ICAC Commissioner Megan Latham: Some vested interests have called for her resignation. Photo: Daniel Munoz
It’s been a rocky few months for the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption. At times the public was entitled to worry that this fearless pursuer of dirty money and grubby politics was being stripped of power by the courts – as the shonks cheered on.
Some vested interests even called for the resignation of the ICAC commissioner Megan Latham. They accused her agency of being “stacked with activist lawyers hostile to conservatives”. They suggested that defenders of the watchdog were engaging in a moral equivalence between “low-grade electoral offences” by Liberal Party members during the O’Farrell-Baird-Abbott era “and the scale of corruption alleged when (NSW) Labor was last in office”.
The Herald strongly believes that where there is corruption of any scale, democracy and the public lose. We know the ICAC gets it right the vast majority of times. Those who attack its inquisitorial style miss the point: it is required by statute. In any case, deterrence against corruption is as much a mark of the ICAC’s importance as successful prosecutions.
We know the watchdog is fiercely apolitical. Its targets have been Liberal and Labor alike, the rich and the not-so-famous.
We agree with Commissioner Latham’s comment this week that without the ICAC – and indeed without the Herald’s investigative journalism that regularly alerts and informs the watchdog – “the public would be largely ignorant of the enormous amounts of public money that are wasted through corrupt practices on an almost daily basis and which we at the commission see evidence of on an ongoing basis”.
As Commissioner Latham says, that public money should be going towards the improvement of services, not lining somebody’s pockets.
On rare occasions the ICAC overreaches and unduly damages reputations while being accused of playing fast and loose with natural justice. This year it seemed to cross the line with investigations into what looked to be a trivial matter regarding former DPP Margaret Cunneen SC. She challenged successfully in the High Court.
Fortunately, most NSW politicians realise there is no justification for throwing the anti-corruption baby out with the reputation and legal technicality bathwater. They know the ICAC’s crucial role in cleaning up the state. They know how much the public values the watchdog’s work. The need for tweaking of the ICAC’s rules and remedies for aggrieved parties is a small price to pay for the good the watchdog achieves.
The message to all MPs is surely clear: neuter ICAC at your peril.
Recognising this, the NSW Parliament has rightly enacted recommendations from an independent review so that the ICAC’s powers are limited to serious cases when making findings of corruption of the process of public administration by private citizens. The body’s long-standing ability to initiate prosecutions has been confirmed in law, although all decisions on how those cases proceed still depends on the Director of Public Prosecutions not the ICAC.
Commissioner Latham pointedly rejected criticism from ICAC inspector David Levine three weeks ago that her organisation risked being seen as “breathtakingly arrogant”.
“The comments … were in the opening introduction to the report,” Commissioner Latham said. “The body of the report itself did not substantiate any complaint that had been made to him in the last financial year, it did not substantiate any claim of maladministration and it did not in fact give us any particulars which we might have thought could have supported an allegation of arrogance.”
Inspector Levine’s annual report did, however, reveal 60 new complaints to him about the ICAC, compared with 27 in the previous reporting period.
“When people have a great deal to lose you can expect them to take every step that they’re entitled to take for the purposes of defending their reputations,” the commissioner told ABC radio.
It may be that stronger, more frequent reviews of ICAC’s operations are needed to bolster the annual inspections. The Herald would welcome any measures that fine-tuned the ICAC’s enabling legislation, to guard against cheap shots from those with conservative allies who would rather big business and influence peddlers went unchecked.