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Launch of the Global Integrity Summit

Prof John McMillan, Australian Information Commissioner, at a function on 6 August 2014 in Brisbane to launch the Global Integrity Summit, being hosted by Griffith University in Brisbane on 9-10 September 2014.

It is a great pleasure to participate in the formal launch of the Global Integrity Summit.

The Summit can aptly be described as ambitious, but realistic. The leaders of twenty large economies will meet in Brisbane in one hundred days’ time to develop comprehensive growth strategies for the global economy and to build resilience in the global economy. The G20 agenda has identified particular strategies that will contribute to those broad aims. They include infrastructure financing and development, strengthening global trade, promoting competition, modernising the international tax system, and reforming global institutions.

The objective of the Global Integrity Summit, to be held on 9-10 September 2014 in advance of the G20, is to foster recognition that a global integrity agenda is another essential G20 strategy. Global economic development will be hampered unless a practical commitment to integrity underpins the actions of countries, institutions, businesses and people who are actors in the global economy.

The broad G20 aims of future-proofing the global economy against a recurrence of the global financial crisis, and ensuring that economic rewards flow to the powerless many rather than the powerful few, depend upon key integrity themes. They include the absence of corruption, transparency, ethical enterprise, rule compliance, accountability and participation.

We can best appreciate that truth if we stand back and reflect on the development of our own national political and economic systems. Over many years considerable industry and success has been devoted at national and regional levels to establishing and strengthening integrity mechanisms and institutions. In Australia and in many other G20 nations there is now an impressive and dynamic integrity framework that includes:

  • independent oversight and watchdog bodies that investigate corruption and maladministration, and promote civil and democratic values
  • transparency laws and processes that enable public scrutiny of decision making, and encourage proactive publication of valuable economic and social data
  • conflict of interest and disclosure codes and registers that define the ethical conduct expected of those who exercise power or strive to influence those who do, and
  • legal protections for people who resort to those mechanisms to enquire, complain, advocate or blow the whistle.

Within each nation we regard those integrity mechanisms and institutions as essential features of a democratic, enlightened and engaged polity, economy and society. The benefits are many and demonstrable.

Integrity processes provide an opportunity for any person to become an active citizen — and a high and growing proportion of the community use that opportunity. The quality of national debate has been broadened and enriched with greater attention now given to values, expectations and ethical perspectives. There is a more deep-seated confidence in the community that wrongdoing can be publicised and challenged. And through revelations around the country from numerous royal commissions and corruption inquiries, we have a salutary reminder — currently a daily reminder — that corruption and wrongdoing are seemingly an inevitable occurrence in government, business, political parties, trade unions, churches, sporting and other community organisations. In short, corruption can flourish in any setting of power, influence or opportunity.

At the national level there is common agreement that an integrity framework is essential both to safeguard what we have and to enable us to improve.

The G20 summit in Brisbane provides a unique opportunity to translate that domestic insight and achievement to a larger global stage. That could come about through insight and initiative on the part of G20 organisers and participants. Encouragingly, the G20 papers refer to the importance of transparency in global economic markets, to curbing corruption, boosting consumer and business confidence in economic processes, and facilitating the participation in the G20 summit of business leaders (B20), civil society organisations (C20), organised labour (L20), international think tanks (T20) and youth leaders (Y20).

That said, the development of sophisticated integrity processes within nations has mostly come about through strident advocacy by outsiders. The easier challenge is to secure a voluble commitment to ethics and integrity from those who exercise power. The harder challenge is to elaborate upon and embed that commitment across a large and particular range of rules, principles, processes, codes and institutions that necessarily comprise an effective integrity framework.

That is why the Global Integrity Summit is important. It will bring together, from around the world, experts from integrity agencies, academia, the professions and faith-based organisations. The Summit will feed its reflections into the G20 process in the Australian summit as well into the annual meeting cycle in other countries.

The themes that have been identified for the Global Integrity Summit align with those of the G20 Summit. Five key issues that will be discussed at the Summit are financial integrity, to reduce the risk that ethical failures can again contribute to a global financial crisis; tax integrity, to prevent tax collection being hollowed out by profit shifting and base erosion; infrastructure integrity, to prevent self-interested distortion in public funding, privatisation and public-private partnerships; development and integrity, to emphasise that essential link in building economic development in poorer nations and securing economic gains for disempowered and vulnerable groups; and building integrity not just fighting corruption, to prevent abuse of power through promotional as well as detection and investigation strategies.

An exciting aspect of the Global Integrity Summit is that three cross-cutting themes that recur across those five core issues will also be developed. The first is transparency and privacy — which are dual pressures that are balanced in the office that I head, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner. The contribution that transparency can make to curbing corruption and promoting integrity is probably best captured in two famous remarks — one by publisher Joseph Pulitzer, that ‘There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy’; and another by American jurist Louis Brandeis, that ‘Sunlight is the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman’.

The pursuit of transparency is nowadays a more complex challenge because of the need to safeguard privacy in a big data world that is enriched by the collection, sharing and sale of personal information. A similar tension can occur between transparency and national security, as the threat and the response to terror both depend on gathering information that may signal the actions of the opponent.

A second cross-cutting theme is the role of professions in promoting integrity. Though technology is the medium through which most financial and economic transactions are taken, locally and globally, the key levers are still controlled by people. By lawyers, who provide advice on what is permissible and achievable; by bankers, who stimulate interest and demand, and connect people and money; and by auditors, who sign off on what other professionals are doing. Shining the spotlight on their individual and collective professional role is an important dimension in integrity analysis.

The third cross-cutting theme is global values for global problems. At one level this is a challenge of spelling out the integrity values that should be reflected in the global order and the work of global institutions. At another level it is a challenge of synthesising those values to embody different cultures and faiths, so that we can appropriately conduct a global integrity dialogue.

To define those five key issues and three cross-cutting themes is to acknowledge that the agenda of the Summit has been defined but the outcome is unscripted. Importantly, the concept of integrity has been chosen as the core or unifying concept.

Integrity has fast become the single word or concept that best captures what we expect of those to whom power is entrusted. The concept is eminently adaptable from a domestic to a global setting.

At the domestic level we have translated the quest for integrity into the development of an elaborate but highly-functional framework or system that, as I noted earlier, comprises anti-corruption laws and investigators, oversight and complaint bodies and processes, transparency and disclosure laws and registers, ethical codes and values charters, and objectives of responsiveness and accountability.

It will be exciting to see how the Global Integrity Summit spells out an integrity agenda for the functioning of the global economy. It will be equally exciting and challenging to devise a strategy for injecting the fruits of that discussion into the G20 Summit.

Griffith University, and the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, are to be commended for their foresight and energy in developing the Global Integrity Summit. The Institute has the deserved reputation of being the leading organisation in Australia in promoting the development of integrity systems. Fittingly, the Institute has taken this initiative in a year that Queensland marks both the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Fitzgerald Report, and the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Public Sector Ethics Act.

The Global Integrity Summit is an initiative that deserves our wholehearted support.