Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill 2015

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [5.05 p.m.]: I speak in debate on the Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill 2015 and I commend the bill to the House. Corruption is a force that tears our State apart. Sometime it feels as if corruption is ever present in the corridors of Parliament. The recent scandals have uncovered the stain on society that corruption brings. Now the New South Wales Parliament has a chance to move the State towards ending corruption in New South Wales public life. The bill is a window of opportunity to make a difference. For too long the people of New South Wales have had little reason to have faith in the administration of their State. We have seen the abuse of coal licences being granted for personal gain and the abuse of power in granting leases for waterfront cafes. A legion of members of Parliament have been forced to leave office as a result of their corruption. Premiers have left office as a result of the Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC] investigations.

Stones have been left unturned. The case of Independent Commission Against Corruption v Cunneen exposed weaknesses within the system of investigating corruption in New South Wales. Those weaknesses must be addressed. I fear there are still many cases of corruption about to be unearthed—cases that must be unearthed—and that will happen only if the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act is amended accordingly. The current process in New South Wales is flawed and clearly does not provide justice for the people of New South Wales. The community has moved beyond wanting to expose corruption. It now expects that justice will be served.

Currently, findings of corruption made by ICAC can only be referred to, and a prosecution recommended by, the New South Wales Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP] for determination on whether the ICAC findings and evidence constitute criminal behaviour under criminal law. The New South Wales DPP considers whether fraud, theft, tax evasion or other such criminal conduct has occurred. It then makes a decision whether or not to proceed with a criminal prosecution of the individual or individuals who were found guilty of corrupt conduct by the ICAC. If the New South Wales DPP does not believe that a crime has been committed, or if the evidence obtained by the ICAC is inadmissible before a criminal trial, regardless of the corrupt conduct determination of the ICAC or the scale of wrongdoing, nothing can be done and the corrupt individual can profit from his or her illicit behaviour.

It is a significant problem that when evidence is considered in a public inquiry—rather than a court applying rules of criminal evidence—it has the effect of compromising the evidence. It is unlikely that the New South Wales DPP will prosecute based on flawed evidence. It is ironic that the very process that is designed to expose corruption is the one likely to prevent justice being served on the corrupt parties. The ICAC must have the necessary means to investigate and take action on corruption. Unless we agree to all the recommendations made by the Hon. Murray Gleeson and Bruce McClintock, the remaining integrity of New South Wales is in danger. The first recommendation to broaden the definition of "corrupt conduct" regarding collusive tendering, fraud and dishonesty is decades too late to undo the corruption of the recent past.

Nevertheless, it paves the way towards preventing our State being sold off by corrupt politicians, which is a risk that is ever present unless the ICAC is strengthened. Unfortunately, a grey area has emerged between plain language and legal discourse. Even the meaning of "adversely affect" has fallen into the syllogistic reasoning of the High Court to bring doubt to the existing provisions of the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act. That is, should an individual whose conduct in activities that adversely affects the reputation of the office he or she holds be held accountable to the ICAC?

The public's answer is: yes, they certainly should. The crux of the matter goes beyond the girlfriend of a son of a senior public prosecutor. This is an issue of the very validity of the Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC] and the protection of our State from corruption. Recommendation No. 3 is perhaps the most important and covers elections. Elections are far too easily influenced by money, greed and corruption. The formalised cooperation between the New South Wales Electoral Commission and the ICAC is long overdue, and I look forward to any corrupt individuals attempting to influence election results being stopped dead in their tracks.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill adopts another necessary recommendation from the Gleeson-McClintock review—that is, to focus ICAC's attention on serious and systemic corrupt conduct. I agree with the Gleeson-McClintock report that the role of ICAC is to complement the existing justice system and to provide relief when no other remedy is available. Occasionally, as the report outlines, there may be a risk of serious, systemic corruption, or an absence of capacity or willingness on the part of a body to implement anti-corruption strategies. These issues are extremely serious and are likely to be far more common than the people of New South Wales are willing to accept. Therefore, the recommendation that ICAC direct its attention to cases of serious corrupt conduct and systemic corrupt conduct must be ratified by this House.

Clearly, corrupt officials who are not elected should not be able to escape the reach of ICAC. Non-public officials are responsible for the day-to-day running of New South Wales, and their importance is reflected in their high salaries and their power to make changes within their respective organisations. I am proud to be a member of an Opposition that is ready to take action to provide ICAC with the power it needs to investigate suspected corruption by non-public officials. The Gleeson-McClintock report is wise to resist the proposal that ICAC's power to find corrupt conduct not be limited to serious and systemic cases of corruption. Members of this House are aware that individuals who have made the conscious decision to be corrupt and who have taken action in their own interests have been able to escape punishment, even if their crimes against society have been publicly and truthfully exposed. Members are also aware that corruption is never committed individually. There must be undue influence and a motive to pursue illicit profit. That is what it all comes down to—the desire for power, ownership and money.

ICAC must evolve to meet the challenges that it faces. The amendments offered by the Premier are the first step in a long-overdue evolution of ICAC's powers. Just like biological evolution, if ICAC does not adapt it will perish. The commission's powers must be broadened to include those addressed in the Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill. I would like to see further evolution in ICAC and amendments that have not been included in this bill. The first is to introduce a seizure system for the assets derived through corruption, which would provide a disincentive for corruption in the first place and return to the people of New South Wales the millions, possibly billions, of dollars that have been stolen from them through corruption spanning decades. The second is to introduce a national version of ICAC that has the ability to target systemic and serious corruption at a national level that so far has remained undetected due to the lack of mechanisms available to Federal investigators.

New South Wales is—and should be—proud of ICAC. It as an anti-corruption body that many places, if not most places, around Australia and the world lack. But there is more to do. It has been only 27 years since ICAC was established and it has uncovered challenges thought impossible when it started its inquiries. The evolution of ICAC is a core interest to this State and it is the responsibility of this House to ensure its relevance into the future. It is vital that the Government provide justice for the people of New South Wales and that those guilty of corruption be punished. We need to send a clear message that those who enter public life for the purpose of abusing power will never have the opportunity to profit from corruption. I commend the bill to the House.

Ms JENNY AITCHISON (Maitland) [5.13 p.m.]: I support the Independent Commission Against Corruption Amendment Bill 2015. All members of this House are aware of the terrible scourge of corruption and its impact on our State Government and our community—perhaps none more so than those of us in the Hunter, who were so deeply affected by this in the last term of government. In that last term, the Independent Commission Against Corruption [ICAC] hearings became a daily event for people of the Hunter, as—like an onion—layer upon layer was peeled back to show even more behaviour that was so terrible that none of us could quite believe it. We waited daily to hear which of the newly elected members would resign when allegations about brown-paper bags containing money and other forms of corruption were broadcast. Back in the 1990s I was proud to be a Commonwealth Government official, so I was appalled to hear of this corruption. I could not believe that this kind of behaviour could be acceptable and that people would seek the office that we hold with such honour and privilege and want to take more for themselves.

I have travelled the world as a travel agent and have seen countries where corruption, baksheesh and other kinds of favours are par for the course. I had always believed that those practices had not reached our community nor had an impact on us. I believe, and I have always said, that corruption starts with a single cup of coffee. When offered a gift from someone, we must be clear about why it is being offered. If we feel that taking the gift could lead to a sense of obligation to that person in the future, we should not accept it. It is important to be clear whom we represent in this place. We represent our communities, not sectional interests. It is sometimes hard to make these things clear because we have all come from different groups, organisations or businesses and different backgrounds. Those experiences have informed the way that we came into this place. However, we must always remember that when we walk through the doors into this Chamber we come in here solely as representatives of our community, solely to work for the benefit of our State and solely to ensure that the good of our whole community is put above the good of any organisation with which we may have some association.

I am proud to be a member of the New South Wales Parliament. It is such a sad and disgraceful thing that there are people who have been in this place who have not taken that commitment seriously. In supporting this bill, it is important for all of us to take to heart what it seeks to achieve so that we do not place ourselves in those positions. I also draw to the attention of the House the importance of being clear in what we say to the community. We have seen what happened in the Hunter and the way that that was dealt with by the sitting members. Some of them left their parties and some left Parliament, which necessitated by-elections. Promises were made about the action that would be taken, but they were not acted upon. It was said that apologies would be made so that people could feel that there had been clarity.

I am concerned about what is happening with our rail line in Newcastle. I believe that we need to ensure that the Government is acting clearly on that issue. I can say, hand on my heart, that I am there for my community in respect of that issue. I also want to ensure that we speak honestly in election campaigns. My dear friend the member for Strathfield has been through the ICAC process. Damage was done to her life and her political career when she was attacked by people with other agendas. It is important to ensure that that kind of behaviour does not happen and that it is not accepted.

I have been lucky enough to see elections being held in other countries on my travels around the world. People in some countries have to have their hands dyed when they vote to ensure that they vote only once. I have also seen people with low levels of literacy use symbols on ballot papers, which allows them to participate fully in the democratic process. Our universal ballot is a fairer electoral process, and that is important. It provides a level of safeguard against corruption because it makes it harder for people to buy votes. It is also important that we transfer some of the provisions in this bill into the Federal sphere and that we examine the Federal approach to this issue. We must ensure that the rigour that is being applied to us in terms of donation caps—the amounts that donors can provide to our campaigns—is applied to the Federal sphere. At the moment it is too easy for people to donate to different levels of parties and in so doing seek to influence the political debate in our country.

I have no issues with unions. As my Government friends have said, that is because Labor members know that unions are there for the workers—the men and women of our country who actually do the work and try to help each other—and are there for the general community. The unions have done a wonderful job of advocating on behalf of our community at different times. In conclusion, I commend the bill to the House. It is always good to see a government that is prepared to look for better ways to fight corruption and better ways to ensure that those who are corrupt are brought to account. I am pleased to state that the Opposition, with the very same commitment to integrity and honesty in politics, supports the bill.

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