Essay

Democracy and the corruption question

Problems, solutions and future possibilities

I’M RUNNING ON a beach near Cairns, spending a rare holiday moment trying to regain some of the fitness I’ve lost to far too much international travel. Next week it’s to Hong Kong to speak at a symposium hosted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the World Justice Project. Then to Nairobi for a meeting of the Transparency International board – joining colleagues spread from Santiago to Istanbul to Phnom Penh, working together in the global coalition against corruption – followed by more meetings in London, Berlin and Malaysia.

Apart from punishing travel, the big challenge in these discussions is how to fight what threatens to be a new worldwide slide towards more severe corruption, just when we thought we were really starting to beat it. When Transparency International was born twenty-five years ago, better governance seemed to be a worldwide inevitability. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed famously that the trends towards universal, stable, liberal democracy had inaugurated ‘the end of history’. Instead, by 2016, Fukuyuma saw the rise of right-wing populism as tumbling the world into a period of political decay: ‘the “democratic” part of liberal democracy is,’ he said, ‘rising up and taking revenge on the “liberal”’.

And that seems to be just one of the problems. Running on this tropical beach, I’m struck by the fact that the forces working against good governance, nationally and worldwide, are so many and varied – but also so often natural and chaotic. Sometimes, they’re even beautiful. I realise this as I see something that is both wonderful and, right now, annoying. In the still air of the morning, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of white butterflies are floating over the beach on their way to and from the rainforest. They flutter above and around me on the breeze – effortlessly and delightfully making it to wherever they are trying to go.

These butterflies remind me that I am stuck on my own path compared to them. Like them, so many of the forces driving the lurches and pirouettes in quality of governance around the world are also natural and free-flowing. We are powered by the desire to succeed – to grow, learn, explore, innovate, capitalise, band together and share – but also simultaneously to influence, dominate, compete, automate, alienate and self-enrich. All natural instincts, interwoven, fast-moving, seemingly erratic in their patterns, but forming a momentum that seems impossible to control. By comparison, all the political institutions, principles and regulatory systems we use to channel these forces in support of the public good, and the public’s trust in how society is being run, seem cumbersome and slow. They’re like me, lumbering along the beach in this straight line, with few choices about where to put my feet. Wishing that, instead, I could just float with those butterflies.

 

HOW BEST TO understand the counter-currents in public trust affecting our world? By many measures, trust in governments and institutions is falling. According to the widely cited Edelman Trust Barometer, only 48 per cent of citizens across all countries measured had any trust in government in 2018 – fewer than trusted business, NGOs or their employers. It’s easy to read this figure as surprisingly high, but it was back in 1999 that veteran political scientist Pippa Norris first suggested the apparent long-term trend towards popular dissatisfaction could at least be partly due to a rising tide of ‘critical citizens’ – not merely disaffected, but reflecting the never-ending process of heightened expectations. More recently, in Myth and Reality of the Legitimacy Crisis (OUP, 2017), Carolien van Ham and her European colleagues have shown that patterns in trust vary enormously between countries, so should not necessarily be misread as a singular, universal, one-way slide. Especially when there’s good evidence to indicate the sort of factors that may sustain or restore trust – as we’ll discuss later.

Understanding what is happening in each individual political system is key – and that’s where Australia’s global role should be sounding alarm bells. As democratic innovators, Australians have traditionally been seen as representing a bastion of trust and democracy, as well as being the type of ‘critical citizens’ suggested by Norris. But according to the Australian Election Study, the proportion of citizens who think ‘people in government…can be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time’ fell from 43 per cent in 2007 to 26 per cent in 2016 – the lowest figure since records commenced in 1969. At the same time, the number who feel that government ‘is run by a few big interests looking after themselves’ rather than ‘for the benefit of all the people’ rose from 38 to 56 per cent – the highest since the question was first posed in 1998. Griffith University’s Australian Constitutional Values Survey highlights the diversity of factors playing into this overall trend – including critical events such as revolving-door prime ministerships and the long-term woes of our federal system. But whether a cause or a symptom, it is the growing sense that entrusted power is not merely being used unwisely, but positively abused, that is the most concerning.

In political science, it makes sense to think of political trust not as a singular concept, but a composite in which each citizen’s view combines their level of trust in any or all of three things: the performance of government, its processes and its probity. Instinctively, political leaders know that all of these ‘three p’s’ are at play. Indeed, it helps explain how and when we see efforts to manipulate them for advantage. In order to win Australia’s 2004 federal election, then Prime Minister John Howard famously confronted the challenges to the government’s honesty created by the ‘children overboard’ affair (trust in probity) by converting the debate into one about ‘who you can trust’ to deliver on policy and the economy (trust in performance). As John Uhr explained in Terms of Trust (UNSW, 2005), this conversion was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Rather, in a chilling foretaste of the ‘death of truth’ associated with surging right-wing populism now, it resulted from a deliberate plan to twist the discourse. Liberal Party pollster Mark Textor told The Bulletin that at the start of that campaign he and other strategists identified the need to secure a ‘redefinition of honesty’ away from being a ‘technical thing’ to being ‘a matter of behaving in a consistent and understandable way’ – ‘a kind of consistency honesty’ rather than ‘the-letter-of-the-law honesty’.

Fast forward to ‘fake news’ and the serial, sociopathic disregard of facts by US President Donald Trump, and we see the process complete: a bid to sustain trust disconnected from truth or probity. However, the trouble for populist leaders is that, ultimately, people do recoil from lies and their consequences – and when the recoil comes, it will likely be more bitter and destructive than rejection of poor performance alone. Similarly with popular trust based only on ‘process’. At one point, Fukuyama maintained his faith that ‘despite recent authoritarian advances, liberal democracy remains the strongest, most broadly appealing idea out there’ – because ‘most autocrats, including Putin and Chávez, still feel that they have to conform to the outward rituals of democracy even as they gut its substance’. But if trust in probity is under pressure, there is little chance of popular trust in participation and process saving the day. Like doubts about the performance of governments, scepticism about their commitment to fair and inclusive processes are part of the normal engine room of politics – but doubts about probity take things to a different level. Add dishonesty and self-serving partiality to the mix, and mere disappointment or disempowerment can turn into a sense of betrayal. Things become not only polarised but toxic.

Hence why rising concerns about corruption in politics are so important, as well as being different to what has gone before. As recently as the 1990s, corruption was still widely understood as meaning the abuse of public office for private gain, especially in the form of bribery or kickbacks. It was Transparency International that broadened this definition, highlighting the true centrality of trust in all our affairs, by recasting corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’ (or political gain, or any gain other than, or inconsistent with, the purposes for which the power is entrusted). As the American political scientist J Patrick Dobel wrote in 1999, the old mechanical concept of corruption as ‘pollution of the public by the private’ was not only dominated by Western, Weberian ideals of separation between public and private spheres, but failed to recognise that personal self-interest is fundamental to performance in public office. Following legal traditions familiar in Australia, the new definition recognised that business, too, exercises power entrusted by its owners, stakeholders and society as a whole, and if we value integrity in public life – government or business – the primary issue is whether the terms of this trust have been honoured. The anti-corruption challenge is about ensuring self-interests play out only in ways that serve, rather than pervert, higher, agreed, legitimate public goals.

 

ESPECIALLY WHEN UNDERSTOOD in this broader sense, we see the significance of the signs that corruption is not under control. Our societies are awash with knowledge about how to reduce or eliminate corruption from the day-to-day lives of our institutions. Yet, between 2012–18, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) recorded only twenty out of 180 countries as having improved their corruption control to a statistically significant extent – while another sixteen countries went backwards and the remaining 144 remained much the same. Australia is one of the sixteen that has been going backwards. When Attorney-General Christian Porter tried to airbrush this, citing the fact that Australia has consistently ranked in the top twenty nations on the CPI, it took Independent member Andrew Wilkie to point out that we used to be in the top ten.

But even more important than underachievement and slippage is the evidence of how public concern about breach of trust, in a probity sense, is featuring in the overall rates of decline. In one of the first public-opinion measures to actually track the relationship between the different ‘p’s’, Transparency International Australia’s new Global Corruption Barometer survey in 2018 means we can start to get a proper fix. Like other surveys, the Barometer showed an Australian decline in ‘trust and confidence in government to do a good job in carrying out its responsibilities’ (down to 46 per cent for federal and state governments), and a nine-point increase since 2016 in perceptions that federal members of parliament were corrupt (with 85 per cent of citizens believing at least ‘some’ were corrupt, and 18 per cent saying ‘most/all’ were corrupt). The key lesson is in the relationship between these two different types of concern. Around a quarter of the variation in citizens’ overall trust and confidence in the performance of government was explained by growing concern about their elected officials’ honesty and probity (23 per cent for federal government; 29 per cent for state governments). This was significantly more than in the most comparable previous study. It means low trust in probity cannot be easily overcome simply by persuading citizens to trust in performance, in the way some leaders might hope.

In fact, these results also contain positive news for leaders. Even if corruption is present, where citizens believe that a government is doing ‘a good job’ to combat it, the Barometer shows that overall trust and confidence in that government’s performance goes up – especially at the federal level, where 37 per cent of the variance in overall trust was explained by this perception (it was 25 per cent at state level). Federal parliamentarians should take heart from this reality. Most know, in their bones, that corruption concerns are a real political problem. But many still resist change – for example, it took former Independent MP Cathy McGowan’s National Integrity Commission Bill in 2018 to force a change in federal government policy to strengthen our integrity system. One reason is the fear that taking action on corruption, especially to expose it, will only make public perceptions worse and further erode trust.

History and the data suggest otherwise. People know there are problems – there always have been and always will be. It is when they see denial and an unwillingness to deal with those problems that levels of trust really start to plummet. Here, certainly, is the first natural force that needs to be properly harnessed in the push for change. Public opinion may be fickle and uncertain, but in any moderately healthy democracy it remains the lifeblood of decision-making. And Australian democracy remains at least moderately healthy, by comparison with most. The question before governments is now not whether to reform, but how strongly to do so. Leaders will benefit, politically, if they commit to a mature, bipartisan, long-term approach to reform. So, we should have hope at home. It’s when we look at the wider trends across the world that things become more tricky.

 

FROM A GLOBAL perspective, five major challenges fill corruption fighters with dread. Frameworks such as the United Nations Convention against Corruption may provide universal consensus that trust is vital and the abuse of entrusted power must be stamped out, but in reality so many trends are surging dangerously in the other direction. Take our overall social and economic trajectories. More than 70 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where income inequality is rising, not falling. In 2017, the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent were estimated to own half of all global wealth – a shocking figure in itself – but if the average growth rates of the last decade are left to themselves, then by 2030, the share of all wealth owned by the top 1 per cent will be about two-thirds.

Of course, these trends will not be left to themselves. Climate change and the migratory shifts and shocks brought by environmental degradation, security challenges and unbalanced patterns of growth make them unsustainable. But the trajectory holds little hope for the type of ‘ethical universalism’ that underpins responsible use of entrusted power, where common good is prioritised over particular, private interests. Communities may be outraged by the rush to wealth, but many are forced to accept corrupt, illicit, unethical and selfish paths to self-improvement as the only options on offer. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way: a million people on the streets of Santiago – or elsewhere – may indicate ‘enough is enough’. But when all the evidence continues to suggest that corruption and kleptocracy are alive and well – with leaders, representatives and officials still on lucrative paths to further self-enrichment, not only in the developing but also the developed world – where do we find the powermongers really committed to fighting corruption?

Add the impacts of technological change, and the scope for corruption becomes even more scary. Post-GFC, we have new ways to use information and financial technology to expose and track financial flows to fight the theft and concealment of proceeds of corruption – but they are matched only by the speed with which deregulated finance and new cryptocurrencies, right down to Facebook’s proposed ‘stablecoin’ libra, threaten to make it more possible. In 2008, only one of the world’s ten largest companies was a technology company; by 2018 the number had risen to seven. Free and fast information flow is perhaps the most dynamic of all the natural forces at work, but this illuminates the fact that the types of regulation on which we traditionally rely are being left behind. Indeed, it emphasises why the increasing and largely unregulated power of the technology companies themselves carries enormous risks of abuse. With the McKinsey Global Institute predicting in 2018 that artificial intelligence could eliminate up to 30 per cent of all human labour by 2030, technology just as quickly makes it harder, not easier, for abuses of power to be identified and held to account. Just look at Cambridge Analytica, or Australia’s own ‘robo-debt’ scandal.

And this is where seemingly unstoppable forces are fuelling a third global challenge – the quality of political integrity. Technology has helped confuse, polarise and disembowel the quality of political discourse almost as quickly as it has opened up new possibilities for transparency, political participation and mobilisation. In the new information age, shaped by the near-collapse of professional, independent journalism and its replacement by the free-for-all of social media, normal rules of political accountability no longer seem to apply. Increasingly populist leadership is feeding on a ‘post-fact’ era that predates, and is sure to outlast, the unique phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

On one hand, there is now no excuse for not better controlling undue influence on our political processes in ways that will make outright corruption much harder. Every democracy now has the means, and can see the reasons, for capping political campaign expenditures, making sources of political finance transparent, eliminating improper lobbying, policing deceptive conduct and restoring order to the concept of public office as a public trust. But in the maelstrom of modern politics, who has the will, or is providing the incentive, to push democracies in these directions?

The answer seems to be far too few. Instead, there is too much evidence of leaders using their business connections for self-enrichment and the exploitation of public assets, across international lines, at unprecedented scales. Which reinforces a fourth challenge – the weakness of international frameworks for securing enforcement of anti-corruption principles, even when the rhetoric is strong. So many of the answers lie in more concerted international action, yet few improvements are in sight. The noble dream of a world anti-corruption court is pie in the sky. International commitment to Western-designed multilateral institutions such as the UN is fading fast, and important gains made through US and UK leadership in specific areas – such as foreign bribery enforcement – are under a cloud. Certainly, since the 1990s, the international campaign against kleptocracy gained traction, but as JC Sharman explained in The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management (Cornell University Press, 2017), this was due to two key structural changes: the fall of the Soviet Union, removing the need for Western countries to support corrupt anti-Communist governments, and agreement among development experts and policy-makers that corruption causes poverty. Today, good governance has been entrenched in the international communities’ Sustainable Development Goals, but how many other factors are really working in its favour?

Finally, we also have the challenge of waning commitment towards the systems of checks and balances on which good governance and corruption control have long depended, even in mature democracies. While trends vary across the world, Freedom House, the American political rights watchdog, paints an overall picture of collapsing respect for the rule of law, rights protection and civic controls on government in many more countries than those where these principles are moving forward. For Transparency International, a successful ‘national integrity system’ concept has been based on theories of horizontal and social accountability for twenty years, and there are many alarm bells. In Australia, we might see it in our notorious Australian Federal Police media raids in mid-2019, or our prosecutions of whistleblowers – not that far a cry from Donald Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the intelligence officials prepared to raise concerns about ‘Ukraine-gate’. But there are even worse signs in Poland’s attempts to dismantle judicial independence, or Indonesia’s ‘declawing’ of its widely respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Instead, what we hear most loudly is a simple demand from leaders: ‘just trust us’. Here, taking all these challenges together, we see the risk of reversion to autocratic styles and modes of governance not seen for generations. Given that trust in pure performance is neither self-contained nor sufficient, the instruction to trust blindly in any leader is not actually a request for trust at all, but rather for faith. And leaders have to engender more than faith if they expect to survive. Trust requires positive reasons to trust – it can never be unconditional. It comes with terms, empowered by our ability to be sceptical, ask questions and look to the judgments of others to confirm if our trust is justified.

Confronted with these challenges, the dynamics of trust start to help us formulate responses to these apparently formidable forces. In complex modern societies, human beings will go on needing, as far as they can, ‘to economise on trust in persons and confide instead in well-designed political, social and economic institutions’, as explained in 1988 by British political scientist John Dunn – even if, as evidenced by the role of probity, there are limits to how far such an economy of trust can go. This is why protecting and developing our systems of checks and balances remains central, and offers continuing hope. The Australian regulatory specialist John Braithwaite once explained these systems as how we ‘institutionalise distrust’ to manage this complex world – not because we don’t trust, or don’t want to trust our leaders, but rather, to ‘enculturate’ trust and thus ensure we can.

 

RUNNING ALONG THE beach, it helps to know what we’re up against, and to recognise that many of the forces making it harder to build and sustain trust in our institutions – even if daunting and hard to confront – are natural rather than inherently evil. In the new information age, truth might be easily ripped into a million competing scraps of paper, floating on the breeze like the butterflies ahead of me. Yet we have to be confident that sooner or later, the pieces will somehow re-form.

Perhaps the most important natural force at hand, outnumbering even my butterflies, is the millions around the world whose trust rides on our future. From Santiago to Barcelona or Hong Kong, we know from the Global Corruption Barometer that the forces culminating in greed and exploitation are not the only ones that are unstoppable. The collective human need to ensure that each share is fair, to protect our world’s social and biological fabric, and to see trust honoured when power is granted to others are still also vital forces. New solutions may be required, and we have no choice but to find them. And while historical approaches to rules and regulations now seem ill-suited for dealing with the forces ahead, they contain underlying principles that remain essential to charting the new course.

So, we need to keep running. Perhaps a bit faster, and with a watchful eye on the natural patterns of our fast-moving, fast-changing world. Perhaps like the young protestors of Hong Kong, we need to ‘be water’ and ready to flow in new directions, even if we’re unable to float on the breeze. And as history shows, we need at all costs to ensure our paths do not deteriorate into violence or worse. But let’s not lose hope, nor lose trust in ourselves, because when that becomes the game, then we’ve truly lost. And let’s absolutely ensure that those on whom we confer our trust actually deserve it, and understand that with our support, they actually have to discharge it. Because everyone depends on it, including the butterflies.

 

11 November 2019

 

References available soon.

Griffith Review