‘A person of high integrity’: Hazzard praises Berejiklian and raises questions about Icac

NSW health minister suggests anti-corruption body’s initial inquiries could be held ‘behind closed doors’ amid fallout from premier’s resignation

The New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, has questioned whether the state’s anti-corruption body should hold initial inquiries “behind closed doors” as the fallout from Friday’s resignation of Gladys Berejiklian continues.

A former NSW attorney general, Hazard on Sunday praised Berejiklian as a premier of “high integrity”, saying he had “strong views” about the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Hazzard said his government was not focused on Icac reform, but said he was listening to the “community’s view” about the commission.

“We do need an Icac, there is no question that we need an Icac,” he told reporters during a Covid-19 briefing.

“But whether it is something that is closer to the Hong Kong model, where these matters are dealt with behind closed doors until there is actually … a sufficient case, is a matter I think the community will look at and discuss.

“But those issues are not issues which we are focused on now. And nor should we be.”

Icac announced on Friday that it was investigating Berejiklian as part of Operation Keppel, an inquiry focused on the actions of her ex-partner and former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.

The announcement prompted Berejiklian’s resignation. The premier said during her resignation speech that the matters were “historic” and had already been examined.

The events of Friday have prompted some criticism of Icac, including from the former federal Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, who aired a similar criticism to Hazzard’s in the Nine newspapers on Sunday.

He said Icac should act more like a director of public prosecutions and work privately to establish whether a person has a case to answer, before taking the case to open court.

Icac already has the power to conduct private hearings. It has done so in recent major inquiries, including the Maguire investigation and the 2019 probe into donations to the Labor party by the Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo.

Supporters of the NSW Icac, like Geoffrey Watson SC, a former counsel assisting, say public hearings have enormous benefits.

“One of the great benefits of public inquiries in particular is that people come forward, sometimes they come forward and they’re pretty scared to do so,” Watson said.

“Some of them have got real fear of revealing information, and it’s at a personal cost to them, but they do, they come forward. And you find out more and more and more. It’s good, I take that to be a very positive sign when the investigation is growing and spreading.”

A series of NSW ministers spoke in support of Berejiklian on Sunday.

Hazzard said it was “awfully sad” that her resignation had been forced.

“What I would say about the premier is that I think she has been an amazing premier, a person of high integrity, and someone that I would place my trust in completely. And I think that’s what the community of NSW has done as well during these last 120 months,” he said.

“It’s just awfully sad that it’s come to this.”

The NSW transport minister Andrew Constance, who announced his exit from state politics on Sunday, said he was “heartbroken” for Berejiklian.

“Gladys has been an amazing leader on both a personal and broader community level,” Constance said. “Her care and support during Black Summer, in which we worked so closely together, is something that is very dear to my heart.”

Berejiklian is being investigated in relation to two grant programs and the links between recipients and her ex-lover, the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.

The ABC has previously revealed that Berejiklian had a role overseeing that grant and that Maguire had advocated for the money and later attempted to personally benefit from the grants.

Those allegations are still being investigated by the Icac and Berejiklian has strongly denied any wrongdoing.

“I state categorically I’ve always acted with the highest level of integrity,” she said.

Contributor

Christopher Knaus

The GuardianTramp

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