The Coalition whinging about ICAC is nothing new
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.
It had to happen. After last week's controversy which led to the resignation of Barry O'Farrell, we started hearing complaints and calls from the Coalition for the corruption watchdog's powers to be reduced. This is not new: it happened very early in Icac's life.
Back in 1990 and in its first inquiry, the commission investigated donations from land developers on the NSW north coast. In his report, the Icac deputy commissioner Adrian Roden QC reported no "proper basis for a finding involving dishonesty", but found against various MPs for "creating a climate conducive to corruption". Among the MPs named were the leader of the National party and deputy premier, the late Wal Murray, the current minister for local government, Don Page, as well as other National party MPs. As with the current Icac investigation, there was a bipartisan element to the scandal, with two Labor backbenchers also implicated.
As soon as Roden's report came down, Murray and his parliamentary colleagues launched a broadside against the body they had helped establish just a year before. As chief of staff to then opposition leader Bob Carr, I watched with a mix of bemusement and amusement as they fulminated, like Dr Frankenstein, against the monster who was meant to destroy Labor, not their own.
Icac was the brainchild of the Liberal attorney general and later supreme court judge John Dowd, and Nick Greiner's adviser and corruption chaser, Gary Sturgess. I came to know Sturgess in later years, and I respect his intellect and sincerity as a policy reformer. In 1989 though, with Labor now in opposition and on the back foot over some of the things that had happened in its 13 years in office, Icac was seen by many in the party as a vehicle for the Greiner government to mount an ongoing attack on Labor identities. It would, they said, be a standing royal commission into Labor.
There was some basis for this concern: when he introduced the Icac legislation, Dowd got caught in a slanging match with Labor's street fighting shadow attorney general, Paul "Benny" Whelan. When Whelan interjected on Dowd, the attorney general lost his cool and said that Icac would be spending a lot of its time investigating Labor. This exposed Dowd to the claim that the Liberals wanted to politicise an independent body.
It was against this highly politicised background that Carr had to lead Labor in the debate over the legislation that most felt would be a corruption millstone around Labor's collective neck for a generation (nothing's new in NSW politics). The exquisite dilemma that Carr faced as we debated our position on the Icac bill was that Labor, with the support of minor parties, had the numbers in the Legislative Council to amend or reject the legislation. But blocking the bill would expose Labor to the claim it was protecting its crooked mates.
I can still recall the delegations of MPs and former ministers coming into the Opposition offices in Parliament House to pressure Carr into pulling Icac's fangs. It came to a head at the National ALP Conference in Hobart when senior figures, mainly from the right, told him what he must do. To his eternal credit, Carr stood up to them all and said he would not block a piece of legislation for which Greiner had a clear mandate – the Liberals had campaigned strongly on it in the 1988 NSW state election. Carr told them that if the factions didn't like it, then they could find another opposition leader.
In the end, the bill became law with only a few minor amendments and Carr, for the first time, looked to me like a premier in waiting. He had done what all successful Labor leaders must do: he showed the public that he was bigger than the party. And despite him having to deal with Icac inquiries into his own government and despite having to give evidence before it, I never once heard Carr publicly or privately call for Icac's powers to be reduced.
Of course, as we now know, Murray's problems were nothing compared with Greiner's. The "Metherell affair" as it came to be known, came about as the indirect result of instability created by a hung parliament (nothing's new in politics). Greiner had just held onto office at the 1991 election, despite having won the 1988 campaign with the then largest majority in the state's history. It was a very good campaign, attacking cuts to services, privatisation and corruption in the government (nothing's new in NSW politics).
When Terry Metherell, the controversial former education minister, lost his portfolio and retired to the backbench, he found a reason to quit the Liberal party – and the loss of a guaranteed Liberal vote in the parliament in turn threatened Greiner's hold on time. So a deal was engineered, whereby Metherell would quit his seat in parliament in return for a lucrative government appointment. He held the safe seat of Davidson, and the Liberals were assured of regaining it in a by-election. For some reason, no one on the government side questioned the ethics or the legality of this deal. Almost as soon as this transaction was announced, I received a call from a leading Sydney barrister who said that the swap certainly was corrupt within the meaning of the Icac act.
I won't repeat chapter and verse of the subsequent Icac inquiry conducted by its commissioner, Ian Temby QC, other than to state that he found that Greiner and other Liberal ministers and MPs had acted corruptly. Again, there were outcries by Liberals and Nationals complaining of unfairness and of course, they were accompanied by calls for Icac to be scuttled.
In this case however, unlike with O'Farrell, Greiner didn't willingly fall on his sword. He was forced to resign when the Independents holding the balance of power said that if he stayed as premier, they would force a vote of no confidence in the government. In the end, it was Greiner's colleagues in the Liberal party room who forced him to resign, rather than face an election they would almost certainly have lost.
It was a drama that had all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. In creating Icac, Greiner was the architect of his own demise (an appeal to the supreme court eventually saw the Icac's findings against Greiner overturned). But despite the inevitable complaints and disappointments when friends and leaders are forced out of office, can anyone credibly argue that NSW would have been better off without it?