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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews seriously mischaracterised the findings of the latest anti-corruption investigation into his government and risks undermining important reforms, leading integrity experts have warned.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission found that ministerial advisers exerted undue political pressure on public servants to award a $1.2 million training contract to an entity controlled by the Health Workers Union in the lead-up to the 2018 state election.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews in Blackburn on Thursday.Credit: James Ross
In response to the Operation Daintree report published on Wednesday, Andrews said it was “a little bit out of date” and contained no findings against anyone.
“It is an educational report, not a report delivered because wrongdoing was found,” he said.
Griffith University professor A.J. Brown, an integrity expert and board member of Transparency International Australia, said this was a “serious mischaracterisation” of the report.
“It is beyond the limits of acceptable spin,” he told The Age. “That is a very incorrect interpretation of this report. Plenty of wrongdoing is found.
“It undermines the seriousness of the recommendations and the seriousness of the problem to mischaracterise it as a report that involves no findings of wrongdoing. Clearly, it does.”
Stephen Charles, KC, a former Court of Appeal judge and a board member of two national integrity think tanks – the Centre for Public Integrity and the Accountability Round Table – said that in most other Australian jurisdictions, the behaviour substantiated by the IBAC investigation would have led to findings of corrupt conduct.
“The report showed how improper influence compromised the procurement process for a contract of $1.2 million,” he said.
“It revealed a range of breaches of duties and obligations of ministers, ministerial advisers, chiefs of staff and public servants and it showed misconduct which favoured the interests of a union and corroded standards of public governance.”
Former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles, KC.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Unlike the NSW ICAC and Queensland Integrity Commissioner, Victoria’s peak anti-corruption body can only make findings of corruption if the conduct they uncover would constitute an indictable criminal offence or one of a narrow range of common law crimes including bribery, perverting the course of justice or misconduct in public office.
Charles urged Victoria to adopt the broader definition of corruption used by Transparency International, which covers “the abuse of entrusted power for personal or political gain”.
Had this definition been in place when Operation Daintree began, it is likely that IBAC would have made findings of corruption against several government figures, he said.
“The facts that were found by IBAC amount on Transparency International’s definition to findings of clear corruption,” he said.
Andrews has deflected questions on whether the government would consider changing the definition. Opposition Leader John Pesutto said he was open to the idea but made no firm commitment.
Monash University associate professor Yee-Fui Ng, a government integrity expert quoted extensively in the Operation Daintree report, said the weak appetite for reform was unsurprising. “It is in the self-interest of the government to keep denying there is a problem here and no additional regulation is required,” she said.
Charles reiterated his previous call for IBAC to be given greater scope to conduct public hearings and for law changes to reduce the prospect of subjects of investigation being able to delay the publication of reports. Two findings of long-standing IBAC investigations – operations Sandon and Richmond – remain unpublished due to legal challenges.
“The electorate in 2022 had to vote without knowing the full state of affairs involving Andrews’ crooked government,” Charles said.
The power of public hearings to expose improper conduct within governments was reinforced by the evidence uncovered during the royal commission that examined the robo-debt scandal of the previous federal government.
Andrews has committed his government to adopt IBAC’s recommendation from July last year to establish a parliamentary integrity commissioner. Enabling legislation for the new office, which would give teeth to codes of conduct governing both parliamentarians and their staff, has not yet been drafted. Andrews said it was being dealt with as fast as possible.
“It’s not a matter just for the government, though, it’s a matter for the parliament,” he said.
While Andrews has not committed to supporting the Daintree recommendations – several of which build on public sector integrity reforms advocated by previous IBAC reports – current and former Labor MPs, including ministers, privately expressed concerns about the erosion of ministerial responsibility and the centralisation of power under Andrews’ leadership.
When invited to respond to the criticisms of the integrity experts, a spokesperson for the Victorian government referred The Age to a section of the Operation Daintree report that explains how the publication of IBAC’s findings fulfils the agency’s education and corruption prevention function. The IBAC explanation was provided after Andrews and HWU secretary Diana Asmar questioned IBAC’s right to publish the report.
Their criticism came as current and former MPs expressed concern that a systemic issue linked to “grey” corruption in the Operation Daintree report – the centralisation of government decision-making – had become more pronounced since the investigation was launched.
One government insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss internal matters, told The Age several people had raised concerns with senior staff in the premier’s office about staff attached to the Premier’s Private Office inappropriately interfering in ministerial offices.
They said the problems IBAC identified been exacerbated since the 2018 election with the creation of the Coordinating Ministers of Cabinet, a group of 10 ministers including the premier, who now have a select, decision-making authority.
The insider said CMC, which was established during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, had enshrined and institutionalised the centralisation of power, as well as the diminution of ministerial authority, effectively formalising the cultural practice that IBAC called out in Operation Daintree.
Andrews on Thursday rejected that criticism of the CMC and likened its functions to cabinet subcommittees, which deliberate policy and put forward a position for the cabinet to ratify.
“I’ve sat as a minister, and as a chair of cabinet meetings for a long time, and [cabinet subcommittees] are all empowered to do certain things,” Andrews said. “And when they do those things … that decision would be ratified and acknowledged by the full cabinet.
“That’s not new, that’s not different, that’s not a COVID hangover. That was there before COVID, long before, [and] for as long as I’ve been around public administration.”
Operation Daintree was the final report overseen by Robert Redlich, a former Supreme Court judge who completed his five-year term as IBAC commissioner at the end of last year. The government has not yet advertised for his permanent replacement.
Meanwhile, the Labor-led public accounts and estimates committee decided not to re-appoint Victoria’s parliamentary budget officer on Wednesday.
The opposition and the Greens described the move as a ploy to avoid scrutiny after the officer criticised government control of his funding.
In his election report, Anthony Close said the government’s decision to use the Department of Treasury and Finance – rather than the PBO – allowed the independence of the public sector to be called into questioned and advantaged the incumbent by refusing access to budget information.
Greens leader Samantha Ratnam said: “The government has on numerous occasions shown its displeasure at the scrutiny the PBO has placed on them. It is very concerning to see the head of an independent body pushed out by a Labor government seeking to avoid scrutiny.”
With Rachel Eddie
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