The Newman government’s moves to control the Crime and Misconduct Commission threaten a return to pre-Fitzgerald days. By Doug Drummond.

Doug Drummond
Newman’s moves to neuter the CMC

When Campbell Newman led the Liberal National Party to a stunning victory in the 2012 election, winning 78 seats to Labor’s seven, he did so promising to reintroduce a section of the criminal code that allowed for prosecution of those found to have lied to a parliamentary committee. The 100-year-old section 57 was repealed by then Labor premier Peter Beattie in the wake of the Crime and Misconduct Commission’s 2006 pursuit of his health minister, Gordon Nuttall. Beattie steered charges against Nuttall into a contempt of parliament case, after which Nuttall was ritualistically smacked and returned to his ministerial duties. To ensure that his ministers could safely avoid telling parliamentary committees things that might embarrass his government, Beattie then repealed the section. Nuttall was shortly after prosecuted in a subsequent Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) investigation and imprisoned for being on the take from a Queensland coal magnate.

The LNP’s pre-election commitment to reintroduce section 57 was promptly implemented after its election. The attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, said that this would “serve to enhance the reputation of parliament”. 

But the government failed the first test of its praiseworthy commitment. In 2013, it chose Dr Ken Levy to head the CMC. Bipartisan support was not sought because this was only an acting appointment. In late 2013, the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (PCMC), which the government did not control, was investigating whether Levy had breached section 57 by giving false evidence about his contact with the government before producing a Courier-Mail opinion piece supporting the government’s controversial bikies legislation. The premier’s media man appeared to contradict him. 

Before the PCMC could report to parliament, Newman sacked all its members and transferred the Levy inquiry to a select ethics committee on which the government has the numbers. This committee’s chairman later resigned after admitting to an old fraud charge.

In Bleijie’s recent legislation to revamp the CMC a clause declares Levy fit to run the commission and extends his acting appointment until the end of 2014. Levy cannot now be sacked from the commission or prosecuted under section 57. 

Both the PCMC and CMC were established following the 1989 Fitzgerald political and police corruption inquiry, which recommended their establishment to impose a measure of accountability on Queensland’s all-powerful single-chamber governments. 

By 2012, the CMC had nearly but not quite become its own worst enemy. It was an unwieldy, inefficient bureaucracy, painfully slow to complete many of its investigations. Indeed, the commission handed the Newman government the perfect opportunity to neuter it when, with spectacular incompetence, it accidentally released to the public a lot of still-sensitive Fitzgerald inquiry documents in early 2012. The government immediately castigated the CMC, as did the bipartisan PCMC.

As its two Nuttall investigations showed, however, the commission retained the capacity to cause political pain. Following an investigation that cleared Newman of misconduct over a developer’s donations for his 2012 election campaign, the CMC announced it would investigate donations to political parties more broadly. Instead, its efforts would be hamstrung and political donations subject to less scrutiny. 

In November 2013, Bleijie introduced the Electoral Reform Amendment Bill, intended, he said, to ensure the opportunity for full participation in Queensland’s electoral process. This was to be achieved firstly by removing all the existing caps on donations and expenditure, and secondly by increasing twelvefold the public disclosure threshold for donations. This is now the law in Queensland. Those seeking the government’s attention may flash their chequebooks. They can give as much as they want and mostly the person getting it will not have to disclose this.

Donors and politicians say nothing untoward is happening. But mining companies and developers dependent on government licences insist on contributing regularly and heavily to political parties and candidates and, as the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Sydney is revealing, to their associated slush funds. ICAC’s investigations are also showing that in NSW there is a direct link between political donations and the grant to the donors of valuable government concessions. The smell of corruption is strong there.

Perhaps political donors and politicians work differently in Queensland. Perhaps greed and corruption stop at the Tweed.

In recent days, the ABC and the Brisbane Times have reported instances of substantial donors to LNP funds obtaining benefits from the Newman government in the form of mining concessions. A sand miner, Sibelco, was able to persuade the Newman government to change the previous government’s phasing out of sand mining on North Stradbroke Island by 2019 and to extend its lease to 2035. It spent $91,000 on electoral assistance to Newman in his Ashgrove electorate in 2012. A gravel quarrying company, Karreman Quarries, facing prosecution by the Department of Natural Resources and Mines for illegal quarrying, was able to persuade Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, at the last minute, to tack a clause onto a general amendment to the Water Act that retrospectively legalised all its doubtful activities. Karreman Quarries has given $75,000 to the LNP in recent years, making it one of the party’s largest donors.

A review of the CMC’s functions, by retired High Court judge Ian Callinan and Professor Nicholas Aroney, recommended drastic curtailment of its capacity both to gather information about possible public sector corruption and to investigate such matters.

Bleijie introduced a bill this year to revamp the CMC, adopting many of the report’s recommendations, as well as some from a review of its management efficiencies by former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty. But the bill went further. The requirement since 1990 for bipartisan agreement on selection of the chairman of the commission was abandoned. The government assumed sole power to pick whomever it wanted for the job. 

At the same time, where once the CMC chairman reported to his fellow commissioners, the new act awarded the chairman full power to decide whether to investigate suspected corruption and whether to kill off any investigation under way. Hence, all the government needs as an insurance against ever being politically embarrassed by the commission is a “reliable” chairman. And it is now empowered to select such a person.

Meanwhile, the courts could be expected to stand as islands of stability in all this turmoil. The decision to appoint Tim Carmody as chief justice, however, has been widely opposed on the grounds he is too close to the Newman government.  

Taken together, it is difficult to see these changes as other than attempts to relieve the government of independent scrutiny. Queenslanders should be alarmed. So should the rest of Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 12, 2014 as "Skies darken in Sunshine State".

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Doug Drummond was special prosecutor following the Fitzgerald inquiry, a federal court judge and part-time commissioner to the CMC.

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