Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill 2015

15th September 2015

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [4.58 p.m.]: I support the Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill 2015 and congratulate the Premier on introducing it. This bill addresses many of the concerns the community holds about recent attempts to undermine the strength of the Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC]. It will reinforce the powers of that entity and in so doing restore community confidence in the intentions of its elected representatives—I refer to all members in this current Parliament—and call on them to stand firm against corruption. It would be hard for anyone to doubt the strength of the Premier's convictions and his willingness to deliver in line with those convictions. That is evident in this bill.

The Premier's party has been as scarred as any by the revelations of the ICAC. He has lost colleagues and indeed his former leader. In fact, two Liberal premiers have been forced from office by the revelations of the ICAC over its 26-year lifespan. In my view, neither was guilty of the worst excesses that have come before the ICAC—far from it. However, the fact that both were ultimately moved to step down illustrates the high benchmarks for behaviour in public office that have been set and maintained since the ICAC came into being. It is significant to note, too, that both premiers were advocates for a strong corruption watchdog.

The current Premier could have taken the easy way out and let the High Court ruling stand, essentially narrowing the power of the ICAC and rendering it greatly diminished, if not virtually ineffectual. It has been branded a star chamber, a kangaroo court, a show trial, and worse. Prominent conservative commentators have made many calls for the institution to be restrained, if not disbanded altogether. That is not what the public wants and that is not what the Premier promised. He gave a commitment to clean up corruption in public office and by validating the powers of the ICAC in this bill, he is honouring that undertaking.

My region of the Hunter has been significantly affected by the revelations of both Operation Credo and Operation Spicer. Those inquiries have changed the political landscape in the Hunter and it has undermined the public confidence in elected representatives. Lake Macquarie sits almost at the epicentre of much of that activity and I take no joy in witnessing the departure of certain members of the previous Parliament as a result of those inquiries. I did, and still do, call some of them friends. Their levels of complicity may vary and some may have paid a high price for their indiscretions, but these are the standards we have set and they are standards that are necessary to ensure that politicians perform their duties without undue influence. No-one who values honesty in government wants to see those standards watered down. I am pleased, therefore, that the Government has adopted the main recommendations of the independent panel that was appointed to review the jurisdiction of the ICAC following the High Court decision in the Cunneen case.

The definition of "corrupt conduct" and the purview of powers it recommended, and which are put forward in the bill, strike a balance without extending to judicial overreach. They will allow the ICAC to continue to hold politicians and those in public administration to account through a transparent inquiry process. It is important that the ICAC has the power to investigate any matter that could undermine confidence in public administration, not just when the actions of a public official are questioned. I am pleased that the provision to allow this, which is contained within the definition of the "general nature of corrupt conduct", will apply to conduct occurring before the commencement of the amendments.

I acknowledge there are some concerns regarding the ICAC's power to make findings against an individual and about the lack of definition of what constitutes "serious corruption". However, if that is to be tested by the courts in future, then so be it. That is an avenue that exists now and, once the definition is tested, a benchmark in case law will be set that will no doubt guide subsequent appeals. I appreciate that trying to articulate such a definition in legislation can equally leave the meaning open to challenge.

I am pleased that the ICAC's jurisdiction will be extended to include the investigation of serious criminal offences relating to electoral fraud, funding irregularities and lobbying. I have been a strong advocate for electoral reform in this area and I welcome any move that will increase surveillance and bring more accountability to the fundraising activities of candidates and parties.

It is important, too, that the legislation clearly specifies that anyone who stands for public office is covered by these provisions, regardless of whether or not they are elected. The community will be reassured that the retrospectivity of these provisions will allow the ICAC to complete and report on its investigations in Operation Spicer and Operation Credo. The ICAC has played an invaluable role over the past 26 years in exposing corruption in public administration. It does not discriminate. Its findings and inquiries have inflicted damage on both major parties, and many others in public office. Its extensive inquisitorial powers have made it the target of attack, but we must remember that its function is to uncover the truth, not to prosecute. Members of the public sometimes seem unaware of that difference, but they overwhelmingly support the ICAC having the means and authority to effectively conduct its investigations.

There may well be a need for further changes, such as the codifying of offences to bring them in line with community expectation and the ability for a prosecution or a criminal offence to be found by the ICAC, and some of those have been forecast by previous speakers. We must continue to look at those issues. I believe there are always challenges for any area of law. There are always people who will push the envelope and test the boundaries. We must be vigilant. If flaws are found or expectations are not being met, we must revisit them. I believe that this legislation has been well prepared and that it is a good response to the situation in which we have found ourselves in recent times. I hope that the ICAC will continue to be an independent overseer of conduct, exercised by elected representatives and those involved with public administration in this State. I commend the bill to the House.

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