In a year marked by some bad decisions, ICAC overhaul was among Mike Baird’s worst

NSW Premier Mike Baird has angered ICAC commissioners past and present. Photo: Edwina PicklesAs Mike Gallacher stood to speak in the upper house of the NSW Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, a special guest was seated in the President’s gallery.
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Senior Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC, watched as Gallacher – a former Liberal MLC on the crossbench since the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s public inquiry into Liberal Party fundraising – delivered a 15-minute speech railing at the watchdog and its chief, Megan Latham.

As Cunneen looked on, Gallacher ended his contribution with an enormous smile. “Despite occasional challenges, some days just could not get any better,” he declared. “Let me say, that is exactly how I feel today.”

Cunneen, of course, is a sworn enemy of Latham’s after the ICAC’s aborted attempt to investigate her over a car accident involving her son and his then girlfriend.

Gallacher was police minister until forced to resign amid allegations raised at the ICAC during Operation Spicer, the investigation into Liberal Party fundraising before the 2011 election.

The final report made no corruption finding against him but Gallacher was found to be one of several Liberal MPs who had tried to evade political donations laws.

He was barred from returning to the cabinet or the parliamentary party.

Also watching was Christian Democratic Party leader Fred Nile, whom Cunneen has supported politically and whose party’s votes ensured the legislation Gallacher was speaking in favour of passed the upper house.

It was a gathering of the aggrieved. And they were there to celebrate the presumed imminent demise of Latham, the source of their collective angst.

A day earlier, in the lower house, Premier Mike Baird effectively delivered Latham’s head to them on a platter via a bill abolishing her position and forcing her to reapply for her job.

In a year marked by some bad decisions by Baird, this was easily among the worst.

It prompted fierce criticism from former ICAC commissioners and Latham – all beacons of integrity in whom successive premiers have placed their trust to safeguard the people of NSW from spivs keen to plunder the public purse.

Baird would well know the damage inflicted by such an attack from the state’s anti-corruption agency.

It has many wondering why he has chosen to spend what is likely to be the last dregs of a severely depleted stock of political capital on such an obviously controversial issue.

He strongly denies it, but the most likely answer is the need to appease his partyroom, sections of which are still seething over the way Latham oversaw Spicer, which destroyed the political careers of many of their former colleagues.

The smoking gun lies in the new ICAC structure, which has been strongly criticised by Latham.

The government says its new three-commissioner model is based on the recently established Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC).

Yet the chief commissioner of the new ICAC will not have veto power over the appointment of two part-time commissioners, as the LECC chief commissioner does.

So while this safeguard is good enough for an agency with responsibility for policing the police, it’s apparently not needed in an agency responsible for keeping politicians honest.

The easiest conclusion to draw is that the government wants control over the appointments, whose concurrence must be sought by the chief commissioner over decisions such as whether to hold public hearings or private examinations.

Since coming to office Baird has distinguished himself from his predecessor Barry O’Farrell as a man in a hurry. He wants to be remembered as the Premier who rescued NSW from years of Labor ineptitude.

As treasurer he built the foundations with disciplined economic management. As Premier he went on a politically risky privatisation drive to get the cash to build the infrastructure for which he wants to be remembered.

But moving this fast has its consequences, as Baird has discovered. Affected communities of interest bite back and his fall in popularity in the polls has reflected that.

Thus far Baird has been able to rely on one vitally important trait – his honesty and integrity – to more or less buttress himself and the government from these surging pockets of anger across the state.

It is something he worked on from the moment he came into the job.

Baird, to his credit, moved on political donations reform and made headway in the area of government transparency. Yet the attack on the ICAC and its chief risks destroying the gains from that work.

Instead of being regarded as the champion and protector of the state’s corruption fighter, Baird is now in open combat with its boss.

It has allowed his critics and enemies to draw a direct line between Latham’s oversight of Spicer and the legislation that sacks her.

That will only embolden the small but very vocal group who have already branded Baird “Casino Mike” over his defence of the state’s lockout laws, which don’t apply to The Star casino at Pyrmont.

It will confirm the suspicion in the minds of those determined to believe it that Baird is not the unsullied cleanskin he has styled himself as in his pitch to the electorate – “the Sunday school teacher”, as Labor leader Luke Foley taunted him in his late night speech on the ICAC bill this week.

Baird has repeatedly said that, despite his plunging popularity and the damage sustained by his backdown on the closure of the greyhound racing industry in NSW, he is determined to stick around as Premier to contest the 2019 election.

With only a little over two years to go, maybe the question is no longer for Baird, but one for his colleagues instead.

Sean Nicholls is state political editor.

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