Politics

Australia is coming to Biden’s democracy summit ‘empty handed’ on anti-corruption, Labor says | Scott Morrison

The Australian government is at risk of coming to the US-trumpeted Summit for Democracy “empty handed” given its failure to put in place a promised anti-corruption commission, the opposition says.

With the virtual summit entering its second day on Friday, tax transparency campaigners also called on the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to pledge to ban anonymous shell companies and create a public beneficial ownership register.

While a lot of the early media focus was on the Biden administration’s decision to invite Taiwan – a move that triggered protest and scorn from China – attention is now turning to the commitments the US is asking leaders to bring to the two-day event.

The summit is meant to focus on three key themes: defending against authoritarianism; addressing and fighting corruption; and promoting respect for human rights.

A spokesperson for the US embassy in Canberra said it anticipated all participants would “make ambitious – yet realistic and concrete – commitments toward the summit’s objectives”.

The spokesperson said it was an opportunity for leaders “to speak to their countries’ experiences with and challenges to strengthening democracy”.

“Individually and collectively, democracies must continually demonstrate that they can deliver for their people, and we expect the Summit for Democracy to serve as a rallying point to do just this.”

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the US had called for leaders to bring specific commitments to fighting corruption, “but the Morrison-Joyce government will be coming to the table empty handed”.

“It’s now three long years since Mr Morrison promised Australians a national anti-corruption commission and nothing has happened except an endless series of rorts and scandals,” Wong said.

“To this day Mr Morrison has still not even brought a bill before the parliament. Instead, he’s spent the past week showing just how disingenuous he is, by attacking the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.”

Morrison argued this week that the former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian had been treated shamefully and subjected to “a pile-on” amid an ongoing investigation by Icac. Morrison’s attacks, included labelling Icac a “kangaroo court”, have been denounced by legal experts.

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His government released an exposure draft for a proposed commonwealth integrity commission in 2020 but critics described it as a toothless tiger, partly because it would not conduct public hearings into allegations of corruption involving the public sector.

Labor has called for a stronger model – a stance Morrison has cited in attempting to defend the government’s failure to present a bill to parliament.

“Australia’s standing on tackling corruption has slipped on Mr Morrison’s watch,” Wong said.

Australia scored 77 from a possible 100 for the third straight year in the Transparency International’s latest annual corruption perceptions index, a barometer of perceived corruption in 180 nations.

Australia’s rating is the lowest since 2012, when a more accurate form of analysis began, and continues a long-term decline since that year.

The score is better than the global average of 43, but remains below Asia-Pacific leaders New Zealand (88) and Singapore (85). New Zealand, tied with Denmark, led the world rankings.

Morrison is due to address the summit on Friday about 10pm AEDT.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the event would allow “robust conversations” about countries’ commitment to democracy.

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In the lead-up to the summit, the White House unveiled a strategy on countering corruption, including issuing “beneficial ownership transparency regulations that help identify bad actors hiding behind opaque corporate structures”.

The US also vowed to encourage partner countries “to strengthen their anti-money laundering regimes to bring greater transparency to the international financial system”.

Publish What You Pay, a coalition of non-government organisations, called on Morrison to “follow’s Biden’s lead and make curbing corruption a national priority”.

“Corruption is a disease that eats away at democracies,” said Publish What You Pay’s Australia director, Clancy Moore.

“An easy win for Morrison would be increasing transparency requirements for Australian company owners. In a strong blow to kleptocrats, cronies and crooks, Morrison could ban anonymous shell companies and create a public beneficial ownership register.”

Publish What You Pay urged the Australian government to use its appearance at the summit to pledge to prevent corruption in critical mineral supply chains.

The group said the government should also vow to improve the resources sector’s openness through the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

In 2016 the then resources minister Josh Frydenberg pledged to join other developed nations in implementing the EITI, which sees mining companies and governments publish details about taxes paid and received.

The scheme, adopted by 55 nations, helps to prevent corruption and ensure tax accountability by providing information on the governance of oil, gas and mining revenues, from the point of extraction, through to payments to governments.

Despite the 2016 promise, Australia has never implemented the EITI domestically, and the current minister, Keith Pitt, has said he is “concerned” about the scheme.

The US has its own problems renewing faith in democratic institutions, after the 6 January insurrection and continued attempts by the former president Donald Trump to promote the lie that he won the 2020 presidential election. Numerous states have enacted sweeping new voting restrictions.

The US embassy spokesperson said the summit participants would “learn from each other on what innovative and ambitious commitments can be made, recognising that no two participants or their respective commitments can be the same”.

“The year in between the Summit events will be a ‘year of action’, during which we welcome countries, including the United States, to make concrete progress towards commitments announced during Summit One.”

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