TO get an idea of what the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption is really on about, check out the August issue of The Australian Financial Review Magazine. It contains a sympathetic profile of Geoffrey Watson SC, counsel assisting ICAC, by journalist Geoff Winestock titled “The Fighter”.
Watson posed for two photographic portraits by Nic Walker. There is a full-page picture of a not-so-athletic looking Watson, dressed in a business suit, sitting on a stool in a boxing ring. His head is bowed but his eyes are directed at the camera, ready to take on a “corrupt” opponent, it seems.
There is another photo of Watson on the contents page. It is a passport size and depicts the subject looking faux angry with a boxer’s mouthguard in place. Across the front of the mouthguard is emblazoned the word “Hollywood”. This happens to be the nickname given to Watson by his colleagues within the NSW barrister community.
So, what’s a busy man like Watson doing at a boxing gym like this? Seeking publicity, to be sure. In recent years, ICAC’s counsel assisting has become the public face of the organisation, which presents itself as all that stands between the state of NSW and unbridled corruption.
Last year Watson declared that NSW was experiencing “corruption on a scale probably unexceeded since the days of the Rum Corps”. In May, the ICAC counsel assisting told News Corp Australia journalist Janet Fife-Yeomans that he came up with the line on a flight to Canberra.
The Rum Rebellion of 1808 was a serious matter. NSW governor William Bligh confronted John Macarthur, who was running a corrupt trade in rum. Macarthur and his supporters among the settlers and within the military enacted a coup and imprisoned Bligh for some months. They were dispatched only after governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in NSW with his own troops. Sydney in 2014 is somewhat different.
It seems that Watson spends considerable time talking about himself. In August last year he spoke to online magazine Justinian for its “On the Couch” segment. Readers learned that the high-profile barrister was a “peanut butter” and “hot chips” kind of guy. Fancy that.
Like other professions, the legal fraternity has its share of media tarts. The problem with Watson’s many media plays — within and outside ICAC — is that he is associated with the word corruption. The more media coverage the ICAC counsel assisting receives, the greater the perception created that NSW experiences government corruption on a massive scale.
This is pure mythology, which is advanced by ICAC and the journalists who have become famous by reporting the commission’s hearings. ICAC provides great copy for journalists primarily because it is not a court of law and hears considerable testimony in public — including mere gossip — that would be inadmissable in the traditional legal system.
Certainly ICAC has identified acts of corruption, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, by one-time NSW Labor ministers such as Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald. Even so, no former Labor minister has yet been brought to trial by the Director of Public Prosecutions on charges of corruption. This may, or may not, occur.
The ICAC inquiry, dramatically codenamed Operation Spicer, into political donations has led to 10 Liberal MPs quitting the party and moving to the crossbenches or standing down from their positions pending the outcome of ICAC’s deliberations. This includes the resignation of former premier Barry O’Farrell following an inaccurate statement that he gave to ICAC concerning an expensive bottle of wine that he had not declared on the pecuniary interests register and that he had denied receiving.
It’s possible that some of the Liberal MPs named and shamed by ICAC broke the law. Even if the law were broken in one or more cases, the identified actions fall a long way short of corruption in normal language usage. So far, neither Watson nor his legal team or his journalistic supporters have been able to identify one corrupt decision by the government led by O’Farrell or his successor Mike Baird. Not one.
In NSW it is illegal for property developers to give donations to a political party. But there is no such law covering wind-farm developers who donate to political parties. So a property developer cannot give cash to the Coalition or Labor. But a wind-farm developer can give money to the Greens. And a trade union can provide funding to Labor and the Greens without anyone referring to corruption despite the fact a trade union is a medium-sized business.
Moreover, what is illegal and equated with corruption in NSW is perfectly legal in other states and at the commonwealth level. This suggests that whatever has occurred in NSW with respect to political donations is not corruption — unless, that is, corruption is assessed with respect to state boundaries only.
Neither the previous ICAC commissioner, David Ipp QC, nor the current holder of the office, Megan Latham, has a high profile. Neither appears to have attempted to restrain Watson in his ongoing search for media attention or to have encouraged him to ease off on the hyperbole.
Watson is much admired by the likes of Fairfax Media journalists Kate McClymont (The Sydney Morning Herald) and Neil Chenoweth (The Australian Financial Review) plus the ABC’s Quentin Dempster. All seem to share Watson’s view that NSW is rife with corruption. On the ABC’s Q&A last Monday, McClymont declared that “anyone who thinks that corruption stops at state borders is completely nuts”. Needless to say, her assertion was not supported by any evidence.
The unfashionable truth is that lawyers and public servants who work for ICAC have a limited understanding of how government and politics work.
Watson spent his professional life before his ICAC moment as a self-employed barrister specialising in insurance law. It was a narrow career. Apart from a brief membership of the Labor Party as a young man, Watson has not been involved in politics.
Those who have worked in politics and with politicians understand that they receive approaches and advice for all citizens, from the richest to the poorest in the land. And parliamentarians well understand that each elector, however rich or poor, has one vote.
All kinds of individuals and organisations petition governments, oppositions and the minor parties. It’s called democracy. Citizens are entitled to join political parties and they should be entitled to provide financial assistance to the party of their choice consistent with appropriate disclosure requirements.
The growing (alleged) association between funding and corruption inevitably will bring about a situation where business ceases to support the Coalition or Labor. This will lead to a situation where, of the major parties, only Labor has a regular source of income beyond public funding: namely, from the trade union movement. Trade union officials are just as interested in the outcome of government decisions as property developers. Yet you would never know this from the coverage of ICAC by the journalists who belong to the Watson fan club.
Last Tuesday, McClymont received a soft interview on ABC Radio National Breakfastfrom presenter Fran Kelly. McClymont implied that some years ago Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff, had acted improperly in responding to a company opposed to the Gillard government’s carbon tax. McClymont also alleged, without evidence, that funds from a company were “channelled” by the Liberal Party in Canberra to the NSW Liberal Party in an “illegal” fashion. She suggested that questions were asked in the House of Representatives about the impact of the carbon tax on the company. To McClymont, this raised “uncomfortable questions” about political access that allegedly resulted from being a “big donor”.
When in opposition, the Coalition raised questions concerning the carbon tax that involved donors and non-donors alike. There is no evidence that Credlin or Abbott did anything improper. Yet the McClymont-Kelly discussion took place in the context of ICAC, corruption and all that. The fact is that what Watson once termed “the bloody Liberal Party” in NSW has not been associated with corruption in the common sense of the term.
In its lifetime, ICAC has obtained two big political scalps. The first was former Liberal premier Nick Greiner, who was forced to step down in 1992 — only to be cleared subsequently by the NSW Court of Appeal. The second was O’Farrell, who stepped down this year after receiving at a busy time of his life a $3000 bottle of wine that he did not sell and probably drank. Obeid came to ICAC’s attention only after he had ceased being a minister.
As even their political opponents would concede, Greiner and O’Farrell were able, honest and reforming premiers. Yet the unintended consequence of ICAC’s sometimes hyperbolic public hearings through the years has been to create the false impression — at the national and international levels — that NSW is replete with corruption.
It isn’t. Compared with many other nations, federal and state politics in Australia is remarkably free of corruption. Media-focused visits to a boxing gym by “Hollywood” Watson will not change this reality but they are capable of creating an environment that distracts from the difficult task of government and harms economic growth.