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ICAC at odds with both parties on open hearings

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Anti-corruption commissioner Bruce Lander will make a last-ditch bid to persuade parliament not to pass a Bill allowing public maladministration hearings, with both the Government and Opposition seeking changes he argues will make the legislation unworkable.

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The Independent Commissioner Against Corruption is now at odds with both major parties, after the Government late last year tabled a revised form of the Bill, which was first introduced to parliament last May.

Lander broadly supported the legislation in its original form, but it was stymied when Labor blocked its passage unless it was referred to parliament’s Crime and Public Integrity Policy Committee for review. That review saw the Bill redrafted with new safeguards for people under investigation, including the right to appeal the process to the Supreme Court – a provision Lander has slammed as creating “the illusion of public hearings”.

In correspondence late last year, he warned Attorney-General Vickie Chapman the Bill in its current form would ensure public hearings in fact never take place, telling parliament “what will happen in fact is that the lawyers will move in, they will appeal that process… and that will stop the investigation for a period of time”.

“Lawyers will use this and parties will use this to slow down and stop investigations [and] in most cases, the risk of carrying out an investigation using a public hearing will be too great, because the investigation itself will be frustrated by the fact of the appeal process,” he told the committee in November.

“I think it is a very bad provision.”

InDaily last week revealed Labor will seek to add its own amendments, including recommendations of the committee not included in the Government’s revised Bill.

These include giving public officers facing maladministration allegations the right to refuse to give evidence to an ICAC investigation.

In a statement to InDaily, Lander’s office said: “There are many aspects of the proposed amendments that the Commissioner disagrees with… he intends to write to the Attorney-General and the Leader of the Opposition this week with his views.”

His office said Lander would ask both Chapman and Labor leader Peter Malinauskas “if they agree to making the correspondence public”.

Shadow Attorney-General Kyam Maher said Labor would “want to see the correspondence before deciding that”.

“We’re absolutely happy to have conversations [and] we probably don’t have any objections, but we’d have to see the letter first,” he said.

The impetus for open hearings in maladministration matters came from recommendations Lander himself made after investigating recent scandals over the Gillman land sale and Oakden Older Persons Mental Health facility, but Maher implied the commissioner would not have the final word on the form of legislation.

“I note the commissioner has publicly said he disagrees with aspects of the Bill as it currently stands before parliament,” Maher said.

“The commissioner, like anyone else, is entitled to their views – parliament will consider what it thinks reasonable.”

But Chapman told InDaily she had “no problem with the commissioner making his correspondence public in relation to this matter”.

“What it will show is the likelihood that the Labor Party’s so-called amendments are completely unworkable and will likely ensure absolutely no public hearing is ever held, proving once again how allergic the Labor Party are to open and transparent Government,” she said in a statement.

“Again, what we see here is the Labor Party dragging their feet on this important legislation… they are doing exactly what they are renowned for – suggesting amendments to legislation at the last hour before it is due to pass the Parliament.”

Chapman said she had only received the Opposition’s final changes yesterday and had been advised that “as of today, the Labor Party has not even bothered to brief the ICAC Commissioner on their amendments”.

“I will be considering them on their merits… however, amendments that stifle open hearings will not be considered,” she said.

“I will now work with the Labor Party, crossbenchers and, of course, with the Commissioner in coming to a mutual agreement of how we can get this legislation through both houses of Parliament and allow for public hearings in SA.”

She said this week’s opening sessions of the Royal Commission for Aged Care emphasised “that the South Australian public should have the right for ICAC hearings to be public”.

“That did not happen in Labor’s Oakden scandal, and should have,” she said.

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