Does Australia Need A National Integrity Day?

Two young Australian reporters refuse to reveal their sources and face jail for contempt of court. A former customs official is convicted for leaking reports about security breaches at Sydney Airport to the media. Allegations of undue interference in a police investigation of a young woman’s rape by an AFL footballer are vindicated, but still no charges are laid.

What holds these stories together? The answer is Australia’s desultory, and at times plain dishonourable, response to corruption.

Corruption rots trust and trust is the foundation for human and institutional relationships. If I invest my time and money in preparing myself to sit university entrance exams, it is because I trust that the exams will be fair and scored accurately, entrance will be based on them and grades within the hallowed halls will be distributed on merit, too.

If corruption corrodes any of these processes, I will have been cheated of what I worked hard to achieve and had a right to expect. Dudded, I will spread the word, and trust in the university system will dissolve. Some will respond by growing cynical and withdrawing. Others will pursue the prize of university entry by whatever means a corrupt system encourages, further entrenching foul play. No wonder Argentinian researchers have found that corruption leads to operational inefficiency, a less-favourable business climate and a drag on a nation’s wealth.

Hands up if you’ve heard of investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein? What about the Pentagon Papers' Daniel Ellsberg? These American justice-seekers should be household names, but how many of us know Australian equivalents?

Take Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker. The award-winning reporters are fighting in the courts to maintain the confidentiality of a source in their long-running investigation of alleged corruption and a high-level cover-up by executives of money-printing companies overseen and at least part-owned by the Reserve Bank. Should they lose, both young men face up to two years in jail for contempt of court.

Do you know about Allan Kessing, a former Australian Customs official? Kessing was successfully prosecuted for leaking to the media after the contents of two reports he’d conducted into security breaches at Sydney airport – and that his superior buried – appeared in the media. He is widely seen to have been vindicated by the multiple arrests of customs officials in a drug sting at the airport last year. Kessing denies the leaks.

Then there’s police whistleblowers Scott Gladman and Mike Smith. They went public with claims that interference in their investigation into 2004 rape allegations against AFL footballer Stephen Milne saw a case dropped that – to quote Gladman – ‘'should be answered by a jury’‘. Gladman’s tale included being hounded and pressured by fellow members of the force to ’‘make it go away’‘ and being told the alleged victim was ’‘just one of those footy sluts’‘. He says player interview tapes were stolen from his desk.

Whistleblowers want justice. They expose corruption in the sincere belief that once officialdom knows about the bad apples, they will vigorously pursue their eviction from the bunch.

Unfortunately – and as these three cases show – what officialdom often does is scramble to bury the bodies while deploying all means at its disposal to shoot the messenger.

For instance, Australian agencies – including the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the government and the Reserve Bank board – did nothing despite warnings and tipoffs associated with the RBA bribery scandal. While the Federal Police investigation was painfully slow, a series of charges were laid in 2011. Transparency International says inadequacies in Australia’s legal framework and enforcement system are behind our failure to enforce foreign bribery laws.

Kessing’s reports were buried by customs and, when their content went public, the federal government prosecuted to the full extent of the law, including pursuing a custodial sentence. Allegations that the AFP failed to pass on information critical to establishing Kessing’s innocence has led to calls for an investigation of the case by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. But despite ample evidence that Kessing’s warnings about Sydney Airport security were accurate, the Gillard government won’t pardon him.

And what of the two coppers, now resigned from the force? They say they told senior officers in charge of the sexual crimes squad and assistant commissioner of the region about the problems but were met with indifference. Eventually, the Victorian Office of Police Integrity was called in but, despite concluding that Gladman’s concerns about ‘'undue interference’‘ were ’‘reasonable’‘, Victoria Police has closed the door on the possibility of charges being laid.

Feel a bit sick? Me too.

Imagine if we lived in a world where government and business leaders who now treat whistleblowers like they are the criminals dedicated their energies to listening to them, and fixing the problems they describe instead.

What if Australia celebrated an ‘'Integrity Day’‘ holiday each year, where the brave and principled – journalists, public servants, business folk – were honoured for sacrifices they made to bring matters that put what we value at risk to light?

Imagine that.

Publication history

Let's Celebrate Integrity   The Sun-Herald (Sydney) & National Times Site