by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberrra Times, 17 October 2020]
I only met former NSW ICAC commissioner David Ipp twice, but he was a memorable gentleman who made a big impression. The first time we met was at the Australia Institute’s Accountability and the Law conference at Parliament House in 2017, where he opened the conference with an anecdote that had the audience of barristers, solicitors and public servants laughing within the first minute. Describing the recent discovery of a 7000-year-old clay tablet inscribed with the story of a king’s official who was executed for taking bribes from people trying to buy land from the king, he quipped: “Developers were causing trouble even then.”
David Ipp passed away a week ago, and a fitting way to honour his legacy of fighting corruption is to renew efforts to establish a strong independent federal anti-corruption commission, with a broad jurisdiction, strong powers and the ability to hold public hearings.
A former NSW Court of Appeals judge, Ipp was the NSW ICAC commissioner between 2009 and 2014, during which he presided over the ICAC investigation into Eddie Obeid’s corruption in obtaining NSW coal mining licences.
Ipp was a formidable corruption fighter. A member of the National Integrity Committee – an independent group of former judges and corruption fighters, auspiced by the Australia Institute, which created a design blueprint for an effective federal anti-corruption body – he was at pains to make it well understood just how difficult corruption can be to expose.
Corruption is, by its nature, secretive. Without investigation it flourishes and eats away at the public interest like termites through the timber framing of a house. That’s why specialist bodies with specialist coercive powers, similar to a royal commission, are required to uncover corruption.
This week NSW provided the clearest possible evidence of the need for a federal ICAC. The NSW ICAC inquiry into Daryl Maguire presented evidence that – for years – a member of parliament who was in a secret relationship with the Premier had promoted his business, Gateway International, as selling access to the highest levels of government. Mr Maguire used code words to arrange secret meetings between property developers and senior NSW government officials, and was involved in a cash-for-visa scam. Both his property dealings around the controversial Badgerys Creek airport site and his cash-for-visa business have clear implications for federal government policy and, possibly, for federal politicians.
Likewise, the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority’s inquiry into Crown Casino has embroiled the former communications minister Helen Coonan, the former secretary of the Department of Finance Jane Halton, and the former Commonwealth chief medical officer John Horvath. All of these former Commonwealth officials became board members of Crown Resorts, responsible for overseeing a company accused of turning a blind eye to money laundering and illegally promoting gambling junkets in China.
The vast majority of Australian politicians and public servants are sincere and hard-working people, and a strong ICAC would weed out the small number who aren’t. The idea that all corrupt politicians and public servants in Australia confine themselves to state politics is simply absurd.
It is close to two years since Attorney-General Christian Porter promised a Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC). No matter what its talking points say, the Coalition government’s commitment to fighting corruption was weak well before anyone had heard of the coronavirus. Just as Donald Trump knows that if you don’t test for COVID-19 you won’t find so many cases, if Christian Porter doesn’t look for corruption, he won’t find any either.
Whatever the reasons for delay, Christian Porter should immediately release the exposure draft of the legislation to establish the CIC. Now is the perfect time to air out its flaws, debate its weaknesses and strengthen its substance.
The CIC forms two separate systems for corruption control – one for law enforcement and one for public sector corruption – that would operate with different powers. While a corrupt police officer could face a public inquiry, a corrupt politician could not. The public sector division would also be prohibited from starting its own investigations unless there is evidence of criminal conduct, and prohibited from investigating whistleblower complaints or tip-offs from the public – which is how Eddie Obeid was caught. What can we conclude from this other than the rules have been drawn up to protect politicians and public servants from scrutiny?
The Commonwealth government each year oversees billions of dollars in infrastructure spending and defence procurement. It hands out multibillion-dollar contracts to private companies, gives out millions in grants to sports facilities (at least those in certain electorates), to private employment agencies and to private schools. The Coalition government has bought land and water at many times the market value, sometimes from its donors, with little explanation, oversight or accountability. It outsources billions of dollars of public sector work to private accounting firms, and it’s about to spend half a trillion dollars to try and stimulate the economy.
The opportunities for corruption at the federal level are as obvious to the public as Donald Trump’s spray tan, yet huge gaps in our integrity system remain.
I mention Trump so often because his administration has shown that in four short years, corruption can become the accepted norm. Much like Daryl Maguire, Trump has used his office to personally enrich himself, ignoring the public interest and demonstrating that corruption quickly becomes endemic unless eradicated.
David Ipp also acknowledged the tensions between the limits we place on different freedoms – particularly when using powers such as phone-tapping and public hearings to investigate corruption.
When it came to balancing these tensions, he quoted philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “The more wolves are given freedom to hunt, the more sheep will die. While the more sheep are protected, the more wolves will starve to death.”
All Australian states have anti-corruption bodies that protect the sheep, but federally, wolves have the freedom to hunt.