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‘Wheels have fallen off’ ICAC Act, says Lander

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Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander says it’s not for him to say whether Attorney-General Vickie Chapman broke the law, but concedes the ongoing controversy has “reflected badly” on his organisation.

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Lander and the ICAC Act have been in the public spotlight since September, when Chapman publicly linked his office to questions about the whereabouts of senior Renewal SA executives in a statement distributed to media, prompting questions as to whether she had breached the law – a suggestion she denies.

Her statement followed a tense exchange in a parliamentary estimates hearing, during which Labor frontbencher Tom Koutsantonis grilled Planning Minister Stephan Knoll about a bizarre public statement he issued, unsolicited, to The Advertiser newspaper about the missing executives. Koutsantonis also raised the spectre of ICAC in his questions.

Neither Koutsantonis’s questions nor Chapman’s statement relating to ICAC were reported by media, on legal advice, until Lander issued his own statement authorising publication of the Attorney-General’s release.

In an interview on ABC Radio Adelaide today, Lander conceded he was “more concerned” about Koutsantonis’s questions in parliament than he was about the Attorney-General’s public statement, but he refused to say whether he believed she had breached the ICAC Act.

“Nobody is allowed to break the law… we all must comply with the law, but it’s not for me to pass an opinion as to whether she has,” he said.

“What I’m concerned about is if members exercise that right of parliamentary privilege in a way that impacts upon the operation of the Act under which I work – that’s my concern.”

He reiterated his point made in evidence to a parliamentary committee this week that the use of privilege to seek information about an ongoing investigation was “novel” and “hasn’t occurred before in the last five and a half years of the operation of my office”.

“The effect of what [Koutsantonis] has done is to change the landscape in relation to the operation of the Act and as a consequence of that, we’ve got to look at how the Act works and how it’s going to work in the future,” he told presenter David Bevan.

“You’ve said that the ‘wheels have fallen off’ and I think that’s a fair description… I think the events of the last six or so weeks have been very unfortunate and have reflected rather badly… perhaps badly on my organisation.

“I think what has happened is the spirit of the Act… that I carry out my investigations quietly and unobtrusively, has been compromised.”

Earlier this week, he flagged a broader debate about the use of parliamentary privilege in relation to ICAC and police investigations, adding today that “if parliamentarians insist upon the right to continue to bring allegations of that kind into the public through the parliament, then something has to be done about the Act”.

Asked whether politics had “trumped principle” in the recent controversies, he said, “possibly [but] I think there are a number of decisions that have been made over the last few years in response to my claims for public hearings in relation to maladministration that had been driven by politics rather than principle”.

Lander has long called for the right to hold public maladministration hearings, a request that was frustrated by the former Labor government. He had previously welcomed the Liberal Government’s Bill to allow public hearings, but recent changes to the legislation giving witnesses Supreme Court appeal rights have seen him deem it effectively unworkable and providing merely the “illusion” of transparency.

“It seems to me absurd that I can publish a public report identifying the issues which I’ve investigated, but the public can’t see the way in which I’ve investigated it,” he told the ABC today.

“My view is that if there’s an appeal process, parties and lawyers will use it to stultify the investigation and to obtain evidence to which they’re not otherwise entitled at that stage of the investigation… it’ll be used as a tactic for the purpose of persons obtaining an advantage to which they’re not entitled.”

Lander conceded SA had “considerable” maladministration issues due to “poor governance”, which was allowing corruption to flourish.

He said this included “procurement corruption, corruption in the use of credit cards [and] in the exercise of power”.

“I’ve said publicly a number of times, I think maladministration in South Australia is more important that corruption because I think the existence of maladministration allows for the exercise of corruption but I think there is significant evidence of poor governance amongst some of the larger agencies in South Australia,” he said.

Interviewed on the same station, Premier Steven Marshall said Koutsantonis was “probably technically perfectly entitled” to ask questions about ICAC under parliamentary privilege, but added: “Do I think he was reckless? Yes.”

But Koutsantonis said he had no regrets about his line of questioning and that “the Opposition is always going to ask difficult questions”.

“The Government runs a number of government businesses – SA Water, Renewal SA, the South Australian Financing Authority – that on our behalf go out and borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars… we are going to ask difficult questions about the management of those agencies, because we want to protect the taxpayers,” he said.

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