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ICAC "circus won't come to town" as Labor shoots down bill

Politics

Government-aligned crossbenchers have again helped shoot down a bid to allow Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander to hold public hearings into matters of maladministration – including a looming inquiry into the Oakden facility scandal – with former Liberal Martin Hamilton-Smith insisting the move would turn the inquiry into a “circus”.

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A private members’ bill by Australian Conservatives MLC Dennis Hood to allow open ICAC hearings “when in the public interest” passed the Upper House this week, but was today predictably defeated along party lines in the House of Assembly.

Independent cabinet ministers Geoff Brock and Hamilton-Smith maintained their opposition to the move, while former Labor MP-turned-independent Frances Bedford was acting Speaker and did not cast a vote.

The vote capped off a week of strong-arm parliamentary tactics by the Liberal Opposition, which earlier moved to block Labor’s budget bank tax and yesterday refused the Premier a parliamentary pair so that he could jet to Whyalla to bask in the celebrations of Arrium’s salvation.

There were, however, four pairs for the vote today, including three Liberals and disgruntled former Liberal Duncan McFetridge.

Premier Jay Weatherill said the vote was “transparently a political stunt to bring back a bill that had already been debated and rejected by this chamber just a month ago”.

“What has changed is the increasing desperation of those opposite concerning their electoral prospects,” he said.

“We have seen it today with the cancellation of pairs, against parliamentary convention. We have seen it with the rejection of the budget – once again, a breach of convention… this is what happens when an Opposition becomes a little desperate in the lead-up to an election.”

The Premier assured families of Oakden residents clamouring for open hearings “that they will get a public finding, and I fully expect that it will be published”.

“It is regrettable that a public debate has been raised about what will be, I think, a high-quality piece of work that will be carried out by the well-respected Independent Commissioner Against Corruption exercising his powers as an ombudsman.”

Lander has previously expressed annoyance at the Government persistently calling the investigation an “ombudsman’s inquiry”.

Liberal leader Steven Marshall called on Weatherill to allow a conscience vote on the issue saying “if the Premier honestly believes that this is in the best interest of all South Australians, he should show the courage of his convictions and not have a binding vote of his party”.

“The people of SA have made very clear… what they expect from their government. They expect their government to fulfill the requirements laid down by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption [who] says that he wants to have open hearings at his discretion,” Marshall said.

But Hamilton-Smith dismissed his former colleagues’ push, saying it was “being brought forward for purely political reasons”.

“I will view it on the basis of whether it is good for the state, good for victims and good for maladministration issues, and that alone,” he said.

“There is no secrecy… it all will be revealed. The Oakden victims will get to put everything down in evidence.

“What the Opposition actually wants is a media circus in the lead-up to the commissioner’s report.

“It will be a circus. The media will love it, of course, and they have encouraged you and you have taken the bait, just as you have with blocking the budget. They will love it because they will sell newspapers. It will be very entertaining, hearing accusations and counter accusations, but will it lead to a better outcome? No, it will not.”

Hamilton-Smith said Lander, with whom he met recently, would “make sure that everything that needs to be said publicly is said”.

“The only difference is that you will have to wait so that both sides of the argument are fairly and reasonably presented, and a considered and balanced report is given,” he said.

“Those opposite may not like that, certain elements of the media may not like that, because the circus will not be in town.”

Brock, too, argued his vote was decided on his own conscience, saying: “When I make any decisions in the House I make them with the very best intentions and with information with regard to that.”

“I have not taken the decision, or any of my decisions in this house, lightly. I try to do the right thing by what I consider the best for the long-term and the best opportunities at the end of any investigation.

“Others in this place may well have different agendas, but my decision has been made on the basis that hearings are private for a very good reason: to ensure people’s privacy… and that is a prime concern for me, especially for persons compelled to appear and answer questions.”

Lander is overseas on leave, and unavailable for comment. His office said he would be kept abreast of developments.

After his bill passed the Upper House yesterday, Hood said: “The Commissioner wants the option to hold public inquiries, the people of South Australia demand it and the Australian Conservatives along with the majority of the Upper House agree that we must have a more open and transparent ICAC process.”

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