The funding mechanisms for the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption puts the agency at risk of “inappropriate influence”, according to the commissioner leading the inquiry into the Ruby Princess.
Barrister Bret Walker in a special report tabled in state parliament on Wednesday said the “undesirable” and “unlawful” aspects of ICAC’s funding model must be addressed.
Walker’s legal advice to the corruption watchdog argued the current arrangements could risk ICAC’s ability to be independent due to “the dependence that is created and wielded by senior public servant involvement in influencing the work programs of ICAC by means of restricting its funding”.
“With the best will in the world, the senior public officials engaged in the dealings made necessary by the current arrangements for funding ICAC cannot avoid a substantial risk of appearing to be capable of exerting, by the power of the purse string, inappropriate influence over ICAC’s operations from time to time,” the advice stated.
“A crude, hypothetical but not fantastic example would be DPC [the Department of Premier and Cabinet’s] refusal of supplementary funding sought to enable extra effort by ICAC in conducting an investigation, where a possible outcome of the investigation might reflect adversely on the government.”
ICAC funding was cut by 10.3% ($2.9m) in the 2019 budget, and the watchdog currently has to request extra money from DPC to fund major investigations.
In December the agency warned the state government that without increased funding it would have to make 31 full-time employees redundant — roughly a quarter of its workforce. The move would reduce the corruption watchdog to its smallest size in its history.
Around that time the NSW auditor-general, Margaret Crawford, was asked to look at the financial arrangements and management practices of the state’s four integrity agencies: the ICAC, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, the NSW Ombudsman, and the NSW Electoral Commission.
Her findings have not yet been released.
Meanwhile, the upper-house Public Accountability Committee ran an inquiry into the “budget processes” of the four agencies and the Audit Office. It recommended a new independent funding model for the ICAC was needed.
ICAC noted the new report “does not address nor advocate for the allocation to the commission of any specific amount of public monies now or in the future”.
“The commission fully recognises and respects the very substantial call upon public funding in response to COVID-19 and its consequences. The whole concept of an independent funding model is that funding will be assessed on an independent basis for consideration by the NSW Parliament,” it said.