A report on international corruption shows Australia remained among the top 20 'cleanest' countries, but some say a lack of progress reflects a need for stronger anti-corruption measures.
Australia has remained among the world's top 20 cleanest countries in an annual corruption survey in which Denmark and New Zealand come out on top and the US has been knocked out of the pack.
Watchdog group Transparency International said its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2018 released on Tuesday showed more than two-thirds of countries scoring below 50, on its scale where 100 is very clean and zero is very corrupt.
Australia scored the same score as last year, 77 out of 100, to stay 13th.
However, Transparency International Australia CEO Serena Lillywhite said Australia's ranking over the last seven years has slipped by eight points.
"We used to rank among the top ten least-corrupt countries, and we fell out of that league of world-leading nations in 2014. We’ve continually failed to lift our game,” she told SBS News.
“We have not put in place a robust anti-corruption and integrity system."
More reforms needed
The 2018 Index comes a few months after the Coalition gave in to pressure to set up a new Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
However, some politicians and academics claim the commission's capabilities, as described, were too limited.
The Commission would have two divisions, focusing on law enforcement agencies and the public sector, Attorney-General Christian Porter said at the time of the announcement,
The latter division would include senior public servants as well as politicians, but it would not hold public hearings into allegations of corruption against them.
"I don't think the proposal goes far enough as it’s currently framed,” Dr Yee-Fui Ng, a Senior Lecturer at Monash University's Faculty of Law told SBS News.
“It's better than what we have right now, because what we have right now is just a patchwork of several agencies – but it doesn’t cover the whole of the public sector."
A survey by Griffith University and Transparency International last year found trust in federal and state levels of government had fallen in the previous year to 46 per cent.
Trust was especially low for those who had worked in the federal government.
Dr Ng said this reflects the need for anti-corruption reforms in addition to a revised Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
Ms Lillywhite agrees.
"Opportunities for nation-building reform just don't come up very often and so we need to ensure that we get the very best anti-corruption agency that we can,” she said.
“It needs to have the investigative and coercive powers of a royal commission - and of course, it needs to be able to hold public hearings and investigate matters involving federal politicians."
US drops out of top 20
The US dropped four points and fell outside the top 20 cleanest nations for the first time since 2011, according to the survey.
"The low score comes at a time when the US is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power," Transparency International said in its annual report.
The second year of Trump's presidency was a turbulent one, ranging from damaging revelations in an investigation probing links between Trump's 2016 campaign team and Russia, to his controversial backing for a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault.
The US leader, who frequently rails against the media for writing "fake news", was also dogged by accusations of nepotism and conflicts of interest.
Since 2012, only 20 nations had significantly improved their scores, including Argentina and Ivory Coast, which scored 40 and 35 respectively, up from 35 and 29.
At the same time, 16 have declined significantly in that time, including Australia, which slipped from a score of 85 to 77, and Chile, which dropped from 72 to 67.
As in previous years of the survey, many other countries near the bottom of the Index - African nations such as Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Syria, with scores as low as 10 - have been gripped by conflict.
Overall, Denmark led the survey as the least corrupt nation, with a score of 88, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland.
In a cross-analysis of its survey with global democracy data, Transparency International said a link could be drawn between corruption and the health of a democracy.
'Full' democracies scored an average of 75 on the corruption index, 'flawed' democracies averaged 49, and autocratic regimes averaged 30, the organisation said.
"Our research makes a clear link between having a healthy democracy and successfully fighting public sector corruption," said Delia Ferreira Rubio, the head of Transparency International.
"Corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak and, as we have seen in many countries, where undemocratic and populist politicians can use it to their advantage."
The index is calculated using 13 different data sources that provide perceptions of public sector corruption from business people and country experts.
- with wires