Mixed reactions to SA Parliament's changes to Independent Commissioner Against Corruption

© Provided by ABC NEWS Former South Australian independent commissioner against corruption Bruce Lander. (File: ABC News)

South Australia’s former independent commissioner against corruption (ICAC) Bruce Lander has joined those criticising changes to the watchdog’s powers. 

The bill, which was swiftly passed in Parliament last night, will reduce the powers of the state’s ICAC, Ann Vanstone, so she can only investigate allegations of corruption and not misconduct or maladministration. 

Yesterday, Ms Vanstone described the proceedings as “extraordinary”, saying the  jurisdiction to investigate corruption had been “decimated”.

Today Mr Lander also expressed strong opinions about the changes, saying he was as “horrified” about the legislation as Ms Vanstone was.

“I’m as horrified as she is by what the Parliament has done by passing this act,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.  

“It’s an act that’s designed by politicians to protect corrupt politicians — and it has that effect.” 

“It’s also designed to protect corrupt police officers — and it has that effect.

“It will also incidentally, because of the major changes that have been made, protect senior public officers who also are corrupt.”

SA Premier Steven Marshall said the changes to ICAC were the result of “extensive consultation from a parliamentary committee and the recommendations stemming from it”.

“This is something that has been looked at for a long period of time as it was clear reform was needed,” he said.

Mr Marshall said the bill had received cross-party support.

“Maladministration, misconduct and corruption claims will still be investigated,” he said.

Raft of amendments to original bill

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said the Labor Party supported the changes but only with a raft of amendments to the original bill.

“We weren’t willing to support the original version of that bill,” he said.

“I do think it went too far and that is why the Labor Party, in conjunction with others in the Parliament, saw 40 amendments made to that bill that put it in a position that was worthy of support.”

He said other agencies also wanted the powers of the ICAC changed.

“It’s not about seizing on opportunity,” he said.

“This is about coming up with a piece of legislation that acknowledges that there is broad support across integrity agencies, including from the ICAC itself, that there is a need to change the act.

“That is why presumably the government put the bill in government time yesterday, which meant the Parliament had to make a decision.”

Changes to impact police resources

SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said he was not consulted on the bill and the changes would likely impact police resources. 

“A very preliminary review would indicate that there is a potential for resource implications for the South Australia Police on the basis that ICAC matters will be referred to us to adjudicate and prosecute,” he said. 

In responding to a question during a parliamentary committee hearing today, Mr Stevens said there were police officers who would fit the current definition of corrupt under ICAC legislation. 

“Given the current but soon to be expired definition of corruption, the answer is yes — there are currently police officers who would fit the definition of corruption who are on the payroll, but they are being dealt with,” he said. 

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Mr Stevens said the current definition included “basically every criminal offence” and could expand as far as a speeding fine. 

“Police officers who are the subject of investigations or prosecutions for theft or assault fit the definition of corruption,” he said. 

“More broadly, I have absolute confidence in the South Australia Police and everybody who works for the South Australia Police.

“They are committed to ensuring South Australian communities are as safe as they possibly can be, they carry out their duties to an exceptionally high standard with the highest levels of integrity and they have my complete confidence.” 

Lawyer reaction to ‘very sound’ bill an overreaction

High-profile Adelaide lawyer Greg Griffin said the ICAC as it was had been slow and damaging to people who ended up being exonerated.

“I think is a fairly hysterical reaction to a very sound and good bill which was unanimously passed by both houses of Parliament,” he said.

“Quite frankly, I was perplexed — to use the words of Ann Vanstone herself when she appeared before the inquiry — that people would actually think that the politicians are just protecting themselves.

“They’re not. They’re protecting those who haven’t got a voice.

“They’re protecting those who are subject to horrendous investigation processes — whose lives are destroyed — then they just get up and walk away.

“I mean, I think ICAC really has to be made accountable because it has not succeeded, and if it doesn’t succeed, you either let it keep failing or you force change on it and I think that’s what Parliament has done.”

Concerns over ‘weakening’ ICAC powers

Emeritus professor of politics and international relations at the University of Adelaide Clement Macintyre said while he was not reflecting on the merits of the bill, he was concerned by how fast it had been passed.

“I think that something going through the Parliament that fast, we’ve got to wonder whether due accountability and scrutiny has been applied,” he said.

Professor Macintyre said the fact some people had been speaking out about the changes suggested “some further discussion and consideration of the bill might have been appropriate before its speedy passage by the Parliament”.

“Certainly it’s my understanding that senior judicial figures and legal figures in other states who have been watching the passage of this bill have got some grave concerns over the apparent weakening of ICAC powers to investigate individual parliamentarians,” he said.

He said while there “may well be merit in the bill”, there was also “every chance in the cold light of day” that some revisions may be needed due to it passing so quickly. 

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