Reforms needed for misuse of public resources, Vic integrity agencies say

By Melissa Coade

Tuesday January 11, 2022

Victorian ombud Deborah Glass

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and the Victorian ombud are pushing for changes to improve parliamentary accountability in the state.

Ombud Deborah Glass said that existing laws and rules around the legitimate use of public resources were not robust enough to prevent their misuse.

“The evidence indicates [this] that despite a package of reforms enacted by parliament in 2019 in response to my ‘Red Shirts’ report in 2018,” Glass wrote in a statement last month.

Following evidence presented at the recent IBAC Operation Watts public hearings, it emerged that MPs were directing electorate officers and ministerial staff to engage in work that furthered their own political objectives.

During the hearings MPs also disclosed they believed when the legislative changes were being implemented, reference to a wider definition of ‘party specific work’ had been deliberately omitted by parliament.

IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich said that the evidence showed “how taxpayer funds were directed to ministerial and electorate office staff to perform party‐political during work hours” rather than the job they were hired to do. 

Operation Watts was a joint investigation coordinated between IBAC and the ombud. Public hearings commenced in October 2021 and have now concluded but the investigation remains ongoing. 

The integrity agencies want concerns about the misuse of public resources to be addressed, particularly in relation to breaches of the members of parliament code of conduct.

IBAC and the state ombud have written to leaders of all political parties in Victoria calling for accountability frameworks to be strengthened. They have also asked MPs to clarify the appointment process of staff hired for electoral or ministerial work; and to consider whether the staffing allocation and electorate office budget should be reduced. 

This engagement with party leaders will form one input into the recommendations that will be included in the Operation Watts public report to be released next year,” a statement from the integrity bodies said.

“The recommendations in the final report will seek to strengthen the controls to protect public funds from being misused and go towards restoring public confidence.”

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