By Alison Bevege
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Dozens of former Australian judges published an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday calling for a national anti-corruption body to restore public trust in the country’s democratic process.
The letter, written by 34 former judges including Sir Gerard Brennan, the former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, the country’s peak court, said there is public suspicion that corruption permeates many government actions.
“Secrecy is at the core of corrupt conduct,” they said in the letter, published in the Sunday Age newspaper.
“Existing federal integrity agencies lack the necessary jurisdiction, powers and know-how to investigate properly the impartiality and bona-fides of decisions made by, and conduct of, the federal government and public sector.”
“A National Integrity Commission is urgently needed to fill the gaps in our integrity system and restore trust in our democracy.”
Public concerns over possible corruption in government decision-making have heightened in recent years.
Transparency International Australia, an anti-corruption organisation, conducted a survey in June that found 85 percent of people believe at least some members of the national parliament are corrupt, and two-thirds of Australians support the creation of a national anti-corruption body.
A government minister in the state of New South Wales was jailed last year for wilful misconduct in public office, after gifting a mining licence without a competitive tender.
Concerns have also been raised over senior public servants winning lucrative consultancies or board positions from firms which then win contracts from their previous departments, said AJ Brown, professor of public policy at Griffith University and board member of Transparency International.
The judges’ letter was co-ordinated by progressive think tank The Australia Institute, which worked with legal experts to design an anti-corruption body.
Australia Institute researcher Hannah Aulby said their goal was to support transparency in the political process. “There’s not enough accountability,” she told Reuters by telephone.
Independent MP Cathy McGowan plans to table a bill to establish a national anti-corruption body in federal parliament when it resumes on Monday. The Labor opposition supports a national anti-corruption body but the move is opposed by the ruling conservative minority government.
Attorney General Christian Porter told Reuters the model would give extraordinary powers against public servants with a definition of “corruption” that was too broad.
“Those powers could be used without proper checks and balances,” he said in an emailed statement.
(Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Michael Perry)