NSW Icac chief defends agency after Scott Morrison criticised its powers and investigations

The head of New South Wales’ anti-corruption watchdog has taken a thinly veiled swipe at recent criticisms of the body, including from the prime minister, saying they are “misguided and unfounded”.

Chief commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac), Peter Hall, said the body’s extensive powers were given to the agency “on purpose”.

He told a parliamentary review that an understanding of how the Icac functioned would reveal to the critics that “he or she is simply wrong”.

“Corruption involves acts performed under conditions of great secrecy, often concealed and there is seldom an eyewitness witness to it,” Hall said on Monday.

Corrupt conduct was very hard to detect and prove.

“It requires painstaking investigations to recreate the circumstances that previously existed that led to the suspected corrupt conduct,” he said.

“Occasionally, there is misguided and unfounded criticism of one or more in our community of the commission’s powers and its work.

“Whatever the motive or the purpose behind such criticism may be, a proper understanding of the legal conditions, processes of the oversight safeguards, will reveal to the misguided critic that he or she is simply wrong,” he said.

Last month, Scott Morrison criticised the Icac while under pressure to commit to a federal anti-corruption body.

“I’m very critical of some of the Icacs, particularly in NSW,” Morrison said.

“I don’t think that’s what we need.”

Morrison is opposed to the NSW model of public hearings, describing it as a “kangaroo court”, and criticised an investigation which exposed former premier Gladys Berejiklian’s previous personal relationship with former NSW MP Daryl Maguire.

Hall said the Icac did have coercive powers, but was subject to compliance framework, as well as internal and external accountability systems.

The Icac’s public inquiries also undergo continuing considerations to protect against unwarranted reputational damage, he said.

Last month, Hall told a budget estimates hearing the Icac had been forced to abandon some of its investigations and scale back others because of a lack of resources.

The key performance indicators for the commission had been revised down and reports had been delayed, he said.

Icac investigations are complex matters that can take extended periods of time.

“Those engaged in corrupt conduct do not leave paper trails and they destroy any material to show what happened,” Hall said.

Appearing at a separate parliamentary inquiry last year, Hall said the commission’s “capacity to expand, develop and broaden our operations is constrained by the budget we get”.

In 2018, a KPMG report that analysed the functioning of the Icac recommended it have an increase in staff, which would have cost $4.1m.

An application for this was put to Treasury, but it was refused.

Hall also pushed for further parliamentary discussion of an independent funding model for the Icac, saying the present system of funding was seriously deficient.

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