By Geoffrey Watson SC, Board Director at the Centre for Public Integrity, originally published in the 9Fairfax papers on October 1, 2021

The resignation of the NSW premier is a dramatic political event, but it should not be allowed to cloud the larger issue at stake – the preservation and protection of integrity in the public sector.

This was obviously an important and difficult moment for the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The announcement of an inquiry to look into the conduct of any politician is fraught, but when it involves the premier it is 10 times more difficult than usual. Apart from anything else, ICAC’s decision is bound to attract a partisan political backlash – a matter to which I will return.

The decision taken by ICAC would have followed weeks of careful investigation and deliberation. Once the facts were collected they would have been placed before independent persons of the highest integrity. Irrespective of how difficult it would have been to make, the decision would have been taken free of any political considerations.

It stands to ICAC’s credit that it took that difficult decision.

A glance at the terms of references of ICAC’s investigation demonstrates that the matter is sufficiently serious matter to warrant this course. The central issue is now a familiar one – it involves the questionable allocation of public money through grants. Specifically, the commission is investigating the 2017 $5.5 million grant given to the Australian Clay Target Association in Wagga Wagga for its clubhouse, in Maguire’s electorate, while Berejiklian was Treasurer. Maguire is accused of later trying to profit from the fit-out of the club’s new headquarters. The Premier has maintained that she followed all proper processes.

There is an additional question over whether the Premier personally approved the allocation of $20 million in funds for a Wagga Wagga music conservatorium while she was in a secret relationship with Maguire. Berejiklian has insisted she did not approve the funds.

Sports rorts, car park rorts – it is becoming a sadly familiar theme. What is under investigation is whether public money was taken from where it should have been allocated and reallocated as a favour to a politician. If that happened it is a disgrace. We have seen too much of this going on, and needs to be exposed for what it is.

The underlying issue is important. For that reason we should be pleased that this matter is going to receive a public airing. We need to know what is going wrong with these grants schemes. That public airing, incidentally, helps everyone involved. It may well be that ICAC’s investigations disclose no wrongdoing on the part of Berejiklian – and if that occurs we will all be grateful and relieved. The fact that it will be the subject of a public hearing will allow all of us to be better informed and permit each of us to make our own judgments.

I do not agree with Berejiklian when she seemed to suggest that ICAC should not have made this decision at this time. She seemed to be saying that the broader public health issues meant that the decision should be deferred. I do not understand that. For a start, it would immediately involve ICAC in making political judgments as to the timing of inquiries, thus reducing its independence. And there is nothing wrong with the timing – the pandemic does not reduce the need for integrity in the public sector; if anything, it intensifies the need for close scrutiny of those making critical decisions which, on a nearly daily basis, are affecting our lives. We should never relax our standards regarding integrity of decision-making in the public sector.

This is the right time to remind politicians that they are under scrutiny.

There is almost certain to be a negative backlash against ICAC. It will mainly be party political; Berejiklian was, after all, a generally popular politician. But that fact further stands to the credit of ICAC and its independence. At the time it was making the decision ICAC would have realised that there were certain to be a backlash, but it would have also recognised that it needed to make that decision irrespective of that fact. The decision had to be made in accordance with the facts, not in accordance with prejudices or preferences. ICAC will never back down because of intimidation.

Many have asked whether it was necessary for Berejiklian to resign as premier. My feeling was that her decision was premature – she could have stood aside while the inquiry was conducted.

There are precedents for that. What I am unable to understand is why Berejiklian is being so quick to resign from the parliament.

Surely, she could have resigned from cabinet and joined the backbench. There is precedent for that as well. The decision to resign all together from parliament seems to me to be unfair to the community who will need to pick up the cost and burden of an unnecessary by-election. We can only speculate as to Berejiklian’s reasons for making that decision.

So – yes – it was a dramatic day. Still, premiers have come and gone and we have survived. We will survive while ever our political system and our politicians are open to scrutiny. NSW is stronger and better for the oversight given to it by ICAC.

Read the original article in the 9Fairfax papers here