Prime minister Scott Morrison has rubbished the notion of a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for the commonwealth, suggesting that the model does not presume individuals under investigation are innocent before a finding of guilt.
Responding to a question from Sunrise’s David Koch about whether ICAC needed to be reformed, Morrison said the corruption watchdog was ‘never a model we have contemplated at a federal level’.
“We have a set of arrangements at a federal level that can be built upon, but certainly not going down that path in New South Wales,” Morrison told the morning show host, alluding to a long-standing calls for the federal government to establish a watchdog that will ensure politicians at the highest level are held to account.
Morrison went on to laud former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, who recently chose to resign over an ICAC probe, telling breakfast television show that he believed she had a lot more to contribute to public service in ‘one way or another’.
Just days after handing in her resignation, rumours have emerged that Berejiklian is being canvassed for a tilt at former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbot’s electorate of Warringah for federal politics.
“I am grateful for the work that Gladys has done as premier. I’ve worked very closely with Gladys over a very long period of time, back when she was treasurer, and even before that, and I think she’s done an enormous service to the people of New South Wales,” Morrison said.
“I join with the many thousands, if not millions, of people from New South Wales who are very sad that she’s had to step down and she has a lot more to contribute.”
There has been an outpouring of public support, particularly from constituents from the other side of the Sydney Harbour bridge, where Berejiklian’s electorate is located, for the ex premier whose integrity has been under a cloud for months after ICAC started examining her ties with disgraced former MP from Wagga Wagga Daryl Maguire.
"It's like Diana," one passer-by said.
— Jason Om (@jason_om) October 4, 2021
The secret relationship with a disgraced politician
Last week ICAC announced it would hold a further inquiry into Operation Keppel (which is examining whether Maguire engaged in conduct that involved a breach of public trust by using his public office, involving his duties as a member of the NSW parliament, and the use of parliamentary resources, to improperly gain a benefit for himself).
At a previous ICAC hearing, Berejiklian sensationally revealed that she was in a secret relationship with Maguire.
Starting from 18 October, assistant commissioner Ruth McColl SC will preside over the public inquiry remotely to hear evidence as to whether Berejiklian allegedly engaged in conduct between 2012-2018 that constituted a breach of public trust, the misuse of her official functions, or was liable to ‘allow or encourage the occurrence of corrupt conduct’ by Maguire.
Following ICAC’s announcement on Friday morning, Berejiklian said she felt obligated to make the ‘extremely difficult decision’ of resigning as premier and stepping down as the Liberal MP for Willoughby.
“The issues which it is investigating are historic matters that have already been the subject of numerous attacks on me by political opponents during the last 12 months,” Berejiklian said.
“I state categorically, I have always acted with the highest level of integrity.
“History will demonstrate that I have always executed my duties with the highest degree of integrity for the benefit of the people of NSW who I have had the privilege to serve.”
Berejiklian’s self-defence runs counter to the fact that she did not disclose her five-year close personal relationship with Maguire during the time she served as treasurer and then premier of NSW. It was only until ICAC moved her to give evidence to this effect did the information come to light.
Questions over Berejiklian’s involvement in an obscure grant
During the relationship, and the conduct that ICAC is probing, Maguire had business dealings with a company named G8 Way international.
While in office, running his secret business and in a relationship with Berejiklian, Maguire suggested to the Australian Clay Target Association (ACTA) that it should approach his business partner Phil Elliot to purchase chairs from Chinavia G8 Way International. Through this deal, G8 Way stood to make a small commission and Maguire’s secret interest meant that he too would profit.
ICAC alleges this conduct amounts to Maguire using his position in public office for private benefit. But the ACTA is also at the centre of allegations of possible breach of trust on Berejiklian’s part.
According to reports by the ABC, a 3,000 page exhibit published by ICAC included an interview with an ICAC investigator with the ACTA CEO Tony Turner. This interview outlined an unusual grant funding process that saw the ACTA receive no paperwork months after Maguire had announced $5.5 million in state money for the organisation.
That lack of process, including evidence that the money had not been allocated from any portfolio so far as the ACTA was aware until six months after Maguire’s announcement, led the ABC to discover that the grant was awarded through a non-competitive award under the Regional Growth Environment and Tourism Fund.
Ordinarily, funding reservations made by the government sourced from larger funding pools are subject to an Expenditure Review Committee of the cabinet. Berejiklian was chair of that committee as treasurer at the time the funding reservation for ACTA was made.
“As the leader of the New South Wales government, I have expected the highest of standards of myself and my colleagues,” Berejiklian said in her resignation address last week.
“I have made it clear on numerous occasions that if any of my ministers were the subject of allegations being investigated by an integrity agency or law-enforcement, then he or she should stand aside during the course of the investigation until their name was cleared.
“The reason for my stance was not to have made any presumptions as to their conduct, but rather to maintain the integrity of the public office which was held whilst an investigation was completed. That same standard must apply to me as premier,” she said.
Whatever happened to the idea of a national integrity commission?
For years now, extensive consultation and public discourse has centred on the appropriate powers a corruption watchdog at the federal level should have — but the efficacy of the NSW body charged with holding its state powerbrokers to account has many, including the pm, suggesting that level of scrutiny is too much.
The most recent update on a proposed federal integrity commission was published by the government in November 2020, and consultation over draft legislation for the commission closed in March this year.
However it drew criticism from legal experts and retired judges (known as the National Integrity Committee), who said that the exposure draft was based on a ‘flawed assumption’ and failed to recognise that the role of such a body was not to secure criminal convictions but ‘to uncover serious corruption in the field of public administration and to publicly expose it where that is appropriate’.
To do this, the group argued in a submission, a corruption watchdog must be given wide and special coercive and investigatory powers – it must not be not bound by the laws of evidence and should not be expected to function as a judicial body because it was not supposed to be a court of law.
“The exposure draft does not meet the primary purpose of a national integrity commission, which is to enable scrutiny and enhance accountability of government. It is not even clear if the proposed legislation covers ministerial conduct which may be deemed to be corrupt,” the group said.
“Our submission is that the government proposal falls disastrously short of providing an effective body to counter and expose corruption at a national level.
“Especially in relation to the examination of corruption in the public sector, this model will rightly be seen by the community as a sham, and as a deliberate political diversion designed to shield the public sector, and in particular politicians and their staff, from proper scrutiny and accountability.
“It will bring the government into justified contempt and harm Australia‘s reputation.”