By Stephen Rice, originally published on October 19 in The Australian.
The last time Stephen Charles QC heard the words “my little mate” at a corruption inquiry was 34 years ago, as a young barrister probing the scandal that nearly ended the reign of legendary NSW premier Neville Wran.
A few days ago he listened in disbelief as much the same words spilled out in an intercepted call played at the current ICAC inquiry — one of many conversations that threaten the career of yet another NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian. Now Mr Charles — who went on to become a Victorian Court of Appeal judge — fears the groundswell of sympathy for Ms Berejiklian will be exploited by senior federal government figures to block a proposed national anti-corruption body.
Mr Charles believes Attorney-General Christian Porter is working behind the scenes to derail the plan for a federal ICAC-style body.
“It will give ammunition to Christian Porter in parliament and it is quite plain that the whole Coalition are terrified of a strong national integrity commission”, he said.
In 1986, Mr Charles was counsel assisting a parliamentary inquiry into High Court judge Lionel Murphy, investigating allegations the judge had tried to stop criminal charges against his friend, Sydney solicitor and “colourful racing identity” Morgan Ryan.
Murphy was alleged to have rung the NSW chief magistrate and uttered the words: “Now what about my little mate?”
Murphy died before the inquiry could make any findings.
Last week, ICAC released intercepted calls that caught former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire telling his then secret lover Ms Berejiklian in coded language about a business partner. Maguire: “You know my little friend?”
Berejiklian: “Not really, don’t, I don’t.”
Maguire: “You do.”
Berejiklian: “I don’t need to know, who’s your, which little friend you’re talking about.”
The “little friend” was Sydney property developer Joseph Alha, who scored a “drop in” meeting with the Premier at her parliamentary office courtesy of Mr Maguire.
The Premier’s readiness to be kept in the dark about her boyfriend’s deals will be one of the major issues considered by ICAC.
But polls over the weekend suggest strong public sympathy for Ms Berejiklian, particularly among women voters.
For Mr Charles the current ICAC hearings have reinforced the pressing need for a national corruption watchdog to probe misconduct at a federal level.
But he fears his push for a tough national integrity commission could be jeopardised by claims that the NSW ICAC hearing has overstepped the mark and revealed salacious details about Ms Berejiklian’s relationships.
“It will support the views of the very strong right-wing group in the NSW Liberal Party, and those of them represented in the federal Coalition, who will argue that this is a classic reason why there should not be a national integrity commission,” he said. “I’m sure it has been grossly embarrassing for her, but I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy, it’s just unfortunate.”
Every state now has an anti-corruption watchdog, but the federal government does not. Although both sides of politics promised a federal integrity commission before the last election, the Morrison government has stalled on the proposal, arguing its focus has to be on fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Mr Porter has long opposed a more powerful body based on the NSW ICAC model.
Mr Charles was one of 34 judges who signed an open letter to Scott Morrison in 2018 calling for a national integrity commission with broad jurisdiction, strong investigative powers and the ability to hold public hearings. Another signatory, former NSW judge of the Court of Appeal Murray Tobias, is also concerned the government will exploit public sympathy for Ms Berejiklian.
“I have no doubt that Porter and people who support him will use it as an excuse for only having an integrity commission with limited powers,” he said. “In my view that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. That would be a great pity.
“To water it down you might as well not have it at all. Either you have something that’s got teeth or you forget about it.”