What role for Parliaments in Tackling Corruption?

Speech delivered at the 37th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Pacific Regional Conference
Andrew Wallace MP
23 October 2018

What role for Parliments in Tackling Corruption?

It could reasonably be said that tackling corruption was the very first role, even the original purpose of Parliaments. The Parliament of Australia, like most of the assemblies we represent here today, can trace its lineage back to Great Britain, and to the signing of Magna Carta on the banks of the River Thames in 1215.

Magna Carta is one of the foundational documents of all Westminster system democracies, and at its heart is the fight against Government corruption, embodied at that time in the person and the office of the Crown. It tackled the Crown’s unlawful confiscation of goods, unjustified levies or fines on ordinary citizens, and attempts to coerce citizens into working for the state without payment.

In the 1297 edition of the Charter, an original of which can be visited in Australia’s own Parliament House, an elected body of 25 nobles, who made decisions by majority vote was established to watch over these provisions and hold the government of the day to account. When it came to levying taxes, Magna Carta established that an assembly must be called together of all the property owners who would be directly affected to provide their collective consent. This assembly would quickly become known as the Parliament and in return for providing that consent it would assert its right to question how their money was going to be spent.

There was a long way to go, but from the very beginning, more than eight hundred years ago, Parliament was at the centre of tackling corruption.

Importantly, that charter was established through collective action. United in their common interest in good governance and the rule of law, Parliament could make a difference.

Today, just as in 1215, it is by working together in our region and across our Commonwealth, that our Parliaments can be effective in tackling corruption. Australia is aiming to lead the way in our region and to provide all the support that we can. 

Like many others, my country is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention. Effective Governance is one of the six priority areas in our aid policy, and Australia is spending no less than $811.8 million on supporting effective governance in our partner countries. A key objective of all of our development assistance worldwide is to promote activities which will reduce corruption, and our primary focus is on our Commonwealth partners and on the Indo-Pacific region in particular. Australia is after all the largest provider of aid to the pacific, investing more than $1.3 billion this financial year.

If Parliaments have a role to play in tackling corruption, we have made it clear that we embrace that role, and want to support other Parliaments in the Asia Pacific region to do the same. That is why I am so pleased to be able to speak to you today on this topic.   

So what is the role of our Parliaments in the 21st century in tackling corruption? I believe that it can be conceived of in four expanding phases, taking us from our own Parliamentary Chambers to our responsibilities across the Asia-Pacific region.

First I believe that our Parliaments must embody and enforce anti-corruption principles and practices in their own daily work. We must first, as it were, get our own House in order.

Second, I believe that Parliaments have a powerful role to play in holding the executive branch of government to account and in preventing corruption among public officials.

Third, Parliaments can play an important part in preventing, investigating and exposing corruption where it exists in our wider societies, helping to protect the people we represent from its damaging impacts.

Finally, I believe that Parliaments have a role to play in encouraging best practice governance and combatting corruption internationally, throughout the region and beyond.

In the rest of this presentation I will discuss each of those four roles in more detail, drawing from Australian examples to illustrate how they can operate, and I will discuss how Australia is seeking to support the development of these practices throughout our region. I will conclude with some ideas for how we as Parliamentarians and members of the CPA can take the next steps by working together in our respective countries to improve governance for all of us.

Before tackling corruption elsewhere, Parliaments must embody the right practices and principles in their own work.

This can be done through establishing a formal code of conduct for Members and the ability for Parliament to enforce them. The Australian Parliament does not have a single code of conduct, however some of the most important aspects of such a code are embodied in legislation or in the standing orders of the Parliament.

The Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority or IPEA for example has been established by legislation. It is responsible for providing guidelines to Members of Parliament on the use of taxpayers money and for monitoring and administering members’ travel expenses and allowances. This body has the ability to withhold funds for claims it deems inappropriate, and ultimately to refer Members to the Federal Police for breaches of the legal frameworks.  

The Australian constitution, and in particular sections 44 and 45 also provides for the disqualification of Members and Senators who, for example, receive financial benefits from the Government which might influence their work as a Parliamentarian. In cases where a conflict of this kind is identified, the Parliament itself has the ability to refer the Member to the High Court of Australia, as was recently seen in the case of Senator Day.

The Australian Parliament also further regulates the conduct of its own members through for example, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Privileges and Members Interests. This elected group of members has the power to inquire into and report on complaints concerning breaches of privilege or contempt which may be referred to it by the House or by the Speaker. The House has the power to sanction members who the Committee deems to have breached privileges in this way.

In many Australian states, anti-corruption commissions, like the Crime and Corruption Commission in my own state of Queensland, exist to provide an investigation and enforcement agency for elected and non-elected public servants at all levels of Government. At present, such a single agency does not exist at a Federal level, however there is currently an active debate in our country regarding whether or not one should be established.

One of the most straightforward ways in which Parliaments can tackle the potential for corruption within their own ranks is to establish a transparent and strong register of interests.

In Australia the Senate Statement of Registrable Interests and the House of Representatives Register of Members’ Interests are available online. They provide information on the senator or member, their spouse and dependent children in areas like shareholdings, trusts, real estate, directorships, partnerships, liabilities, investments, assets, other substantial sources of income, gifts, sponsored travel and hospitality and any membership of organisations, where a conflict of interest could arise. The Australian Electoral Commission has also been established to manage the process of monitoring and disclosing any substantial donation made to a Member or candidate for their political campaigning.

Properly enforced and widely publicised, registers of this kind make it exceptionally difficult for members to receive corrupting benefits without it becoming immediately apparent to the public. They form one of the most important protections against corruption in the Parliament itself.

The Australian Government is seeking to support the improvement of these kinds of standards of self-governance for political leaders throughout the Asia-Pacific region through, for example, our support of the Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct in Papua New Guinea. This partnership supports the development of ethical and capable public sector leaders in PNG, through sharing experiences on how to improve governance and service delivery at national, provincial and district levels. We are further supporting best practice in this area through initiatives like the Developmental Leadership Program, funded by Australian Aid, which brings together international research leaders to explore how forging home-grown leadership groups and coalitions can support the creation of legitimate and robust governance institutions where they are currently weak.

From the very beginning of course, Parliaments existed primarily to hold the executive branch to account. It is arguably our most important function in tackling anti-corruption and many Parliaments already offer extensive opportunities to fulfil it.

At its most basic, but often its most powerful, Parliaments offer members the opportunity publicly to ask officers of the executive branch to explain and justify their actions.

In the Australian Parliament more than an hour every sitting day is dedicated to Questions without Notice in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Members are given a daily opportunity to call on any Minister to explain their administrative actions to the Parliament and the answers are televised live on the publicly owned news broadcaster. Though not a detailed process, Question time offers a powerful and highly public means for MPs to draw attention to any instances of perceived unethical conduct or corruption on the part of Ministers and their senior officials.

The Australian Parliament also offers opportunities for far more detailed scrutiny. Corruption is a particular risk when it comes to the spending of public funds and it is here that Parliaments must exercise particular vigilance. In the Australian Parliament, detailed estimates of Government expenditure are provided to Committees of Senators three times a year and hearings are held. At these hearings Senators have the opportunity to ask each Minister in turn detailed questions about the activities of their Departments and to follow up on particular issues at length. These hearings can last over the course of days for each Minister and allow for the most rigorous scrutiny.  

Between these hearings the Parliament’s Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit initiates its own inquiries into public administration matters and can conduct inquiries into matters referred to it by either House of Parliament.

Australia has used this successful experience of scrutiny of financial management as part of its aid program to support other countries in the region to build their capacity. In Vanuatu for example, our Governance for Growth program, building on the successes of the previous Economic Management Institutional Strengthening Project has helped Vanuatu to deliver much stronger budget bottom lines and even indirectly helped to substantially grow mobile phone subscription rates among the public.

Proper scrutiny of policy-making and executive decisions relies on high quality data and in this the Australian Government is also supporting regional partners through for example the Knowledge Sector Initiative. This collaboration between the Governments of Australia and Indonesia, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, provides policy makers in Indonesia with higher quality research and helps them to deploy it effectively in their decision making.

Parliaments also provide their Members with a degree of public profile, and a public platform to draw the attention of the media and the public to possible harms caused by corruption and poor governance. In early 2014 for example, Members of Parliament in Timor-Leste were able to run a concerted awareness campaign which placed significant pressure on the Ministry of Health to deal with the fact that 11 of the country’s 25 ambulances were not running. Eventually the Ministry approached Australia for support, and we were able not only to repair the ambulances, but to identify and help to improve a series of governance and accountability issues which were having a serious impact on the service.

For this platform to be effective however, it is critical that Parliaments also protect a free press, and actively encourage them to scrutinise the Government’s work. In our own Australian Parliament House we have dedicated a large section of our building to accommodating television, radio, print and online media representatives. Hundreds of journalists are given Parliamentary security passes, while many are granted their own studios inside the building. We have also passed a series of laws to carefully and independently regulate our media market to ensure a diverse range of viewpoints are available to the public, including most recently a new law which I voted in favour of to provide Government funds to support small regional publishers and protect them from being swallowed up by larger metropolitan networks.

Alongside a free press, Parliament also has a role to play in passing strong Freedom of Information legislation. To be most effective, freedom of Information laws should provide appropriate access to information from Government agencies at no cost to the public with the most limited possible exemptions. Parliamentarians can do a great deal on their own, but strong freedom of information laws allow every citizen and every journalist to become powerful investigators themselves. Australia has freedom of information laws at both a national and a state level, and I have used them myself to expose misleading statements on the part of the local government in my region concerning the possibility of foreign investment in a casino in our community.

Australia once again promotes greater transparency in this region, for example through our support for the implementation of freedom of information laws. Our work in this area, includes contributing toward the UN-Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Program’s work in Tonga, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Palau.

Our Parliament also supported an allocation of $6.89 million for a four year grant to Transparency International’s Asia-Pacific Program. Transparency International is a global civil society movement that combats corruption and helps communities to strengthen transparency, accountability and integrity.

Parliament’s role in tackling corruption and protecting the public from its effects however goes beyond corruption only in the public sector. Corruption can exist in the private sector as well, in the form of practices like bribes, anti-competitive collusion, or insider trading. Parliament has an important role to play in protecting the public from these practices in wider society by passing strong legislation to make them criminal offences. In Australia we have a comprehensive suite of laws which make each of these corporate behaviours subject to severe criminal and civil penalties.   

I spoke personally in debates in the Australian Parliament during the passage of our most recent anti-corruption legislation, the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Act 2017. This Act introduced a new criminal offence to stamp out the practice of businesses and unions arranging corrupting benefits – most commonly payments to the union – in exchange for an easier employment contract negotiation, or particular contract terms desirable to one or other party.

The Australian Parliament also supports the operation of anti-corruption laws in our partner nations with our own strict legislation. Under Australian law, it is a serious Federal offence for example for anyone to bribe a foreign public official even if a bribe is seen to be customary, necessary or required in the situation. The maximum penalty for an individual is 10 years imprisonment and a substantial fine while for a business, the penalties begin at $11 million.

Further, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have a responsibility, under the legislated codes of conduct to report any instances of suspected corruption and bribery involving Australians or Australian companies overseas.

Australia also strongly supports the development of effective anti-corruption legislation throughout the Asia-Pacific through our participation in international instruments. Australia is providing $7.47 million to support the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s project, the Global Regime against Corruption in South-East Asia and South Asia. We also provide $6.56 million to support the UN Development Programme’s Anti-Corruption for peaceful and inclusive societies initiative in the Asia Pacific. Both of these initiatives deliver assistance and support to strengthen anti-corruption legislative, regulatory and policy frameworks in the region and to raise community awareness of corruption issues. Finally, we provide $5.65 million to the Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Program to promote the ratification and implementation of the UN Convention Against Corruption.

Once the right legislative frameworks are in place, Parliaments have an important role to play in establishing and funding the police and anti-corruption agencies needed to enforce them.

In Australia the Parliament has instituted a range of agencies which have complementary roles in tackling corruption in both the public and private sector. The Australian Public Service Commission promotes integrity across the public service, while the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity detects and investigates law enforcement-related corruption. The National Audit Office audits and reviews public sector functions.

The Australian Federal Police have responsibility for detecting and investigating serious corruption that may constitute an offence under Commonwealth law, while for example, the Australian Building and Construction Commission investigates examples of corrupt practices in that industry sector and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission examines corruption in the corporate sector. These agencies are required to report to the Australian Parliament and many are responsible to specialist committees of Members and Senators.

Parliaments themselves can act to support these agencies, utilising some of the same tools they use to hold the executive branch to account. Parliamentary committees for example, with the power to gather evidence and call for testimony can be deployed to investigate examples of serious corporate wrong-doing and corruption, just as they can examine Ministerial conduct. In Australia for example our country’s four major banks are required to appear before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics every six months, giving Members the automatic opportunity twice a year to investigate any reports of corrupt practices.

Senators and members can also utilise their public profiles, and Parliamentary privilege to draw media and public attention to serious examples of corruption in the private sector. In the Australian Parliament, Members have the opportunity to raise any issues that have been brought to their attention, whatever the subject matter, during adjournment debates and in 90 second statements every sitting day. Although these straightforward short speeches do not give Members the chance to go into detail, or debate the issue, they do provide a privileged platform to bring them to the public attention and increase the pressure for a full investigation.

Once again, Australia supports our partners in the region as part of our development aid activities, to combat corruption in wider society. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade publishes a Fraud Control Toolkit for use by governments and organisations in receipt of aid grants from Australia. This toolkit provides practical advice on how to develop and implement processes to manage fraud and corruption risks, and how to deal with incidents that do occur. We also provide more hands-on support, including for example recently delivering training, including justice training to 934 police and justice officials in the Solomon Islands.

In general, while combatting corruption in our own countries must of course be our first priority in this space on behalf of the people who elected us. However, Parliaments can have a wider role in tackling corruption across our region. This is a responsibility which Australia takes very seriously, and I have described so far some of the schemes that we have in place to support our regional partners in the Asia-Pacific. However, all of us can get involved in spreading best practice throughout our region by getting involved in Parliamentary exchange programs, and international anti-corruption initiatives.

One such project is the OECD’s Governance Network, GOVNET. GOVNET is an incubator for cutting-edge processes in accountability and democratic governance and anti-corruption which brings together experts and practitioners from across the world. The Australian Government contributed $112,000 toward the 2016-18 program, and the initiative is continuing to produce excellent insight to inform forums like the Effective Institutions Platform.

As discussed, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the UN development Programme also provide both support and a forum for Parliaments to participate in the encouragement of anti-corruption legislation around the region. Participation in these schemes in themselves mean that Australia has to undergo a review of our compliance with the United Nations Convention against corruption every five years, as well as reviews of our implementation of the OECD Anti-bribery Convention.

The Commonwealth itself also plays a role here. To date the Commonwealth has monitored around 140 elections in nearly 40 countries to ensure that they are transparent and fair. The fight against corruption has been a regular theme of CHOGM communiques, including the most recent in 2018, which agreed that member states would ‘scale up international cooperation by working progressively towards advancing the exchange of information which will enhance domestic resource mobilisation.” Australia is a strong voice for our region and its concerns in the Commonwealth and I am certain that our Government will continue to advocate for more focus on and support for the fight against corruption at CHOGM discussions to come.

The voice of Parliamentary democracy across that Commonwealth is of course the CPA. I think through our attendance, we have all taken a small but important step this week. The Australian Parliament certainly takes this forum very seriously. As many of you will know, this week is a sitting week in Canberra, at a time when important decisions are being made and, more than ever, every vote in the House counts. But the Government has asked me to leave my Parliament this week to come here because Australia takes this issue, and this forum very seriously.

Our participation here today as Parliamentarians is a small step, symbolic of our commitment and our willingness to learn from each other. But what is important is what comes next. Real change will come from what we do as a result of our discussions today.

First, on our return to our own countries, I would encourage us to kick off the process of a formal audit of each of our jurisdictions, involving representatives of all major national political groups. This audit would assess each of our own Parliaments’ application of the anti-corruption approaches and structures we discuss today to its work. When the report from that audit is complete, we might consider setting up working groups, through the right local forum, to bring forward proposals for our Parliaments’ consideration for improving any shortfalls identified in these audits.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would suggest that each of us consider how we might reach out to best practice jurisdictions, including Australia, to share knowledge, identify international programs in which we can participate and work together on generating innovative ideas for the future. For myself if any of our work has given you ideas for collaborations which may be possible between our countries in the future, I would be very happy to put you in touch with the right Australian decision makers to take your ideas forward.

We should approach this work with a great deal of optimism. Australia’s experience in supporting development overseas demonstrates that collaborating on good Governance works. Potential losses from fraud and corruption in Australia’s aid program in 2016-17 were approximately $2.6 million, which represents only 0.0068% of the total Budget. Through working together on good Governance, and a zero tolerance approach to corruption, $99.93 out of every hundred in development aid delivered by Australia goes straight to making a difference for the countries and the ordinary people who are intended to benefit.

In the end, Parliaments are about working together. I believe that it is by helping each other and by learning from one another, that we can best utilise our nations’ Parliaments to tackle corruption in the future. Australia is already very active in our region in fostering that co-operation, and we are eager to provide whatever support we can to regional partners in this critical work. On behalf of all of my fellow Federal MPs and Senators, I hope that you will continue to consider Australia and its Federal Parliament your friends and colleagues in our on-going collective fight against corruption, and that you will continue to engage with us in an even closer collaboration into the future.

Thank you.