A Parliamentary Committee has warned that NSW’s Government oversight bodies are no longer able to fulfil their “statutory and constitutional functions” due to successive budget cuts, and the politicisation of their funding.
In a recent report, the Parliament’s Public Accountability Committee revealed that the State’s major anti-corruption body, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), is at risk of losing its “integrity and independence.”
ICAC was established in 1989, following a decade of corruption scandals around Australia. Since then, it’s enjoyed broad public, political, and media support as a bulwark against corruption in the State.
Its high watermark was in leading the inquiry into Eddie Obeid, a former Minister whose activities seemed beyond the scrutiny of media, policy and courts. Following a forensic dissection of the Obeid empire, ICAC uncovered a series of carefully-concealed business deals that led to his prosecution in 2016.
But popular support hasn’t ensured its survival.
Undermining The Independence Of Anti-Corruption Bodies
Under the Baird Government, ICAC had its investigative powers clipped substantially. More recently, the organisation has warned that budget cuts forced on it by the Berejiklian Government – 10% over the last financial year – mean it will be forced to shed up to a quarter of it’s staff.
Because agencies like ICAC are tasked with holding the Government to account, they are meant independent from Government interference. However, when it comes to their budgets, that’s not the case.
Every year, ICAC is required to submit a budget proposal to the State Government for review. The Government can either accept or reject this proposal, before passing it to Parliament as part of an Appropriations Bill.
The report notes that ICAC applied for increased funding in seven of the last 12 State budgets, but was rejected on all but two of those occasions.
“Having legal independence is one thing but it means very little if the Government can prevent investigation by cutting off the money,” David Shoebridge, Chair of the Public Accountability Committee said.
Another major problem highlighted by the report is that the Government doesn’t have to disclose their reasoning for cutting an organisation’s budget – making it impossible for Parliament or the public to hold them to account.
According to the report, “once an agency has lodged its budget bid then the entire process of scrutiny… is controlled by the Executive without any independent review and without any public disclosure.”
Systematic Corruption Goes Unchecked
The “people of New South Wales have the right to know if these agencies are not being funded to the appropriate level,” the reports authors said.
Last year, the former-head of the State’s police watchdog, Michael Adams QC, raised similar concerns about the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), warning that it was unable to investigate many of the numerous complaints made against the police due to funding cuts.
“If a liberal and democratic society is to flourish we need to ensure that the credibility of public institutions is restored and safeguarded,” Nicholas Greiner, the former-Premier of NSW, said on the establishment of ICAC.
“Nothing is more destructive of democracy than a situation where people lack confidence in those administrators that stand in a position of public trust.”
ICAC is currently conducting two high level investigations, one into an illegal $100,000 cash donation to NSW Labor, and another into the role and influence of lobbyists. At the same time, it has seen the number of matters referred to it increase substantially.
In this environment, the only ones who stand to benefit from a weakened ICAC are those with something to hide – with the public left footing the costs of unchecked corruption.