New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is striving to achieve all-party support for controversial changes to the way the anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, names and shames its targets.

He hopes that factions within the Coalition parties, the opposition Labor Party, Greens, Christian Democrats and Shooters and Fishers will vote for his amendments to the ICAC Act in both houses of Parliament.

The one person outside Baird’s tent is ICAC Commissioner Megan Latham, the former Supreme Court judge who has resisted plans to change the watchdog’s management and curb its powers.

Most observers believe that de-throning Latham is the real purpose of the Coalition’s carefully orchestrated review of the commission’s management and performance.

She became a prime target after ICAC exposed an intricate Liberal Party donations scandal, dodgy deals over mining leases and corporate influence-peddling. The two parallel investigations led to the resignation of former premier Barry O’Farrell, two ministers and several Newcastle and Central Coast MPs. It even caused the temporary departure of Senator Arthur Sinodinos, a senior Liberal strategist and networker, from former prime minister Tony Abbott’s ministry.

It is common knowledge that senior Liberals and business donors won’t be satisfied until Latham is sacked or forced to resign. Her victimisation has all the signs of the shameful scapegoating of professor Gillian Triggs, the Australian Human Rights commissioner, by Liberals in Canberra.

Baird is allowing six months for consultations with MPs, the legal profession, judiciary, police chiefs and senior public servants before bringing the amended bill to the floor of Parliament next April.

If his handling of the bungled greyhound racing ban is any guide, the Premier might also seek the approval of Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones.

[Greyhound ban backflip: since when did Alan Jones become a NSW crossbencher?]

Legislative changes proposed by an all-party parliamentary committee are game-changing. Out goes the maverick and sensational exposes normally associated with ICAC operations, and in comes a new era where its activities are legally and diplomatically responsible. The corrupters can’t wait.

However, the changes will disappoint Graham “Richo” Richardson, the former Labor senator and now a political commentator on Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, who campaigned for Labor MPs to vote against the original Greiner government legislation in 1989. But opposition leader Bob Carr won the day when the bill was carried with bipartisan support.

Margaret Cunneen SC, a senior Crown prosecutor, won’t be happy either. She told The Australian Financial Review earlier this year: “[ICAC is] a rogue agency. This whole thing, this has to be completely destroyed.”

She added: “Name me one thing that they’ve done properly.”

Under proposed amendments, ICAC would have three commissioners instead of one. The newly created post of ICAC chief commissioner, who would be appointed for five years, would be joined by two part-time commissioners who would serve three years.

In future, the commission would have a full-time CEO “to manage day-to-day operations” whose term would last seven years. The appointment of a CEO is designed to benefit the commission’s “governance and decision-making”, MPs said.

A recommendation by Baird’s office to bring ICAC staff under public service employment was rejected by the parliamentary committee on the grounds that it “could compromise the actual or perceived independence of the ICAC”. The committee added: “There needs to be a clear distinction between ICAC and the public service.”

The big question is whether Latham would accept the appointment of two additional commissioners, whom she would be obliged to consult in order to get approval to hold a public hearing.

At present, the commissioner decides whether a full public inquiry is needed, but under the committee’s recommendations all three commissioners, or a majority of them, have to give their approval before the wheels of a public examination start to turn.

Given that the part-time commissioners must be former state or federal judges, their appointment would add to the watchdog’s legal prestige, but Latham might object to judges holding a veto over her ability to publicly examine potentially corrupt witnesses.

If she doesn’t believe in the Coalition’s legislative changes or is unable to accept them, her only viable course of action would be to resign and make way for a successor. This is the corner into which she has been placed.

Baird has chosen to follow a middle course between his critics on the left and right. “These changes won’t kill the ICAC,” one MP told Crikey, “but they will de-claw it.”

By taking this path, he is hoping to build bipartisan support in Parliament and the public. The removal of Latham would be put down to collateral damage and a new chief commissioner would be hired from the conservative end of the political spectrum.

However, the politician who takes the middle of the road runs the risk of being hit by oncoming traffic. That’s why we probably haven’t heard the end of the arguments over streamlining ICAC.

Peter Fray

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