Australia and Norway were once tied in the global anti-corruption rankings. Now we’re heading in opposite directions


In a worrying sign, Australia has fallen in Transparency International’s latest report Corruption Perceptions Index – the world’s most widely cited ranking on the cleanliness or corruption of each country’s public sector.

In the 2021 index published todayAustralia repeated its biggest annual drop on record – dropping four points on a 100-point scale, from 77 to 73. Zero is considered very corrupt, while a score of 100 is very clean.

Overall, Australia has lost 12 points on the index since 2012, more than any OECD country except Hungary, which also lost 12 points. Australia’s rate of decline is also similar or faster than other countries with far worse problems, including Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Venezuela.

Australia was ranked seventh in the world in 2012, tied with Norway. This year, Australia has fallen to 18th out of 180 countries. By contrast, Norway’s global position improved from seventh to fourth place in the index.

It is a clear sign that Australia has missed a huge chance to fix its failing anti-corruption reputation. And that will likely continue to decline unless integrity policies are reversed in this year’s federal election.

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What the index shows

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) is compiled annually by Transparency International using the world’s most credible, independent and long-term measures of corruption. Sources include the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, the World Justice Project and the World Bank.

These surveys focus on levels of corruption in the public sector, as well as the strength of mechanisms to prevent and control corruption. This makes the index not only a list of more or less corrupt countries, but also an assessment of their current anti-corruption efforts.

The CPI is recognized as a key indicator of Australia’s integrity performance, not just by reform advocates, but by the federal government itself.

Read more: As a NSW prime minister falls and SA empties its anti-corruption commission, what are the lessons for integrity bodies in Australia?

In September 2018, then-Attorney General Christian Porter tried to defend the country’s anti-corruption record by tell parliament the CPI had placed Australia “consistently in the top 20 countries in the world for low corruption”.

It took Center Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie to report Australia was not just in the top 20, but in the top ten.

Instead of maintaining their high score, like Norway, Australia have gone the other way – and they are now in danger of dropping out of the top 20 altogether.

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Australia had the chance to stem the fall

Prior to this year, Australia’s score on the index stabilized as the federal government finally committed to addressing integrity issues and other efforts to root out corruption took place.

During this period, there was hope that things might change:

  • corrupt politicians and officials have been successfully convicted in several states (including NSW’s pursuit of former ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, while action was taken against local government corruption in Queensland)
Former Labor Minister Eddie Obeid.
Former Labor Minister Eddie Obeid was sentenced last year to seven years in prison for a rigged mining tender.
Bianca de Marchi/AAP
  • after many years, the major parties finally committed to establishing a federal integrity commission (Labour in February 2018 and the Coalition in December 2018)

  • long-awaited legislation has been introduced in parliament to strengthen laws against bribery of foreign officials

  • bipartisan recommendations have been made to strengthen whistleblower protections, with new whistleblower laws in the private sector and promises of reform for the federal public sector

  • high-profile federal enforcement action has been taken against money laundering by Australian bankswhile mounting evidence of money laundering in casinos and real estate has raised hopes for further reform.

But last year progress stalled

The latest drop in the CPI shows that business and expert confidence in Australia’s official responses to corruption has plummeted again.

Since 2020, when this year’s index data was mostly collected, the expected progress has not occurred. Instead, Australia saw:

Bridget McKenzie during the investigation into the
Bridget McKenzie quit the front bench and resigned as assistant national championships chief after the so-called ‘sporting rorts’ case.
Mick Tsikas/AAP
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announces resignation
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced her resignation last October.
Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Why leadership is essential

It doesn’t have to be that way. Transparency International used this year’s global index highlight the need for countries to improve checks and balances through strong integrity institutions and uphold the rights of people to hold those in power to account.

When countries show serious leadership in anti-corruption reform – such as the UK under the Conservative government of David Cameron from 2012 to 2017 – their scores on the index can climb.

Clearly, the world now fears that this type of leadership is lacking in Australia.

Priorities and potential solutions are increasingly understood by experts, observers and the community. For example, Griffith University and Transparency International Australia recently assessed Australia’s national integrity system and developed a reform plan to follow.

With the 2022 federal election just months away, the quality of party anti-corruption commitments — and the willingness of leaders to implement them — will matter more than ever.

Key questions are still unanswered. As recently as November, the Prime Minister and Attorney General revealed they were shelving any improvements to their Commonwealth Integrity Commission plan.

This announcement came despite the government having spent another year consulting more than the obvious problems of the plan.

Read more: Explained: What is the proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission and how would it work?

Anti-corruption reform is no longer the “marginal problemPrime Minister Scott Morrison claimed that was several years ago.

For confidence in Australia’s public integrity to improve, the winner of the election will have to promise – and deliver – more convincing solutions than we have seen in the past two years.


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