The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption will undergo sweeping changes, with three commissioners overseeing the corruption watchdog, premier Mike Baird announced this afternoon.
The current ICAC commissioner, Megan Latham, who was appointed until 2019, has been told she can apply for one of the three new positions.
The changes come after the ICAC attempted in 2014 to investigate NSW deputy crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen for allegedly perverting the course of justice.
It led to a fight for control of the anti-corruption body amid accusations it lacked “procedural fairness” in its public hearings.
Cunneen challenged the investigation in the High Court, and won, which threatened the anti-corruption watchdog’s previous findings at a time when a number of NSW government ministers had resigned and powerful businesspeople were also ensnared in corruption findings, forcing Baird to introduce retrospection legislation to protect those decisions.
An independent investigation into Cuneen found no charges should be laid.
But last year, the new ICAC inspector, former Supreme Court judge David Levine, released a scathing review of the organisation, which accused it of acting unlawfully, abuse of power and maladministration.
Levine called for an end to public hearings to “prevent the undeserved trashing of reputations” and to avoid “the distraction of temptation for flamboyance or theatre”.
A subsequent parliamentary committee this year, chaired by Liberal Damien Tudehope, published its findings on October 27, with 35 recommendations.
The key proposals, backed by the government, include
- A three-member Commission with a chief commissioner and two others;
- Holding a public inquiry will need to be authorised by the chief commissioner and at least one other commissioner;
- The chief commissioner would be appointed full-time, for a five-year term, with the two other commissioners part-time on three-year terms with a two-year extension option;
- A CEO will manage the ICAC’s day-to-day operations;
- The ICAC and the ICAC Inspector will give people “a reasonable opportunity to respond” before including an adverse finding or opinion about them in a report, and that response may also be published;
- The ICAC will be able to, where requested, gather evidence that may be admissible in a criminal prosecution after the completion of its investigations.
“These changes implement the recommendations of a bi-partisan and unanimous Parliamentary Committee report,” Baird said.
“They are entirely consistent with last year’s Independent Panel report into the ICAC, and will deliver a stronger and fairer anti-corruption watchdog.”
The bill to enable the changes is heading to parliament today but Labor leader Luke Foley is pushing for Latham be guaranteed the chief commissioner role, as well as giving her the power to veto the other two appointments.
Previous ICAC inquiries during the last term of the Coalition government saw 10 MPs stand aside or resign over illegal election donations, while disgraced Labor MP Eddie Obeid is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of misconduct in public office in the wake of the ICAC’s investigations.
The ICAC also cost Baird’s predecessor Barry O’Farrell, the premiership after he failed to recall a $3000 bottle of Grange.
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