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ICAC's refusal to let aggrieved widow speak 'high catalyst' for reform

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The architect of South Australia’s contentious ICAC reforms says he was motivated to act after Commissioner Ann Vanstone told a widow that she couldn’t speak to MPs about the circumstances that led to her husband taking his own life following a drawn-out investigation.

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SA Best MLC Frank Pangallo described Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vantone’s decision to refuse widow Debbie Barr permission to speak to him at Parliament House after her husband’s death as “unwarranted” and “high among the catalysts for the legislation which Parliament passed unanimously last week”.

In evidence to Parliament’s Select Committee on Damage, Harm or Adverse Outcomes Resulting from ICAC Investigations on Monday, Barr recounted the events that led to the 2019 death of her high-ranking police officer husband Doug, who was under investigation by the ICAC but ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Barr told the committee that Doug, who served as a police officer for 43 years, endured over two years of mental anguish knowing he was under an ICAC investigation but unsure of what he was being accused of, before the pressure of the situation eventually led him to attempt to take his life in the family home.

She said he died in hospital eight days before former ICAC Bruce Lander finalised his investigation draft report that cleared the decorated police officer of wrongdoing.

A letter tabled in parliament this week shows Barr wrote to Lander’s successor Vanstone in October last year – about one year after Doug’s death – seeking permission to speak to Pangallo about the ICAC investigation.

Pangallo asserts the conversation would have been held at Parliament House and protected under parliamentary privilege.

Barr was required to obtain authorisation from Vanstone in accordance with since-weakened secrecy provisions under the ICAC Act that prevented individuals from disclosing information about investigations.

“I have previously sought (and been granted) authorisations from this office in order to disclose information to individuals within SAPOL for the purposes of assisting with the Coronial Investigation into Doug’s death,” Barr wrote.

“I am now in a position where it is necessary to discuss the situation surrounding Doug’s death with a member of the Parliament of South Australia.

“However, it is proving impractical to have this conversation while avoiding any mention or discussion of the ICAC investigation that was ongoing at the time of his passing.”

In her response to Barr eight days later, Vanstone expressed her condolences, but said she did “not consider it appropriate to provide the authorisation”.

“May I commence by expressing my condolences for the loss of your husband,” she wrote.

“Section 54 of the ICAC Act exists to protect the confidentiality of an ICAC investigation.

“In the circumstances and noting that the coronial investigation is ongoing, I do not consider that it would be appropriate to provide the authorisation that you request.

“However, I do authorise you to disclose this letter to Mr Pangallo MLC if you so desire.”

Barr told the parliamentary committee she felt compelled to speak to Pangallo “because nobody was listening to us and we knew that a terrible thing had happened to our family”.

“We needed to shed light on it because it was such a terrible thing and we didn’t want it to happen to anybody else again, really,” she said.

Barr’s son, Christopher, who was also giving evidence before the committee, said the family was “shocked” to read that Vanstone had denied them permission to speak to Pangallo.

“We thought it was a very clear-cut thing that that permission should be forthcoming,” he said.

“We thought it would be a procedural question that we had to ask for that permission but we didn’t anticipate that we would be denied the opportunity or denied permission to speak with members of parliament about what had happened.”

The Barrs gave evidence to the committee days after parliament swiftly and unanimously passed a bill introduced by Pangallo to significantly clip the ICAC’s wings.

This is the way Parliament should work in an ideal world

Under the old Act, individuals were prevented from speaking publicly about ICAC investigations unless they had the Commissioner’s authorisation.

The new laws, which are yet to be assented, strengthen the privilege provisions in the Act, which would allow individuals to disclose information about ICAC investigations when speaking under parliamentary privilege.

Pangallo told InDaily that the privilege protections needed to be addressed in legislation to “correct the many flaws in the original Bill passed nearly 20 years ago”.

“That unsatisfactory repose to Mrs Barr, along with the appalling treatment of eight police officers from Sturt Mantle charged and much later found not guilty after the botched joint SAPOL-ICAC investigation known as Operation Bandicoot, were high among the catalysts for the legislation which Parliament passed unanimously last week,” he said.

“Mrs Barr had nowhere and no one to turn to seek some redress at the tragic, unfair and unwarranted circumstances that overwhelmed her distraught family.

“What the Barr family has had to endure is only now beginning to emerge and this cannot be allowed to happen again. Nor the treatment of those eight innocent police officers.”

Pangallo said he understood why Vanstone expressed caution to Barr, but described her refusal as “unwarranted”.

“This is where the public debate has been mischievously side-tracked by hysterical media commentary, fuelled by the current Commissioner and her predecessor, that it has been designed to protect ‘corrupt MPs and police officers’,” he said.

“It doesn’t do that at all and how people could believe that 69 politicians would all do this for self-interest is plain madness.

“It provides additional protections for whistle-blowers and those like Mrs Barr who have been harmed.

“This is the way Parliament should work in an ideal world.

“I wish we could see more of it.”

InDaily contacted Vanstone for comment.

Alongside strengthening the primacy of parliamentary privilege, the ICAC reforms also restrict the office’s jurisdiction to investigating matters of serious and systemic corruption.

Misconduct and maladministration investigations will be the responsibility of the State Ombudsman, with the Office of Public Integrity moved out of the ICAC’s jurisdiction.

The laws, which were prompted by recommendations from a separate parliamentary committee chaired by Pangallo, also establish an independent Office of the Inspector to replace the current ICAC Reviewer – with “enhanced powers of review and oversight of ICAC”.

Both Vanstone and Lander have criticised the reforms, with the former saying the laws will “severely narrow ICAC’s powers [placing] politicians out of reach”.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 – or you can call the Mental Health Triage Service/Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service on 13 14 65.

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