Election discussions of an anti-corruption commission have largely focused on domestic concerns. But a national integrity body can become a valuable tool of statecraft, enabling Australia to work with countries in Asia and the Pacific to build more effective and inclusive governance.
At long last, Australia is on the cusp of having a national anti-corruption body. The new Labor government has promised to pass relevant legislation by the end of the year, and the wave of incoming community-based “teal” independents made it a core part of their pitch to voters.
The final design of such a body, particularly its scope and powers, will be crucial. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promised his government will create a commission “with teeth.” But one potentially consequential feature has yet to be canvassed: its ability to work with similar bodies internationally.
As a core organisational feature and priority, Australia’s new anti-corruption body should have the capacity to meaningfully engage with counterpart organisations across Asia and the Pacific in a deep, practical, and sustained manner. Done well, this could serve as a model for cooperation among countries elsewhere in the world.
Corruption is a first order issue for countries in our region, as it is in other parts of the world. Most international political crises today have their roots entangled in kleptocracy and elite corruption. The pattern of corruption in many places forms a basis for structural inequality, underdevelopment, and political instability. And governments sometimes weaponise elite corruption for undue international influence through what’s been called “strategic corruption.” In the long run, the best response is more effective, inclusive governance. But Australian policymakers quite rightly tend to be sceptical about what can actually be done abroad to support that grand objective.
Assisting other countries on governance is hard. The most fundamental response is to do whatever we can at home, in Australia, to fight transnational corruption, especially by cutting off inflows of corrupt wealth and working with friends and allies to promote financial transparency as a global public good. We can also find new ways to back anti-corruption advocates and journalists who expose corruption, and we can fund the anti-corruption work of multilateral agencies and civil society.
Beyond that, though, bilateral support can also be delivered in creative ways. Peer-to-peer cooperation and the exchange of information and ideas among anti-corruption officials can provide effective assistance, while avoiding entanglement in political controversies. An internationally-focused arm of a new Australian integrity commission would be well-placed to do this work.
Several of Australia’s key international partners have national anti-corruption bodies, with varying level of effectiveness. These bodies tend to be high profile – carrying huge popular expectations – and often face intense political pressure (and sometimes grave danger for their staff). Papua New Guinea, where corruption has long been a major barrier for national progress, legislated its Independent Commission Against Corruption in 2020. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has done some formidable work since 2004, despite recent setbacks.
Adding a strategic capacity for an Australian anti-corruption body to engage with others abroad would be a smart investment in a new instrument of statecraft. As leading foreign policy thinker Anne-Marie Slaughter argued in her book, A New World Order, regulators are “the new diplomats.” Once in the same room, they “begin talking about different techniques of regulation, commiserating about common problems, and brainstorming new approaches.” Regulators can also help build the capacity of their counterparts. These peer-to-peer dynamics apply to anti-corruption officials.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) illustrates what’s possible when Australia invests in this kind of cooperative capacity. While the AEC is known at home for its administration of Australian elections, the Commission also has an active international work program which includes building the technical capacity of partner electoral agencies.
The idea of peer-to-peer collaboration between anti-corruption officials across borders has particular promise for at least three reasons.
First, it defuses the temptation to engage in paternalism or condescension, or the perception of these dynamics, by structuring relations between countries around common problems. Given our history, relative power, and wider geopolitical dynamics, it can be especially hard for Australia to support partners on something as sensitive as fighting corruption. Instead of framing bilateral support as a one-way street, anti-corruption officials can work together on mutually beneficial terms, learning from each other as peers.
Second, with thoughtful and astute engagement, Australian anti-corruption officials can quietly empower dedicated reformers on the ground as they pursue their day-to-day struggles on the frontline of fighting elite corruption. This requires deep understanding of the local context and genuine relationships, including to discern windows of opportunity where more engagement and technical support would actually be beneficial.
Third, through in-kind assistance, Australian officials can share skills, expertise, and operational standards to reinforce the capacity-building work of multilateral agencies such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. These agencies have legitimacy to work in areas like anti-corruption that bilateral partners struggle to obtain. Australian personnel who combine anti-corruption expertise with deep cultural and social understanding of Southeast Asia and the Pacific – something that can be cultivated over time through ongoing engagement – would be highly valued by UN agencies and the countries they serve.
The Australian debate about a new national anti-corruption body has naturally focused inwards. But a new institution should have the mandate and resources to pursue a creative and active agenda of international cooperation. After all, Australia’s national interest is not only served by fighting corruption at home, but beyond our borders too.
Dr Vafa Ghazavi is Executive Director for Research and Policy at the James Martin Institute for Public Policy and a Carr Center Fellow at Harvard University. He previously served as an Australian diplomat and as a policy adviser at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
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