By Anthony Whealy, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7th August 2020.
In the midst of a dangerous pandemic we are beset by concerns for our health and the welfare of our families. In this environment it has been easy to lose focus on other issues that in normal times might concern us greatly.
One of these is the integrity, honesty and transparency of our governments as they go about their ordinary business. Earlier in the year, many were outraged by the sports rorts scandal at federal level and the branch-stacking fiasco in Victoria.
Not unnaturally these affairs have receded somewhat as we battle other demons. However, it is essential that in times like these we do not lose sight of the need to hold our governments accountable in terms of integrity and honesty.
Several matters at NSW state level raise potentially troubling questions. The first concerns the state’s multi-billion dollar workers’ compensation scheme, icare, which operates under the oversight of the NSW Treasury. Initially there were claims that icare had underpaid many thousands of workers of sums in the millions. At the same time, a large team of executives were paid exorbitant bonuses. The integrity and efficiency of its then chief executive were called into question at a parliamentary hearing.
The state insurance regulatory authority was reported to have serious concerns about icare’s solvency. The situation worsened when CEO John Nagle resigned this week following damaging revelations at the parliamentary inquiry. Throughout all this uproar, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet has vigorously supported the integrity and worth of icare.
However, on the day Nagle announced his resignation, the Treasurer confirmed the government would bring forward a review “to ensure public confidence in NSW workers’ compensation”. The review was to be conducted by a retired Supreme Court judge supported by the state Treasury and Department of Customer Service.
Things took a decided turn for the worse on Thursday when the Treasurer’s chief of staff resigned suddenly, amid revelations that the salaries of two of Perrottet’s personal ministerial staff had been paid by icare. One of these was a policy adviser to the Treasurer, Edward Yapp.
All these events, but particularly the most recent, raise troubling issues. Of course, secondment from government sector agencies is not uncommon. However, icare is a workers’ insurer funded by employers and is meant to be independent of the political process. How independent is icare from the Treasury?
Secondly where does responsibility for the most recent mismanagement truly lie? The resignation of an experienced chief of staff is a very serious step. Is all that was involved simply “an administrative error”?
It would be extremely worrying if either one of these two staff members was the author of or contributed to the minister’s continued statements of support for icare. In all this maelstrom, it seems appropriate that the forthcoming review be permitted to examine these issues.
On further investigation the matter may well be deserving of the attention of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Ultimately, there may be nothing of concern but a thorough investigation is needed to ensure transparency and the reinforcement of integrity.
The principle of ministerial accountability, however, may yet demand another, bigger scalp. The Treasurer’s chief of staff has fallen on his sword. What of Perrottet?
A second potential issue of integrity has emerged involving Premier Gladys Berejiklian. A parliamentary committee has been examining suggestions that a community funding program, originally set up by the Baird government to assist merged councils, may have been “rorted” for political purposes. This is also being investigated by the NSW Auditor-General.
In this context, a draft answer to parliamentary questions seeking to identify who authorised a grant to Hunters Hill Council was “redacted” and an amended answer issued. A claim for privilege in respect of the original answer was rejected by former Court of Appeal president Keith Mason QC. The original document, upon inspection, revealed it was the NSW Premier who had “signed off“ on the grant to Hunters Hill Council.
Once again, there may be no impropriety revealed by this material. Indeed, the Auditor-General’s report may put to rest any claims of irregularity in relation to the community funding.
However, the incident does raise questions as to the prevailing trend in Australia for governments to resist transparency and to obscure accountability in matters relating to public funding.
We have rightly praised our governments as they have done their best to protect us during this pandemic. However, this should not diminish our demands that those who govern us must act at all times with the utmost integrity and transparency. We must insist they do so and query them when they do not.
Anthony Whealy QC is former Supreme Court judge and assistant ICAC commissioner. He currently chairs the Centre for Public Integrity.