The former leader of Australia’s biggest state will give evidence to a corruption inquiry this week, in a case that has raised wider concerns about political ethics in the country ahead of a general election next year.
Gladys Berejiklian, the ex-premier of New South Wales, resigned this month after it was revealed she was under investigation in connection to millions of dollars of grants awarded to the constituency of Daryl Maguire, a former MP in her government with whom she was having a secret affair.
Berejiklian is being investigated over whether she breached the public trust and has denied any wrongdoing.
Governance experts say Berejiklian’s case highlights a crisis in Australian politics, with the country’s score falling from 85 in 2012 to 77 out of 100 in the most recent edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index.
Australia has never had a national corruption regulator despite longstanding support among voters, with an Essential poll this month finding 78 per cent of voters support the initiative.
Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, has a threadbare majority and trails in opinion polls ahead of a vote he must hold by May 2022. He promised an anti-corruption effort when he came to power three years ago but has yet to implement one, despite unveiling the Commonwealth Integrity Commission in December 2018.
Opposition politicians and some analysts have criticised Morrison’s proposal. The Centre for Public Integrity think-tank said it would be unable to investigate on its own initiative, accept complaints from the public, begin an investigation until it was reasonably satisfied that a criminal offence had occurred or hold public hearings.
The opposition Labor party proposal would create a body that could hold public hearings, take corruption complaints from the public and launch investigations when it saw fit.
The New Liberals, a newly formed party led by a veteran barrister, have proposed a system that would have similar powers to the Labor model but would also have its own prosecution arm and a separate court would be created to handle its cases.
Support for the main political parties has been falling as voters turn to minor parties and independent candidates, a trend experts say has been exacerbated by the corruption scandals.
A survey by Newspoll this month found that 13 per cent of voters supported independents and smaller parties, the highest level in four years.
Anthony Whealy, a former supreme court judge in New South Wales who now chairs the Centre for Public Integrity, said corruption at a federal level was causing distrust.
“People in the community are conscious of the fact that there’s a lot of inappropriate behaviour going on, it’s publicised in the media, but no one’s ever brought to account for it,” he added.
Morrison may be hoping that voters will place less emphasis on political corruption issues nearer to an election.
Sarah Cameron, a politics expert at the University of Sydney, said the extent to which the scandals would sway voters “depends to a large degree on whether integrity issues and corruption are salient at election time”.
The Covid-19 pandemic was dominating attention but “things can change between now and the election”, she added.