Written by Christopher Knaus. Originally published in the Guardian 5 October 2021
Stephen Charles says he has lost all hope the Coalition is serious about introducing a strong federal anti-corruption commission
Former senior judge Stephen Charles has criticised Barnaby Joyce for likening the New South Wales anti-corruption watchdog to the “Spanish Inquisition”, saying the deputy prime minister’s comments were “very silly” and showed the federal government had no desire to be held accountable for its own integrity failings.
Joyce led the attacks on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac) on Monday, arguing it was working “very, very badly”.
“This is not the great righteous process, it’s a little bit Spanish Inquisition. We elect politicians, not bureaucrats. People should be the final arbiter,” he said. “The bureaucracy reigns supreme here and politicians are basically terrified to do their job.”
Joyce was supported by fellow National Matt Canavan, who said he agreed “with that sentiment”. The attacks on the commission follow earlier criticisms by former federal attorney general Philip Ruddock and the current NSW health minister, Brad Hazzard.
Charles, who sat on the bench of Victoria’s highest court for more than a decade, has been a prominent voice advocating for the commonwealth to create a federal anti-corruption commission with similar powers to the NSW Icac.
“The Icac has almost certainly done exactly what the usual system requires, which is that there is a detailed private, in-camera investigation first, before they decide to call a public inquiry,” Charles said.
“The premier has been given notice of the matters that they are looking at investigating; they seem to be entirely proper matters for investigation.
“Now, to call this the Spanish Inquisition is really just a very silly comment.”
Charles, who now works with the Centre for Public Integrity, said he had lost all hope that the Coalition was serious about introducing a strong federal anti-corruption commission.
The government promised to set up a federal body prior to the last election but delayed doing so before announcing a model that was widely criticised for its weakness and narrow focus.
“There is no prospect the present government will establish a national integrity commission that is effective; the model which they’ve presently proposed, and which they’ve done nothing to progress for years, is a hopeless model, which wouldn’t be able to investigate politicians at all,” Charles said.
Much of the criticism directed at Icac following Berejiklian’s resignation on Friday has suggested it should not hold public hearings initially.
On Sunday, Hazzard said he had “strong views” about Icac and questioned whether initial hearings should be held “behind closed doors”. Ruddock said Icac should operate in a similar manner to directors of public prosecutions – working privately to initially establish whether a person had a case to answer.
But Icac does have the power to hold private examinations and regularly does so prior to public hearings, including in Operation Keppel, the inquiry that is now investigating Berejiklian.
The premier said on Friday that Icac’s timing was the worst possible. She criticised it for pursuing matters that had already been examined by the state opposition and through parliamentary inquiries.
On Monday, the deputy premier, John Barilaro, announced his own resignation. When asked why the timing was not similarly poor, given Berejiklian’s comments, he distinguished the premier’s role from his own and spoke of the “team” around him.
“Let’s be honest, the premier of the day is the face of the government, steers the ship, holds the firm hand on the decisions and the direction,” Barilaro said.
Read the article in the Guardian here