Dr Simons and Mr Harper said they believed the Federal Government would not tackle this issue, and warned that Labor’s promise to establish a national anti-corruption body if elected could easily be watered down. Yet Dr Simons, who began her career reporting on the fallout of widespread corruption in Queensland in the 80s and 90s, warned that citizens could not remain complacent because the potential damage was tremendous.

“Usually politicians move when the problems become so apparent and scandalous that they have no choice, and that was the case in New South Wales with ICAC and Queensland with the Criminal Justice Commission,” she said. “The problem is you can’t afford to wait for that sense of absolute crisis, of absolute public disgust to make it possible to politically move.”

“It’s absolutely the case that where you have money and opportunity, some will fall, and if you don’t watch it and keep on top of it all the time, something you can never relax on, it will become institutionalised and that undermines your society. I saw Queensland, for example, completely fall apart.”

The panel agreed that the job of keeping watch for corruption was being made more difficult by a media industry increasingly struggling to maintain the trust of audiences while reeling from cuts to funding and staff.

“Journalism is absolutely key to detecting corruption… and yet on best estimates available we have lost 3000 journalists in the last five years,” Dr Simons said.

“There is a real concern with so many journalists made redundant about whether that sort of scrutiny is going to work in the future and how it is to be supported.”

She suggested that more work needed to be done to help the media and the public “understand each other”.

“I think the public needs to understand that journalism and democracy go together. If you undermine the media’s capacity to do its job then you undermine democracy.”

Mr Harper agreed, warning that even now “democracy is undoubtably under strain”.

“The fact that a large proportion if not a majority wonder if democracy is the system by which they should be governed is I think seriously concerning because I have no doubt that a democratic system where transparency is not a problem is the best form of government.”

Dr Freier also argued that community groups that had once played important roles in civil discourse but had since retreated - like churches - needed to step back into the fray.

“Civil society communities need to nail their colours to the mast, not fall into some kind of victimhood and say ‘it’s unfair we’ve had that scrutiny’, but actually say ‘we’ve had that scrutiny, it’s been good’,” he said. “In the Gospel of John, Jesus says the truth will set you free, and so I think we have to embrace a pretty simple thing: the truth is part of our freedom.”

The full video of the conversation, which took place at Federation Square’s Deakin Edge, is available on Anglican Media Melbourne’s YouTube channel.