The leaders of both major New South Wales parties won’t commit to tightening rules around ministers’ use of private phones until the state’s anti-corruption body releases its report into the conduct of the former premier Gladys Berejiklian, which the watchdog says won’t be until at least after February next year.
On Tuesday the premier, Dominic Perrottet, told reporters he and many other MPs in NSW use a private phone to keep “professional work separate” from their private life.
He was responding to questions in the wake of evidence before the Independent Commission Against Corruption that the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire urged Berejiklian to “get a private phone” after he was summonsed to appear before the body in 2018.
Icac also heard Maguire told Berejiklian “they can read texts” and suggested she download Chinese messaging app WeChat.
Perrottet said on Tuesday he did not know about WeChat, but he was aware many MPs use WhatsApp for private communication.
While Perrottet said it was “important that information that is relevant to ministerial decision-making is conducted in accordance with rules that are in place”, he stopped short of committing to changing the rules on the use of private communication methods including encrypted messaging apps.
While Perrottet said he believed the NSW ministerial code of conduct was “incredibly strong” he also said the government would consider changes. But only if it came with a recommendation from Icac.
“If [the ministerial code] needs to be [reviewed] from time to time, based on changes in technology, the government will always look at it,” he said.
“One of the important roles that Icac also play is in corruption prevention and providing advice to government, which they do from time to time on the changes [that] should be made and I would assume that would also include potential changes to the code of conduct.”
On the final day of its hearings into Berejiklian’s conduct, the former NSW premier told the inquiry it was common for MPs to have private phones, and that she had often been encouraged to use one by colleagues.
The NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns, also stopped short of calling for changes to the code on the use of phones.
“At the end of the day ministerial communication and communication on behalf of any member of parliament is subject to oversight by investigative bodies and I think every MP knows that,” he said.
“We’d wait for the Icac findings to come down before I make a policy change or recommend [one] to the NSW government but you know we’re public officials and that needs to be at the forefront of our mind when we’re making decisions.”
But those findings won’t be made public for some months. On Tuesday the watchdog released a timetable saying submissions from the inquiry’s counsel assisting, Scott Robertson, were not due until 20 December. The submissions in reply from lawyers for Berejiklian and Maguire were not due until 14 February 2022.
Icac has been the subject of fierce criticism in some quarters over the timing of its inquiry into Berejiklian, which prompted her resignation as the state navigated the end of its long Covid-19 lockdown in October.
On Friday the commission’s inspector, Bruce McClintock SC, tabled a report in the NSW parliament which revealed that he had decided to conduct an investigation into the decision to launch the inquiry after receiving “several complaints” about the decision.
“The Icac itself has informed me that it too received complaints from members of the public in relation to this matter,” he wrote in the report.
But having reviewed the watchdog’s conduct, McClintock found it had acted “lawfully and in conformity” with the act, and was not unreasonable. He also dismissed complaints about the timing of the investigation, saying Icac could have been accused of “partiality” towards Berejiklian if it did not launch the probe.
“Having concluded that there was sufficient basis to investigate the matters in question further and hold a public inquiry, I believe the commission was correct to proceed as it did,” he wrote.
“Had it failed to do so, it could itself have been justifiably accused of failing to perform its statutory functions and, indeed, of partiality to the premier.”
During his first press conference as premier, Perrottet said changes to the watchdog’s power were not a priority for him, and on Tuesday he said he would not comment on the body’s powers until after its report was complete.
“The independent commission needs to have, free from political interference, the opportunity to conclude its work and to provide a public report and when they provide a public report, we’ll consider that report and if there’s any action … we need to take, we will,” he said.