Recriminations and regret over ICAC’s shock resignation

The decision by South Australia’s frustrated anti-corruption chief to step down has prompted a former DPP to say the public should be “outraged” at parliament’s watering down of ICAC powers, while an MP who backed the move now has reservations.

Jul 10, 2024, updated Jul 10, 2024
Outgoing ICAC Ann Vanstone KC's powers were curbed by parliament in 2021. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Outgoing ICAC Ann Vanstone KC's powers were curbed by parliament in 2021. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone KC on Tuesday announced she would resign her post in September just four years into her seven-year term.

In a strongly worded resignation statement, Vanstone said she was stepping aside primarily due to her frustration over changes to the ICAC Act which passed state parliament in 2021.

The reforms, passed rapidly and unanimously with support from all parties, saw ICAC’s powers curbed and the office given jurisdiction to investigate only matters of serious and systemic corruption.

Misconduct and maladministration investigations moved to the Ombudsman, while the Office for Public Integrity was moved out of the ICAC’s jurisdiction.

An ICAC “inspector” role was also established for oversight purposes and the Commissioner’s capacity to make public statements about ongoing investigations was limited.

Vanstone said the changes have “damaged” South Australia’s anti-corruption scheme and do not serve the public interest. She also said her attempts to lobby the parliament and the Malinauskas Government for changes have “fallen on deaf ears”.

Former South Australian Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Pallaras KC said Vanstone was “forced to do a job with one hand tied behind her back”.

“It demonstrated to me that neither political party was serious in creating an ICAC that was going to be effective,” Pallaras said.

“You may recall the difficulties that I and others had in trying to persuade the government there was a need for an ICAC – they had to be dragged kicking and screaming.

“And then we saw what happened afterwards was that they couldn’t run over themselves quickly enough to pull the teeth from the powers the ICAC was eventually given.

“It demonstrates to me that there was a lack of support right from the beginning, which has now come to the fore by withdrawing significant powers from the commissioner.”

Stephen Pallaras during his tenure as DPP. Photo: Bryan Charlton

South Australia’s ICAC was established by the Weatherill Labor Government by legislation in 2012 and its first commissioner, Bruce Lander QC, was appointed in 2013.

Investigations into maladministration and misconduct made up a significant portion of Lander’s public reports. This included matters such as the Gillman land deal, the Oakden nursing home scandal, problems at SA Health and a sexual harassment complaint against former University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen.

But the ICAC’s powers came under significant political scrutiny in 2021 following the collapse of a high-profile case involving former Renewal SA boss John Hanlon – which stemmed from an ICAC investigation – and the suicide of a senior police officer who was under ICAC scrutiny.

The last parliament swiftly passed amendments watering down the ICAC Act in September 2021 on the recommendation of a parliamentary committee examining “damage, harm or adverse outcomes resulting from ICAC investigations”.

Pallaras, who was once an executive committee member of the International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities, said the ICAC changes were “the worst day in the history of parliament”.

“The public should approach this development with outrage,” he said.

“All the public of South Australia want, as far as I can see, is to be treated fairly by the law and have the law applied to each of us equally.

“Why it is that the politicians think that they can somehow exempt themselves from the applications of the powers of the ICAC is beyond me, because they indeed are the powers that were taken from the Commissioner.”

Centre for Public Integrity chair Anthony Whealy KC, a former assistant commissioner to the New South Wales ICAC and a former New South Wales Court of Appeals Judge, said Vanstone’s resignation was a “great shame”.

“If we accept her reasons as stated by her, she’s resigned because parliament would not listen to her and pay no attention to her calls for amending or modifying legislation that most commentators think was a disaster for integrity in South Australia,” Whealy told InDaily.

“I think they (the public) should be outraged at what parliament has done to a very fine commissioner.

“Secondly, I think if they think about it carefully, they should look at this legislation and see how effective it is in restoring integrity in South Australia, they should complain bitterly about what they see.”

Attorney-General Kyam Maher, who supported the changes to ICAC from Opposition, said it was too early to “fully assess” the impact of the reforms.

“Parts of the changes that were made have only been in operation less than two years – we don’t think that’s enough time to fully assess how those changes have worked,” Maher told ABC Radio Adelaide today.

“We were not opposed to making sensible changes, but… we’re keen to see how it works.”

Kyam Maher

Attorney-General Kyam Maher. Photo: Isabella Kelly/InDaily

Maher defended the government’s handling of Vanstone’s pleas for reform, saying there are a “very wide range of views about how ICACs operate”.

“I know the Commissioner has views about how her role operates and she makes those views very well-known quite frequently,” he said.

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“The ICAC has extraordinary powers, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable that with extraordinary powers comes a degree of oversight.”

He also denied that the ICAC changes have prevented investigations, saying “there’s nothing that occurs in public administration that can’t be investigated”.

“It is the case… that maladministration and misconduct is now investigated by the Ombudsman, but there’s nothing that occurs in South Australia that can’t be investigated.”

But Opposition leader David Speirs indicated today he was open to amending the legislation after meeting with Vanstone earlier this year.

Speirs, who was part of the government that supported the ICAC changes, said Vanstone’s resignation was a “fairly significant signal that things aren’t quite right with the ICAC legislation in the state”.

Speirs said he did not regret supporting the legislation but conceded “there were a whole range of unintended consequences”, including a loophole that may allow MPs to claim legal expense reimbursement stemming from theft, deception or dishonestly dealing with documents offences.

“That’s ridiculous,” Speirs told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“When the extent of that change became apparent, I felt that that does not pass the pub test.”

Speirs later added: “I should say why I voted for this in 2021… the ICAC under Commissioner Lander had lost its way.

“There were aspects of the ICAC that went too far, ruined people’s lives.

“I’m not sugar-coating that. This ICAC had lost its way – not under Commissioner Vanstone but under the previous Commissioner – and it needed to be looked at.

“It had overreached.”

SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros, who did not oppose the ICAC changes when they came through parliament, said today: “I don’t think Ann Vanstone has failed, I think we have failed Ann Vanstone.”

“There were many things that united us in that parliament, this certainly for me wasn’t one of them,” Bonaros told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“Did I think we went too far, yes, I did.

“There were 69 members of parliament, I could make excuses and say that I wasn’t involved in that process and I didn’t know what was coming.

“But inevitably the parliament has decided and I remained silent.”

Bonaros’ former party colleague Frank Pangallo introduced the ICAC legislation to parliament and chaired the committee which recommended the reforms.

Pangallo told InDaily today: “I make no apologies for introducing the legislation – it had to be done.”

“To this day, the reforms have the widespread support of the legal fraternity.

“The next Commissioner should not be a retired judge but a person with strong legal, investigative and people-management skills.”

Independent MP Frank Pangallo. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Pangallo added: “It is Parliament’s responsibility to take action – and if only the public at large knew what was uncovered and the damage caused to innocent individuals, I am more than confident they would agree with what we did.

“I fully support integrity agencies like ICAC but they also need to operate with integrity – which we found they didn’t in several cases. Should Parliament and taxpayers ignore such conduct?”

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