Corrupt police once tried to plant spies in NSW corruption watchdog
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Corrupt police once tried to plant spies in NSW corruption watchdog

From its inception, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has been warding off threats to its integrity, with its chief architect revealing 30 years later that “unsavoury” sections of NSW Police had tried to plant spies inside it.

According to newly released cabinet papers from the formative months of Nick Greiner's government in 1988, police officers were seconded to help set up ICAC.

Gary Sturgess, who was head of Greiner's cabinet office at the time, revealed that federal police had warned them NSW police were attempting to install officers of questionable integrity.

Nick Greiner watching the 1988 election results.

Nick Greiner watching the 1988 election results. Credit:Fairfax Media

"There's no doubt whatsoever there were unsavoury people within NSW Police trying to get a foothold in ICAC and create a back-channel to the police," he said.

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"They were unsuccessful. We wound up a few years later with the royal commission that exposed the scale of police corruption."

The creation of the corruption watchdog is just one of 240 matters considered by the outgoing Unsworth government and the newly elected Greiner government in 1988, according to once-sensitive Cabinet papers released by the NSW government’s State Archives and Records on Wednesday.

1988 was the year Home and Away first appeared on our screens, Queen Elizabeth opened Parliament House in Canberra, and the coalition ended 12 years of state Labor government with a landslide election, achieving a swing of 8.3 per cent – the second biggest in NSW’s history.

Nick Greiner at a Liberal Party launch in 1988.

Nick Greiner at a Liberal Party launch in 1988.Credit:Andrew Taylor

Looking back, Mr Greiner said on Wednesday it was interesting to note the coalition's two "vote winning" decisions were its opposition to gun reform and support for the Unsworth government's national parks expansion.

"[In regards to opposing gun reform], it doesn’t make our position either principled or correct, it makes it politically correct ... because we won seats St Marys, Cessnock, places like that, which I don’t think the centre right parties have won since," he said.

The Greiner government ushered in changes that triggered reform in other states and are still important today – ICAC, credit rating of states and territories, and freedom of information laws.

Another was the Ministerial Code of Conduct, introduced 10 days after the election win and the first in Australia.

It followed a string of corruption cases that saw a prisons minister get jailed for taking bribes and a planning minister become the subject of a police inquiry.

The code was first put to the test in 1988 when a minister, Matt Singleton, was caught lobbying to get a parcel of land on the North Coast, which he had an interest in, rezoned for development. A year later a review into his conduct found serious breaches and he was forced to resign from cabinet.

In May 1988, the cabinet approved the establishment of ICAC, the organisation which made a corruption finding against Greiner and ended up destroying his government.

Thirty years on, Mr Greiner, who is now the president of the Liberal Party of Australia, says ICAC remains one of his biggest achievements as premier and he supports the creation of a federal corruption watchdog.

"The federal Liberal view is that there are enough mechanisms [but] I suspect there will eventually be one, I think on balance there ought to be one," he said.

Esther Han is a health reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald. She has previously been consumer affairs editor and also covered food and wine.