Do we need a federal ICAC?

Ross Greenwood speaks to Anthony Whealy QC, a former NSW supreme court judge and a former assistant to ICAC commissioner, and the current Chair of Transparency International about whether Australia needs a federal corruption watchdog

Introduction: Do we need a federal ICAC?

Ross Greenwood: Now, you may be aware today that the opposition leader federally, Bill Shorten, has called for and some form of independent commission against corruption on a federal basis. Now, as you’re aware, there are similar commissions on a state basis. Now, the interesting side about this is whether Australia on a federal level needs some form of corruption watchdog. Indeed, what powers would you give it? What would it actually undertake?

Now, the interesting side about this is that there would be a range of different things that could be investigated. Think about the misuse of expenses, for example. This type of thing could quite clearly be. Then, could there be potentially corruption over our political process? Think about the influence of say, Chinese interest previously in terms of trying to sway our politicians. These are clear things.

Is it actually needed or are the current processes in place enough to try and bring this out? Well, this has been the subject of it. Let’s just go to a bit of the speech that Bill Shorten gave today, talking about national integrity and the need for some corruption watchdog.

Bill Shorten:  That’s why if I’m elected Prime Minister, my government will create a national integrity commission. A federal body monitored on the lessons of the state anti-corruption bodies. The national integrity commission will resolve the gaps and inconsistencies in the current system, designed to ensure the highest standards in public administration.

Ross Greenwood: He says he wants to get underway in his first year of government. Quite clearly right now, Bill Shorten and the Labor Party are ahead, well ahead in the polls. Now, this afternoon Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has spoken to my colleague Chris Smith about this. He was asked about his reaction to Bill Shorten and his need for some form of corruption watchdog.

Barnaby Joyce:  If you are corrupt, if you really are corrupt, you’re going to get busted. You’re going to get caught. You’re going to go to jail. We’ve seen other people who have been busted. We’ve seen Senator Sam Dastyari. That’s why I find it amazing Bill Shorten talk about it because most of the problems reside on his side.

Chris: [laughs]

Barnaby Joyce:  We found that on Sam Dastyari without needing ICAC. What I don’t want is some new form that comes in place which means if I want to make a decision to help people West of Winton, chances are that well someone says, “Well, that was not in the submission. Therefore, you shouldn’t have done that. Therefore, you somehow are corrupt.” “No, I’m not corrupt. I’m trying to help people out in the bush.”

Ross Greenwood: Now, I’ll tell you what, The Honorable Anthony Whealy QC is one of the very best people to talk about this. The former New South Wales Supreme Court Judge is also the former Assistant Commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales. He’s currently the Australian Chair of Transparency International which again, shines the light on matters of public office which tries to again, let you, me, everybody understand what truly is driving our political process. He’s on the line right now. Many thanks for your time, Anthony.

Interview with: Anthony Whealy QC, Chair, Transparency International

Anthony Whealy:  My pleasure.

Ross Greenwood: Does Australia need a federal corruption watchdog?

Anthony Whealy:  We believe it does. Transparency International has been pushing this about now for over 10 years. We’ve given it a lot of thought. It’s not just a thought bubble. It really is something we’ve considered very carefully. The idea is supported right throughout the academic world where those things have been studied. In Australia, it’s supported by the community. There’s been quite a number of polls have shown and that there are logical and compelling reasons why there is a need for it.

Ross Greenwood: Australia is not a country that’s run by a petty despot. It is not a country that is a third-world country. We have quite clearly systems of justice already in place. Where would the likely corruption be that could be investigated by such a watchdog?

Anthony Whealy:  Well, let’s talk about what corruption is. We would say that corruption is any conduct of a person that affects or could adversely affect the honest and impartial exercise of public administration at a federal’s spear. What that means is this is a very wide range of possible activities that could be affected by. Already, it starts at one extreme way where you’re going to get absolute corruption like people paying huge amounts of money to get contracts out of the government. Does that happen?

Well, we know from our examination of international affairs that it does happen. Luckily, we’re not a third-world country to say. We would hope that those things don’t happen in Australia. Do we really know? Is there any investigatory body that can check up on those things if they get a tipoff that something like this has happened? The answer to that is no. That is one extreme.

Then, right at the other extreme is the behaviour sometimes of parliamentarians who abuse their entitlements they claim for to-stay-away-from-home accommodation when they don’t really need it or haven’t in fact incurred those expenses. Then moving up the scale, there are people who at the political level, ignore the laws prohibiting donations to political parties, for example, by property developers. We saw that in New South Wales.

Here we are now moving into an era where there might be criminal offences or there might not be. There’s a whole range of activities then where public administration can be under threat and where you need some over-arching body that can investigate those things that’s properly resourced, that’s independent and that’s fearless in tracking down corruption of that kind.

Ross Greenwood: I hear all of that. Of course, the process of government is already so slow. The question is whether you’d put another layer investigating potential corruption whether that even slows the process of government more. Therefore, the economy and the Australian society is not as nimble. It’s not as quick as it would otherwise would be or should be.

Anthony Whealy:  Well, that’s an argument. I accept that’s an argument. We do have those bodies in our states and territories. They don’t seem to impede government. What they do is supervise government. My understanding is that a body like this would not only be an investigatory body. They have an educational component as well so that they can deal with the government and government officials and help them understand the risks of corruption and how they can be avoided.

There’s a third label too. That is, as with New South Wales, they can approve government contracts where the government is unsure of the propriety of what they’re doing or might be happening. Not only does it impede government, it improves government and stability and economic utility in government activities. Why shouldn’t we have that at the federal level?

Ross Greenwood: Won’t there be a worry or a concern at least, that an organization such as this could overstep its powers that as an accusation has been levelled at the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption that the power that wheeled was basically not wheeled in an appropriate manner? Again, is there an argument against having such a watchdog at a federal level?

Anthony Whealy:  I don’t think so. It’s an argument that says, “When you set it up, you got to make sure that the powers are very carefully set forth and you got to have a supervisory body.” Now, they have a parliamentary committee that has the right to supervise what the new body is doing and to make sure it doesn’t overstep the mark. I have to say in defence of the New South Wales ICAC that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about what it did.

I heard today somebody on Sky News arguing that it was terrible that ICAC brought about the resignation of Barry O’Farrell. Well, it didn’t. The finding about Barry O’Farrell was that he had done nothing wrong or whatsoever by ICAC. Barry O’Farrell brought about his own wrongdoing because he promised that he hadn’t received the gift of a bottle of Grange Hermitage and effectively said, “If I’m wrong about that, I will resign.” As it turned out, he was wrong. That was not because of any corrupt conduct on his part. No one suggested it was.

Ross Greenwood: I will tell you what. While I got you on the phone, actually David from Wellington point has actually come to me and suggested that Anthony, maybe apart from having some form of independent corruption watchdog over our federal politicians maybe an incompetence watchdog models so help as well.

Anthony Whealy:  [laughs]

Ross Greenwood: What do we do then?

Anthony Whealy:  Well, we wouldn’t argue against that.

Ross Greenwood: Anthony Whealy QC, a former New South Wales Supreme Court Judge, The Australian Chair of Transparency International for Global Corruption and the former ICAC Assistant Commissioner in New South Wales. Anthony, we appreciate your time on the program this evening.

Anthony Whealy:  My pleasure.



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