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'Extraordinary swiftness, minimum debate': Ex-judges lash ICAC law change

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A former High Court judge and other eminent jurists have lashed the SA Parliament for its changes to the ICAC Act, saying they “emasculate” the anti-corruption body and “feed the perception … the changes were in truth designed to protect politicians”.

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The former judges, speaking as members of the National Integrity Committee, today issued a statement criticising legislation passed swiftly and unanimously by state MPs last week to curb ICAC powers.

The committee includes former High Court judge Mary Gaudron QC, former Victorian Court of Appeal judges Stephen Charles QC and David Harper QC, former NSW Court of Appeal judges Paul Stein QC and Anthony Whealy QC, former Queensland Court of Appeal judge Margaret White and former WA Court of Appeal president Carmel McLure QC.

The committee said it was “deeply concerned” about the changes, which have been strongly criticised by current Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone, and her predecessor Bruce Lander.

Architect of the legislation, SA Best MLC Frank Pangallo, said it streamlined the power and responsibilities of the ICAC to focus only on matters of serious and systemic corruption, with misconduct and maladministration to be investigated by the state Ombudsman and a separate Office of Public Integrity to be set up, along with Office of the Inspector that will have powers of oversight and report directly to parliament.

Pangallo said he was motivated to act after a string of failed prosecutions stemming from ICAC investigations, and the office’s refusal to allow the widow of a senior police officer who took his life during one inquiry to talk to him about the issue.

But the speed of the legislation’s passage through Parliament raised eyebrows, with scrutiny of the changes unanimously endorsed by MPs revealing the new difficulties of investigating potential maladministration or corruption among elected members.

The National Integrity Committee today hit out at the SA Parliament’s actions.

“As we all well know corruption in public office is insidious, well hidden, and erodes trust in our public institutions,” the statement said.

“We unreservedly endorse the need to ensure that reputations are not damaged unfairly in the investigation of corruption. We also understand the need to make appropriate changes when the systems and processes have proven to be seriously insufficient.

“However, the recent amendments appear troublesome and raise a real concern that integrity reform has been set back considerably in South Australia. Certainly, that is the clear view of the well respected ICAC Commissioner Ann Vanstone who maintains that ‘ICAC’s jurisdiction to investigate corruption has been decimated’.

“These laws have been passed at a time when public confidence in politicians and the political process are dangerously low.

“In the circumstances, the fact that the South Australian Parliament has acted with extraordinary swiftness, and with minimum debate, to emasculate its ICAC will feed the perception, as its critics claim, that the changes were in truth designed to protect politicians.

“This, in turn, will increase the pervasive cynicism by which democracy is further debilitated.”

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