Royce Millar and Melissa Fyfe
March 15, 2012
PREMIER Ted Baillieu’s looming anti-corruption watchdog faces tough early tests with confirmation it will be asked to examine controversies including the development of the state-owned Kew Cottages and the long-running wrangle at the top of Victoria Police.
Andrew McIntosh, the minister responsible for the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission, told The Age that he would personally refer the Kew Cottages issue to the commission, scheduled to begin mid-year.
The former secretary of the Police Association, Paul Mullett, said he is close to completing a complaint alleging political figures and Victoria Police executives conspired in a ”political witch-hunt” against himself and former assistant commissioner Noel Ashby.
Mr Mullett will allege ”corruption and criminality” against chief commissioners Simon Overland and Christine Nixon, current assistant commissioner Luke Cornelius, deputy commissioner Graham Ashton and former Labor roads minister Tim Pallas, among others.
The complaint will bring together long-standing allegations, including claims of attempting to pervert the course of justice, perjury and making false affidavits. ”We are confident the new anti-corruption commission will investigate our complaint because our complaint falls into its definition of corruption,” Mr Mullett said.
Both men faced an Office of Police Integrity corruption probe in 2007. Charges against Mr Mullett were dropped because of a lack of evidence; Mr Ashby’s case was thrown out because of an OPI administrative mistake.
The Kew development has been dogged by controversy since 2005, including over large political donations by Sydney-based developer the Walker Corporation, and lobbying on the company’s behalf by former Labor hard man Graham Richardson.
The Kew matter is a difficult one for Mr McIntosh personally and will be an important gauge for critics who say the government has set the bar too high for investigations of corruption.
As a local MP in opposition, he promised a Coalition government would refer the project – a public-private venture involving the construction of houses on taxpayer-owned parkland – to the proposed commission.
Once elected, Mr McIntosh had a change of heart, declaring that it was inappropriate for the minister responsible for the watchdog to make such referrals because it ”may well impact on its [the commission’s] credibility as an independent agency”. Mr McIntosh has again changed his mind, confirming to The Agethat he would refer Kew Cottages to the commission.
But it seems doubtful the commission could investigate Kew anyway. Unlike other Australian anti-corruption bodies, new Victorian legislation requires corruption to be an indictable offence and the commission’s investigations to be based on facts, not suspicion or reasonable opinion.
In an interview with The Age, Mr McIntosh struggled to nominate an indictable offence that applied at Kew Cottages. ”There is a significant element of planning, there’s a significant issue of whether [taxpayers] got the right bargain out of all of this,” he said.
Kew Cottages Coalition president Brian Walsh said the limited scope of the commission raised questions about the Coalition’s sincerity on issues such as Kew. ”It would be hypocritical if the Coalition promised they would investigate something and then they set the bar so high that they could not investigate,” he said.
Civil liberties group Liberty Victoria has joined the legal community consensus about the limits placed on the watchdog by the government’s definition of corruption and high threshold for investigations.
Group president Professor Spencer Zifcak said the definition would rule out investigation of the sort of public controversies, such as Kew Cottages, used by the Coalition to justify the commission.
Professor Zifcak said the government had set the bar so high the commission would face immediate legal challenge from most people likely to come under its spotlight.
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