• What's in a word? Improving transparency and tackling corruption in Australia

    Posted by Ben

    22 October, 2013

    Australia is one of the few countries that make a distinction between bribes and 'facilitation payments'. Bribing a foreign public official is an offence under Australia's criminal code. However, companies can defend themselves against this charge by arguing that they were simply making a "facilitation payment" to secure or speed up a "routine government service". And, as long as they have kept a record of any such payments, they actually have a proper defence.

    So, what's in a word?

    Quite a lot, actually. In response to strong international criticism of its relative lack of action on bribery and corruption allegations made against Australian companies, the government is considering removing this defence under law. The arguments against facilitation payments seem clear-cut and compelling: there is no qualitative difference between a bribe and a 'facilitation payment'. An increasing number of countries refuse to recognise any distinction between the two.

    There seems no logical or legal reason to draw a distinction between a 'minor' payment to secure or speed up 'routine' and 'legally allowable' services and a larger amount of money paid to win a contract or avoid a penalty. Does a bribe cease to be corruption below a certain monetary value?

    These facilitation payments entrench corrupt behaviour. Officials actually expect such payments for rendering their public service as a matter of course. In other words, they expect such additional recompense for doing their job! So, 'private gain rather than the public good' becomes the benchmark for their service delivery. In effect, these payments rob the public; infringing their right and capacity to live, work and invest in an environment free from corruption.

    So, the government seems on solid ground in withdrawing the facilitation payments defence.

    Some companies, however (notably the Australia-Africa Mining Industry Group (AAMIG) - a network of mining and related companies), argue that they need to be able to claim this defence under law. In stunning irony, their submission to a Government Inquiry on the matter asserts that the AAMIG "requires its members to adopt corporate values that ensure the highest standards of operations in Africa, particularly concerning good governance, the environment and human rights."

    In a classic piece of projection, the AAMIG argues that to remove this defence "ignores the reality that such payments need to be made from time to time and the importance of improved governance to promote necessary change in African countries." So the problem is not Australian companies who want to continue to have a legal defence against bribery charges; the fault lies entirely with the flawed governance of African countries. By paying bribes, of course, Australian companies are actively hindering the "improved governance" they claim to be so concerned about.

    Fortunately, there are strong voices in the industry that have made submissions and have publicly advocated to abolish the 'facilitation payments defence. Furthermore, churches have taken a similar stance. In particular, the Uniting Church of Australia has been proactive in raising awareness of bribery and corruption and calling on the government to take action. Calling a spade a spade, the submission of the Uniting Church's Justice and Mission Unit argues, "a 'facilitation payment' is just another term for a bribe."

    This small team of Uniting Church advocates continues to lead the campaigns against corruption and call for greater transparency among Australian and multinational businesses. They work with congregations and social justice networks to shift and shape public policy and provide resources to engage and educate people about social justice issues.

    Micah Challenge in Australia has been campaigning for increased transparency and strong government action to tackle corruption and tax evasion through our Shine the Light campaign. We are part of the global EXPOSED 2013 movement, because we strongly believe that all governments, corporations, churches and other groups should hold to the highest standards of transparency and integrity possible. In this way, we think that God's people in particular, but leaders and authorities in general, are called to reflect something of the character of God, who is "mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribe" (Deuteronomy 10:17).

    Right now, though, the government is still considering its response. It has taken some positive steps against corruption, but still seems shamefully willing to allow Australian companies to continue to contribute to corruption and the erosion of integrity in public services in other countries.

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    Ben Thurley is Micah Challenge's Political Engagement Coordinator.