ICAC now little more than a last resort

10 September 2009

It may claim independence from partiality, but the Independent Commission Against Corruption has never been far removed from politics.

I remember critical briefings with aspiring state Liberal politicians who saw the proposal for such a commission as crucial to their anti-corruption push to oust Barrie Unsworth's floundering Labor government in the late 1980s.

They expected that once in power and empowered by an ICAC in tune with the new government's agenda, Labor's alleged corruption would be swept away.

When established, ICAC's initial interest was political corruption, but not as anticipated. Its first inquiry covered dodgy development deals alleged against the National Party coalition on the North Coast. And the political sting in ICAC's tail was soon to cause much more irritation.

Nick Greiner was the brains behind ICAC, in his indictment of corrupt public administration and effort to change the old guard. His new government presented itself as squeaky clean, in contrast with tired Labor corruption (how history repeats).

But Greiner was the ultimate victim of arrogant political favouring. The Labor enemy successfully dragged Greiner's offer of employment to his retiring education minister into the definition of corrupt conduct. When ICAC handed down its finding, his fate was sealed, despite charges later being dismissed.

So what is different about the recent tentative engagement of the ICAC in another brewing political meltdown?

History, for a start. In the days of Commissioner Ian Temby, it made a sport of offending the political establishment. Temby's engagements with the parliamentary committee for ICAC were acerbic and confrontational. He employed his special relationship with the media, and used the destructive power of his public hearings over public reputation as a sharp edge against political attack. His successors have taken a more conciliatory road.

Anther crucial difference is dwindling community sensitisation. As much as corruption control is on the billboards, it has moved from a thrust for widespread cultural change to just one more brick out of the wall in political collapse. Can we dismiss ICAC as a vital agent for ensuring the good governance of this state?

Its real foundation ''successes'' were not high profile. It slowly reversed an intensely corrupt local government planning structure. It radically improved public tendering. It challenged the improper use of public information. These are long-lasting betterments of public administration.

But when faced with corruption within the police and prisons, it prevaricated and failed. This was the start of a shift in its self-image.

The commissioners since Temby have been far less flamboyant and much sharper administrative brokers. Irene Moss, in particular, took the investigatory role behind the scenes and rightly emphasised the public audit function.

At the same time, successive political masters have worked to blunt the watchdog's teeth, while deferring to it when the heat is on. The tragic fiasco of Wollongong council and its shockwaves back up through state Labor could not be pushed under the carpet. ICAC was left to expose the shabby culture of ''anything-for-influence''.

The institution which was meant to throw light on bureaucratic compromise was spending much more reluctant energy on political failings than politicians appreciated. ICAC is no longer at the forefront of corrupt politics, preferring to take a more coquettish role as the eventual recipient of police referrals. The high public theatre of corruption prevention hearings has given way to a more understated investigatory approach.

The current ''scandal'' now being flicked to ICAC is said by some to have that old NSW political hallmark, cash for construction permits. This is just the type of corruption that substantiated the argument for keeping ICAC's gaze on the public sector. It was thought that corruption remained the province of local government development planning, and state government beyond its reach, or at least that's the way state governments have wished it.

One measure of the ICAC's incipient success rests in the almost natural expectation that the brutal allegations of the last week will fall to its scrutiny. But on the other hand, an indicator of its failure is the media and political hum that it is now little more that an ineffectual last resort.

This investigation is not a test of the commission's relevance but more a confirmation of its failing mission. Irrespective of the outcome, the community is convinced that corruption remains a feature of public life in NSW.

After a quarter century of corruption prevention, ICAC has been incapable of stemming high-level political corruption. Neither has it succeeded in overcoming public suspicion that it is business as usual in Macquarie Street.

Professor Mark Findlay is the director of The Institute of Criminology at the University of Sydney.

Contact: Media office

Phone: 02 9036 5404