It was the thing Martin Pakula wanted to vent about on his retirement from Victorian politics: the encroachment of high-minded judges and lawyers turned integrity chiefs and experts into the rightful realm of elected MPs.
Martin Pakula had a word or two to say about integrity experts in his last speech as an MP.Credit:Justin McManus
In his parting speech to parliament in September, the former attorney-general bemoaned the “seemingly relentless trend toward expanding the definition of what is considered improper and simultaneously narrowing the prerogative of the electorate to be the arbiters of such conduct”.
Pakula warned against “lawyers and judges [becoming] the final arbiters of the appropriateness of political decisions” and encouraged MPs to “guard your sovereignty jealously [and] never forget that it is this arm of government that is formed by the will of voters”.
It was a rare public commentary from an MP about the friction between democracy and the people appointed to scrutinise its operation, but onlookers noted that at this point in his valedictory speech, even senior Opposition figures were nodding in furious agreement.
Pakula’s words ran counter to the prevailing view that there is an integrity crisis in Victoria and Australia more widely; that our politicians are increasingly untrustworthy.
At the November state poll both major parties carried integrity baggage, with Premier Daniel Andrews linked to multiple IBAC inquiries, including alleged deals with unions, and then-Opposition leader Matthew Guy facing a new inquiry late in the campaign over an attempt to solicit funds from a wealthy donor to top up the salary of his former chief of staff. [A draft contract was circulated but was never executed]
Last month in state parliament integrity issues fired up again, sparked by the emergence of a letter from former IBAC head Robert Redlich to parliament alleging that the then Labor-dominated Integrity and Oversight Committee (IOC) was seeking to undermine IBAC’s work.
Politicians are inclined to blame the integrity kerfuffle on overly nosey, self-righteous watchdogs, especially former judges like Redlich. Agency heads point to dangerous trends in government, including the slippery slope of concentrated executive power.
But could the tension between our politicians and watchdogs actually be a healthy reflection of an evolving integrity system?
Who watches the watchdogs?
At the western end of Melbourne’s CBD, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Victorian Inspectorate are almost neighbours.
Their offices sit so nearly opposite each other that their heads could exchange waves at the windows if they were so inclined. But they are not.
As The Age reveals today, there has been a breakdown in relations between the Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, and Inspector Eamonn Moran, head of the Victorian Inspectorate, the little-known agency that scrutinises other integrity bodies – the watchdogs’ watchdog.
An October letter from Glass to Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, seen by The Age, reveals that despite his authority over her office, Glass is refusing to deal with Moran, alleging he has abused his powers in multiple investigations of her office. The row is a troubling new fault line in an already stretched integrity system.
Head of the Victorian Inspectorate, Eamonn Moran.
An Inspectorate spokeswoman says the Inspector (Moran) is not aware of the Glass letter, nor its contents, and that engagement with the Office of the Ombudsman continues “as usual”.
But while Glass’ beef is in part with the Inspectorate and what she says are its excessive powers, it is also with the Andrews government.
Sitting above all the watchdogs is the Integrity and Oversight Committee, made up of MPs from the lower and upper houses but which until late last month had been chaired and controlled by a majority of MPs from the governing Labor Party.
In her letter, Glass explains that after formally complaining to the committee about Moran in June, the committee failed to launch an investigation until October and then only allowed three weeks for its completion.
She says the truncated timeframe led her “to question the Committee, not to mention the government’s, commitment to a meaningful investigation”.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass is approaching the end of her 10 years in the position.Credit:Paul Jeffers
Glass argues the Inspector’s unfettered use of his coercive powers exposes “serious weaknesses” in the integrity system.
News of Glass’ letter comes just weeks after it was revealed that Redlich had written to the speaker and president of the Victorian parliament in December accusing the committee of seeking to undermine IBAC’s work.
Redlich called on the government to relinquish its dominant position on the committee and its insistence on having one of its MPs chair it. Late last month the government caved, its arm forced when the Opposition and Greens threatened to join forces to demand an inquiry into Labor’s alleged suppression of the Redlich letter.
The missives from Redlich and Glass raise questions about who is, and who should be, watching whom and whether Victoria’s evolving integrity system needs retuning.
A history of argy-bargy
Yet the current tension between politicians and integrity agencies, and between the agencies themselves, is all but inevitable given the business they’re in: investigating dodgy doings by MPs and public servants.
When the Baillieu government – after years of political argy-bargy – finally introduced IBAC, the first dedicated anti-corruption agency in Victoria with powers to probe MPs, it also established the Victorian Inspectorate in 2013 to oversee the watchdog’s work.
The Ombudsman’s office had been established in the 1970s, but its powers of scrutiny were limited to the public service.
The Andrews government increased the jurisdiction of IBAC in 2016, removing the requirement for corrupt conduct to be “serious” and adding the ability to investigate misconduct in public office.
As soon as IBAC got up and running and began poking around in politics, government MPs were irritated by its intrusions.
That frustration has been fuelled by Redlich’s insistence on probing matters arguably outside the scope of the IBAC Act, as well as what Redlich calls “soft corruption”: centralisation of executive power, the growing influence of advisers and staffers, relations with unions and pork-barrelling.
Redlich and Glass say they are increasingly worried about the lack of government accountability, and in their joint Operation Watts report that detailed Labor’s rotten internal culture, described Victoria as a “laggard rather than a leader in parliamentary integrity”.
They said the investigation resulted from “failure to prevent publicly funded electorate and ministerial officers from being used by some MPs and ministers for party-specific purposes”. The joint report concluded that the electoral staff working in MPs’ local offices “should not be used for party-political purposes”.
But such finger-wagging infuriated some who say it is a naive view that ignores the realities of seeking and keeping office in a democracy.
Senior government MPs also privately point to the damage to reputations that comes with being caught up in IBAC examination even if the matter is – by political if not IBAC standards – trivial.
Andrews himself has been grilled by IBAC on multiple occasions, albeit in private. Other ministers, former ministers and MPs have also been examined. Many are unimpressed, to put it lightly.
Redlich and Glass have further ruffled feathers by being outspoken about the rights and wrongs of governance in Victoria.
One of Robert Redlich’s final acts was to call on the government to overhaul the make up of parliamentary committees.Credit:Jason South
For his first four years at the helm of IBAC, Redlich was low-key and repeatedly refused to be drawn into public commentary about the agency’s work. In his last year he was increasingly prominent, railing against declining government standards at both state and federal levels.
Asked for suggestions about who might replace Redlich as IBAC commissioner, a senior legal figure closely associated with Labor takes a thinly veiled swipe. “There is something about old blokes who have had high-pressure and powerful positions as they face their irrelevance,” the insider said. “We need to find someone for that [IBAC] job who can keep their ego in their back pocket. We need people who let their reports do the talking.”
The Premier let his feelings be known last month in classic Andrews style. When asked about Redlich’s letter he said he would not be responding to “someone who used to do a job [who has] written a letter that apparently says a whole bunch of stuff”.
In fact Redlich was the IBAC commissioner when he wrote the letter. Integrity experts, including former Supreme Court judge Stephen Charles, were aghast at Andrews’ lack of respect.
Glass is also unpopular among Labor frontbenchers, especially after her December 2020 report into the government’s COVID response lockdown of North Melbourne and Flemington public housing towers. Glass found the government had violated Victorian human rights laws, and called on it to apologise to public tenants.
Far from an apology, ministers were seething about what they perceived as Glass’ holier-than-thou narrative, especially given the crisis context in which the lockdown took place.
Ill feeling only intensified in 2022 when Glass launched her probe of the alleged politicisation of the public service, an inquiry that will likely feature the infamously centralised office of the Premier.
The investigation was launched in response to a referral from the upper house after stories by The Age. The Ombudsman has no choice but to follow up such referrals. Nonetheless, Labor MPs see Glass’ enthusiasm for the inquiry as symptomatic of a negative attitude to government and parliament.
This week she refused to comment on her letter to Symes because it is private correspondence.
But she defends her public forthrightness: “In my view, an important part of the role of the Ombudsman is to speak truth to power, even if such truths are not appreciated.”
She says her experience is that MPs have not done enough to promote their own integrity, noting that the government had accepted but not implemented the recommendations from the Watts investigation for a parliamentary ethics committee not controlled by the government.
Glass has just entered the last year of her decade-long stint as Ombudsman. She is unlikely to go out quietly.
The bad old days
But if the watchdogs are such an annoyance and so unreasonable, why let them loose? Why, for example, would Anthony Albanese go to an election promising a national anti-corruption body, after watching for decades the damage inflicted on politicians by such an agency in his home state? Inquiries by ICAC in New South Wales have cost three Liberal premiers their jobs since premier Nick Greiner established the agency in the late 1980s.
Clearly Albanese saw a big political advantage in promising such a body at a time when integrity was a hot button issue. But despite their trepidation, many MPs also argue it was the right thing to do.
Integrity experts agree. Catherine Williams, research director of the Centre for Public Integrity, says the flaw in Pakula’s argument is that voters need to know as much as possible about what transpires behind the scenes in politics to make an informed choice at the ballot box.
“If the electorate when it elects a government is not in full knowledge of the government’s activities, how can it be said that the government really has moral authority?” she asks.
Privately, former MPs and insiders from both sides of politics acknowledge that 20 years ago – before IBAC and Labor’s strict 2018 donations laws – Victorian politics was much grubbier than it is now. We just didn’t hear about it because there was no anti-corruption watchdog.
“The educational role of IBAC and equivalent agencies in other states has helped politicians and public servants better understand what acceptable conduct and corruption are,” says Williams. “The IBAC has a really important educational function.”
The integrity system, however, is a work in progress; it is evolving. And despite the complaints of some MPs, Victorians can expect more integrity reform.
Victoria has fallen behind other states and territories on some – but not all – integrity fronts, according to multiple experts, including Transparency International Australia, around lobbying regulations and the powers IBAC has.
Pressure is mounting on Labor to further broaden IBAC’s jurisdiction by widening the definition of corrupt conduct so that it is not limited to hard, cash-in-a-paper-bag-style corruption.
Williams identifies this as the single biggest weakness in the Victorian IBAC legislation.
She says Victoria has now fallen behind the federal sphere in this area, as Canberra’s new integrity commission has a much broader definition of corruption. Widening IBAC’s reach has also been identified by the Greens as a priority.
After his own low-key start in the job, acting IBAC commissioner Stephen Farrow has also gone public to call for reform.
“It is important to question whether having a much narrower definition [of corruption] in Victoria creates a gap in our integrity framework,” says Farrow, in exclusive comments to The Age.
That may not be music to the ears of MPs, or former MPs, fed up with being lectured to about integrity by former judges and ageing legal eagles.
But when Pakula made his speech in September last year, there may have been things on his mind that he did not raise.
Like many of his government colleagues, in his time as an MP Pakula was mentioned in public hearings of IBAC’s epic Operation Sandon, relating to legal political donations received from the allegedly corrupt developer John Woodman.
IBAC’s Sandon report is likely to be tabled in parliament later this year.
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