How ironic that some of the most vocal supporters of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption have become some of its loudest critics. For the moment at least. But their critique contains a message with respect to similar institutions at the state and territory levels, and also the soon-to-be-established National Anti-Corruption Commission in Canberra.

The NSW election will take place on Saturday March 25 under the state’s fixed four-year term legislation. In normal circumstances, it would have been expected that the talented and popular Liberal Party premier Gladys Berejiklian would have taken the ­Coalition to the election campaign against the Labor opposition – led since June 2021 by Christopher Minns. She had won a substantial victory at the previous election in March 2019.

But it was not to be. On October 1, 2021, ICAC announced that it would conduct a second public inquiry into the relationship between Berejiklian and the former Liberal Party MP for Wagga Wagga, Daryl Maguire, with whom, as she told ICAC in October 2020, she had had a close personal relationship.

Like anyone who succeeds in democratic politics, Berejiklian was a tough operator. But she is also a very private person and had been understandably embarrassed by ICAC’s insistence her personal relationship be revealed in its earlier public hearing – of the kind so beloved by sections of the media.

Soon after ICAC announced its new inquiry, Berejiklian issued a powerful statement in which she announced her retirement from politics – stating, correctly, that “standing aside is not an option”.

It contained the following words: “I cannot predict for how long it will take the ICAC to complete this investigation, let alone deliver a report, in circumstances where I was first called to give ­evidence at a public hearing nearly 12 months ago.”

This was seen by some as a criticism of ICAC – in particular, its evident inability to conduct quick investigations and make prompt decisions. At the time, some regarded the outgoing premier as ­exaggerating her predicament. But she was correct.

On January 11 this year, ICAC put out a statement concerning its inquiry into Berejiklian, which has been termed Operation Keppel. The message was that “it is not possible to specify a date by which it will be completed”. ICAC’s update advised that “it is now unlikely the report will be available for furnishing to the presiding officers (of the NSW parliament) in the first quarter of 2023”. That is, ICAC will not report on this issue until after the forthcoming NSW election.

In somewhat condescending language, ICAC declared that “it must be recognised that the report concerns complex matters of law and fact, two public inquiries which proceeded over 30 days, over 2800 pages of transcript, 516 exhibits comprising approximately 10,600 pages and 957 pages of submissions”.

Needless to say, ICAC did not explain why such an extensive investigation has been necessary with respect to alleged corruption, essentially involving government grants, among other things, to a hospital and conservatorium in Maguire’s (then) electorate. But then, ICAC rarely explains.

Stephen Charles KC is a well-regarded retired judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal. In the lead-up to the May 2022 federal election, he was in the vanguard of the campaign to establish a national integrity commission. Charles was one of 31 former judges who signed an open letter to then prime minister Scott Morrison stating that without such a body, “democracy itself is threatened and may be irreparably damaged”.

Charles is the principal author of Keeping Them Honest (Scribe, 2022). In his introduction, he wrote it was “nonsense to suggest that ICAC has destroyed three Liberal premiers” in NSW – including Berejiklian. But it has.

The reference was to the departure from politics of NSW Liberal Party premiers Nick Greiner (1997), Barry O’Farrell (2014) and Berejiklian. In time, ICAC’s finding against Greiner was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeal and O’Farrell was cleared by a subsequent ICAC hearing. But not until they had left politics.

Charles seems to be of the view that leading politicians, such as ­Berejiklian, can remain in office while it is known that ICAC is inquiring into their role. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of how politics works.

Just imagine if Berejiklian had remained premier after ICAC announced its second inquiry in early October 2021. She would be about to lead the Coalition into an election with an uncompleted anti-corruption inquiry hanging over her head. Her position would have been politically untenable.

In an article in Nine newspapers on January 12 this year, Alexandra Smith (The Sydney Morning Herald’s NSW state political reporter) conceded that she, among others, was wrong in believing it to be “a ludicrous proposition that an integrity agency would allow such a politically sensitive inquiry to drag on” for so long. But it did.

This has led some traditional ICAC backers to express their ­dismay. Anthony Whealy KC, who has co-written articles with Charles, told the SMH: “It’s really a black mark against ICAC. I’ve spent the last four years defending ICAC in NSW, and I’m bitterly disappointed this delay is ongoing.”

The usually flamboyant ICAC barracker Geoffrey Watson SC joined the chorus, saying he was “appalled” at Operation Keppel which has taken “too long” and undermined confidence in ICAC while being “unfair” to Berejiklian.

What Whealy and Watson conveniently overlooked was that Operation Keppel is yet another example of ICAC being ICAC. Its inquiries are invariably long, sometimes invasive of an individual’s privacy for no evident reason, and often flawed.

ICAC errors include its handling of the Greiner and O’Farrell cases, along with those of Margaret Cunneen SC and, most recently, former trade union official John Maitland (this case was discussed by Chris Merritt in The Australian on January 20).

It remains to be seen how the Albanese government’s NACC will perform when it commences operation. Despite the proclamations of those who advocated a national integrity commission last year, there is evidence that in NSW such a body has on occasions acted in a way that has damaged representative democracy and denied civil liberties to citizens.