Labor promises ICAC heads same protection from ‘political interference’ as judges

Megan Latham resigned as ICAC commissioner after the agency was restructured. Photo: Brook MitchellFuture heads of the NSW corruption watchdog would be given the same protections against removal from office as judges under a Labor plan to safeguard the independence of the agency.

The head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Megan Latham, announced last month she would not apply for a new position after her role was axed by an Act of Parliament restructuring the agency.

The restructure has been slammed by Labor as a Baird government “ruse” to remove Ms Latham.

She came under fire over the ICAC’s inquiry into Liberal Party fundraising and its failed bid to investigate Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC.

But Premier Mike Baird has insisted the changes strengthen the agency and Ms Latham could have applied for the new chief commissioner position or one of two part-time commissioner roles.

In an early bid for election in 2019, Opposition Leader Luke Foley said a government led by him would insert a new section in the NSW constitution giving ICAC commissioners the same protections against political interference as judges.

“We need a robust and independent ICAC that can keep Macquarie Street and politicians honest; one that can fight corruption without fear of retribution,” Mr Foley said.

“Mike Baird’s sacking of the current commissioner has sent a warning shot to all corruption fighters in NSW – investigate the ruling party at your peril.”

The NSW constitution provides that a judge can only be removed from office by the governor after a vote by the majority of both houses of Parliament. The only grounds for removal are “proved misbehaviour or incapacity”.

Parliament must first receive a recommendation from the Judicial Commission, the independent statutory watchdog overseeing the judiciary.

Existing provisions of the ICAC Act – which were bypassed in Ms Latham’s case – provide that a commissioner may be removed by the governor following a vote by both houses of Parliament.

It does not specify any grounds for removal, but the procedure in the ICAC Act may have afforded a measure of protection to Ms Latham had it been followed.

Provisions in the constitution applying to judges do not prevent judicial offices from being abolished, as occurred in the ICAC restructure.

However, the constitution provides that a judge who held an abolished office is entitled “to be appointed to and to hold another judicial office in the same court or in a court of equivalent or higher status”.

This right remains in place for the period during which the judge was entitled to hold the abolished office.

Ms Latham will return to her former role as a Supreme Court judge next year.

Labor said it would also give the chief commissioner of the ICAC veto rights over the appointment of the two part-time commissioners.

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