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Is ICAC out of control? Critics savage the role of corruption watchdog in ousting Gladys Berejiklian

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the sudden demise of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian – and two of her predecessors – showed that the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was ‘out of control’.

The role of the corruption watchdog is under intense scrutiny after Ms Berejiklian resigned last Friday in response to its announcement of a public inquiry into her conduct.

Ms Berejiklian was the third NSW Liberal premier to stand down as a result of ICAC investigations, after Nick Greiner resigned in June 1992 and Barry O’Farrell in April 2014.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said the demise of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian showed that the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was ‘out of control’ on Sunrise, while Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon called it ‘a kangaroo court’

Gladys Berejiklian announced her resignation last Friday, the third NSW premier to stand down as a result of ICAC investigations, after Nick Greiner resigned in June 1992 and Barry O'Farrell in April 2014

Gladys Berejiklian announced her resignation last Friday, the third NSW premier to stand down as a result of ICAC investigations, after Nick Greiner resigned in June 1992 and Barry O’Farrell in April 2014

On Sunrise this morning Mr Joyce described ICAC’s inquiry as ‘a little bit Spanish Inquisition’, and he was supported by federal Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon, who said the anti-corruption body’s operations were ‘a failed experiment’.

‘We elect politicians, not bureaucrats so the people should the final arbiter of whether they want someone or not,’ Mr Joyce said.

‘An ICAC out of control means the bureaucracy reigns supreme and politicians are basically terrified to do their job.’ 

Mr Joyce questioned the process whereby a politician is not told they’ve been referred to the watchdog and have to stand aside before they’ve been proven guilty of any offence.  

‘Politicians sometimes have to make hard decisions, it’s not that they’re corrupt, they’re making decisions,’ he said. 

‘The power of ICAC is lorded by people who want greater power for minority groups against the wishes of thee majority, that’s how I see it.’

Mr Fitzgibbon, who is retiring from federal parliament at the next election, went so far as to call the watchdog ‘a kangaroo court’.

‘I’m a great supporter of the principle innocent until proven guilty and with ICAC for many years, just the opposite has been true,’ he said. 

‘When you have a referral of any sort to ICAC, you’re guilty until proven innocent and three Liberal premiers will testify to that fact.

‘None of them ever had any adverse findings against them in the eyes of the law but were certainly hung out to dry by what I think is effectively a kangaroo court.’ 

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard was asked to comment on ICAC’s power at a weekend press conference, telling reporters that while the body was needed, there should be a discussion about its effect of forcing democratically-elected leaders out of office even if they are ultimately exonerated.

‘We do need an ICAC, there is no question that we need an ICAC, but whether it should be closer to the Hong Kong model, where these matters are dealt with behind closed doors until there is actually, definitely, a sufficient case, is a matter I think the community will look at,’ he said. 

Former NSW Premier Nick Greiner (right) set up ICAC in 1988 but became its first scalp in June 1992

Former NSW Premier Nick Greiner (right) set up ICAC in 1988 but became its first scalp in June 1992

Mr Greiner (right) pictured with fellow Liberal Premier Barry O'Farrell (left), who stepped down from the role in April 2014 over an undeclared bottle of wine

Mr Greiner (right) pictured with fellow Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell (left), who stepped down from the role in April 2014 over an undeclared bottle of wine 

ICAC was first established by the NSW Liberals under then-Premier Nick Greiner in 1988 and was initially tasked with uncovering scandals associated with the former Labor government of Premier Neville Wran after its decade in power.

However it was Mr Greiner who became the watchdog’s first high-profile scalp in June 1992 when he stood down over the offer of a public service job to former education minister Terry Metherell.

Mr Greiner was later cleared of wrongdoing in the matter by the NSW Court of Appeal.

In April 2014, then Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell resigned over not declaring he had received a gift of a $3,000 bottle of 1959 Grange Hermitage.

Mr O’Farrell had accepted the wine from Nick Di Girolamo, CEO of Liberal Party donor Australian Water Holdings in April 2011, a month after he won a landslide Coalition election victory in NSW. 

It’s not only Liberals who have been affected.

In June this year former NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, and Obeid’s son Moses Obeid, were found guilty of conspiracy to wilfully commit misconduct in public office over the allocation of coal licences on property owned by the Obeids in 2008.

The trial followed earlier ICAC inquiries into the conduct of Mr Obeid and Mr Macdonald.

Ms Berejiklian’s downfall began with her appearance at an ICAC public inquiry in October last year, where she made the stunning admission about her relationship with former political colleague Daryl Maguire.

The inquiry into corruption allegations against Mr Maguire led to Ms Berejiklian revealing she had a ‘personal attachment’ to Mr Maguire after working together for more than 15 years. She said their relationship began in 2015.  

The further public inquiry by the watchdog will investigate whether there was a conflict between Ms Berejiklian’s public duties and her relationship with Mr Maguire.

Ms Berejiklian's resignation on Friday was following by the resignation of her deputy, Nationals MP John Barilaro, on Monday

Ms Berejiklian’s resignation on Friday was following by the resignation of her deputy, Nationals MP John Barilaro, on Monday

More specifically, it will look into her role in awarding or promising grant funding to the Australian Clay Target Association and the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Wagga Wagga, both of which fell within Mr Maguire’s electorate.  

Ms Berejiklian has denied any involvement in corruption in relation to the grants. 

Her resignation on Friday was following by the resignation of her deputy, Nationals MP John Barilaro, on Monday, though the two resignations were not linked. 

Current NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet is expected to be announced as Ms Berejiklian’s successor as NSW Premier after a Liberal party-room meeting on Tuesday. 

ICAC – A TIMELINE 

1988: The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption set up Liberal Premier Nick Greiner 

June 1992: Mr Greiner forced to resign over the ‘Metherell affair’. Terry Metherell, a former Liberal education minister, was now an independent in a hung parliament and he was offered a job running the new Environment Protection Agency, within the department, so the government could win back his Sydney North Shore seat of Davidson. Mr Greiner was later cleared of wrongdoing in the affair. 

2012-2014: Former Labor MP Eddie Obeid appears before ICAC in a series of inquiries into his conduct while holding public office. The findings of the inquiries eventually lead to criminal proceedings against Mr Obeid.

April 2014: Premier Barry O’Farrell resigns after it was revealed at an ICAC hearing that he failed to declare a $3,000 bottle of Grange Hermitage gifted to him after winning a landslide election victory in April 2011.

October 2020: Gladys Berejiklian appears before ICAC as part of Operation Keppel, corruption hearings into former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, where she reveals her personal relationship with the disgraced politician. 

 

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