Independent Commission Against Corruption vitally important

21 June 2022

Ms JODIE HARRISON (Charlestown) (16:23): The Independent Commission Against Corruption is a vitally important part of New South Wales' civil society, and so too is the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission [LECC]. When ICAC looks into allegations of misuse of public office or when the LECC looks into allegations of law enforcement misconduct, both organisations are performing a role of incredible value in our society: They are holding the powerful to account. Any effort to strengthen the ICAC and the LECC should be welcomed, and any effort to broaden the pool of potential applicants and attract the best and brightest to either organisation should also be encouraged.

I am taking the opportunity to contribute to debate on the ICAC and LECC Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 because stopping corruption, and the role of the ICAC in that regard in particular, is a matter of great personal importance to me, as the Charlestown electorate has experienced the scourge of corruption firsthand. I note that the bill before the House amends the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988 and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Commissioner) Act 1994, as well as the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission Act 2016. The proposed amendments will permit someone who has previously served as a judge of the Supreme Court or District Court to be appointed as a commissioner of the ICAC, as an inspector or assistant inspector of the ICAC, as a member or assistant commissioner of the LECC, or as a LECC inspector or inspector of the ICAC.

Far from being a kangaroo court, as it has been called, the ICAC is a forum through which the interests of the public can be maintained. Rooting out corruption is not a niche issue, as has been recently suggested. Standing against corruption should be at the heart of our efforts as elected representatives, because corruption goes against everything we should stand for—fairness, equality and justice. Anyone in this place who thinks that the public is not paying attention to the way members in this place approach corruption should look at what happened on 21 May this year. As Serena Lillywhite, CEO of Transparency International Australia, summed up inThe Guardian:

The public is entitled to have confidence in the integrity of its public officials and expect the highest standards of integrity from our elected representatives. We expect them to avoid or otherwise appropriately manage conflicts of interest to ensure the maintenance of both real and perceived ministerial integrity. Without that, we lose trust and confidence in our politicians.

My electorate knows how damaging corruption is and how corruption undermines our very system of government. Democracy cannot function unless the people can trust their elected representatives to represent their interests. The people of this State have entrusted us, their representatives, with the awesome responsibility and privilege of making their laws, and the least we can do to repay that trust is to ensure that we act ethically and that we empower our public watchdog. We cannot legislate morality; we cannot make laws to tell people how to think or decide for them what is right or wrong. But we can reinforce our system to prevent the kind of unethical behaviour that further undermines faith in our institutions.

It is important that we strengthen the ICAC's ability to recruit sharp legal minds—people of the highest integrity and professionalism. We owe it to our electorates, to the State and to our higher ideals to ensure that the ICAC and the LECC are properly resourced and staffed. The bill allows for a person serving in the district or supreme courts who resigned immediately before their appointment to one of those roles to return to their position as a judge of the same court at the end of their time with the ICAC or the LECC. Their service with those important bodies is taken to be service as a judge of the court in which they previously served, thereby maintaining their entitlement to a judicial pension.

At the present time, there are 73 Supreme Court judges and 106 District Court judges in New South Wales. They each have met the same qualification requirements, which is to be an Australian lawyer of not less than seven years' standing. They bring with them diverse experience and expertise that could potentially be of great benefit to the ICAC and the LECC. Of course, as senior members of the bar and legal practitioners, they are among the finest legal minds in the State. The amendments in the bill would allow applicants for those important positions to be drawn from a larger pool. By protecting the entitlements of the applicants, it would make the proposition of taking on one of those roles less onerous and ideally attract a higher level of commitment and talent. That is crucial. Never has it been more important that the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission be equipped and empowered to do their jobs.

I reiterate the experience my electorate has had with corruption. My predecessor as member for Charlestown resigned in 2014 when details about his fundraising arrangements with a local property developer came to light. He was not the only politician to be caught up in the scandal, of course. Several Government MPs moved to the crossbench at that time, and we have seen similar events occur over and over again with this Government. I am proud to be a member of an Opposition that has continually held the Government to account for its ethical lapses. I am proud to be a member of an Opposition that successfully put forward amendments to the Government's Statute Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 requiring that a Minister must not accept or seek payment of a commission from a property developer, either directly or through a third party. Ethical standards under the O'Farrell-Baird-Berejiklian-Perrottet Government continue to slip. This Government seems to have learnt nothing from the corruption scandals that have plagued it.

If the Government has achieved anything since coming to power, it is in demonstrating how truly important the ICAC is. As politicians, how often do we hear that we are all corrupt or that we all have our snouts in the trough? The vast majority of us here in this Parliament are ethically upstanding, but this is politics and optics matter. At a forum examining the legality of pork-barrelling in politics, Peter Hall, QC, said:

… if you get a decision, let's take the Stronger Communities grants fund case … there is in fact, as the Auditor-General's report discovered in that case, a document, which is a briefing note to the Premier's office and that briefing note was to the effect 'we've got the money out the door and it's hitting the political target'.

… you'd almost say the sole motive [or] the sole purpose of that exercise was political or electoral and that's clearly on the other side of the line.

I note that the joint parliamentary committee on the ICAC and the joint parliamentary committee on the Ombudsman, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission and the Crime Commission maintain a power of veto over proposed appointments to the statutory offices covered by the bill, and that is a good thing. The Parliament has the power to exert some control, and members must ensure we use that power to maintain the integrity and independence of the ICAC and the LECC. I say again, how will we ever work with the public if they do not trust us? How will we achieve anything if this Parliament and this system are seen as inherently untrustworthy, unethical or corrupt? I join with my colleagues, led by the shadow Attorney General and member for Maroubra, in not opposing the bill. This State's anti‑corruption apparatus needs all the talent and skill we can secure for it.