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Ombudsman and IBAC Funding Cuts – A Blatant Attempt to Hobble the Watchdogs

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Mr MORRIS (Mornington) (15:52): I rise to support the matter of public importance submitted by the member for Ripon.

Before I move to my comments I make the observation that it is a great pity that government members, and particularly the member that has just sat down, think it is necessary, in order to win the debate, to put words into the mouths of the opposition.

The charge that we are advocating a position of austerity are completely false.

If the member had listened at any point to any of the contributions last week on the budget, that message would have come out loud and clear.

As the member for Gippsland South made the point a few minutes ago, we believe absolutely in investing in the future. We believe absolutely that at the moment it is necessary to run deficits; it is just a matter of what you use the money for, whether you use it responsibly and how far you go, and that is the issue that is at question. 

The other point I would make is that the member sort of said, ‘Oh, well, we’re both AA, New South Wales and Victoria’—completely and absolutely wrong!

We were knocked down two steps, and we are AA; New South Wales was knocked down one step—AA+. It is a very different circumstance, and to suggest that ‘No, we’re all the same’, is just completely wrong.

So let us at least keep to those facts in the context of this discussion.

The year 2020, first of all, was a year of disaster, and now of course it has been the year of the pandemic, but particularly I think it has been a year of contrasts.

The particular contrast that I have noted is the contrast between the way the people of Victoria faced challenges for the past 12 months and the manner in which the government of Victoria has responded.

The people of Victoria have shown courage, they have shown discipline and they have shown determination.

They have shown courage in confronting these almost unprecedented challenges that we have faced over the last 12 months; they have shown discipline by working together under difficult circumstances to not see off the challenge—we are a long way from seeing off the challenge—but to make significant progress; and they have shown determination to win that fight and get their lives back, get our lives back.

The community has shown exactly the characteristics you would hope would be reflected in government. But sadly nothing could be further from the case, because this government have shown no courage, they have shown little discipline and they have shown a determination in only one thing, and that is to avoid blame.

What is the most effective way to avoid blame?

Well, the most effective way to avoid blame is to camouflage—to be polite about it—what you are doing, to obscure the true nature of the operations of government.

I think it is fair to say that has always been the instinct of this government, but in 2020 that instinct really has morphed into something else. It has turned into furtiveness, it has turned into secrecy.

Since the election of the government in 2014 we have seen a concerted effort to shut down debate, and where debate could not be shut down it was to be dumbed down.

We have seen that in the way the Parliament operates. With no disrespect at all to you, Speaker—I am not suggesting that the source is the administration of the Parliament. It is the way it is operating. It has almost turned into a mere rubber stamp.

But sadly so has the committee system. The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, which is an institution that I have a fair knowledge of, was once a forum to investigate the budget before it passed.

The hearings were conducted, it reported back and then the house considered its position on the budget. That was a forum that was strongly supported by Premier Bracks. He put a lot of money into making sure it could do the job properly because he understood the necessity for a robust assessment of the budget before it passed.

That committee has now evolved, thanks to government control—and despite, I hasten to say, the best efforts of the opposition members—into what is basically a PR opportunity for ministers.

Those hearings will be completed hopefully before Christmas. The report will be done some time in January and I expect tabled in February. The budget passed last week. What is the point of going through the charade?

This year we saw an attempt to force the closure of electorate offices. Thankfully that went away after about 12 hours.

We saw attempts to prevent members from attending this Parliament. Finally we saw an attempt for the Parliament not to sit at all.

In the end, the government backed off. The Parliament has sat, thankfully. But they tried damn hard to prevent it.

The Liberal and National parties take accountability seriously. We take transparency seriously.

That is why it was a Liberal government that established the Ombudsman’s position in the state of Victoria. That is why it was a Liberal and Nationals government that established the IBAC in Victoria.

That is why it was a Liberal and Nationals government that established a freedom of information commissioner, which has now morphed, under this government, into something very different.

The fact is Labor love to talk about accountability. They like to talk about transparency. But all we get on their watch is more secrecy, more cover-ups, more whitewash.

Mr Rowswell: More cuts.

Mr MORRIS: And more cuts too, as the member for Sandringham says.

Victorians should be able to have confidence in the Ombudsman’s office and they should have confidence in IBAC. They have got to have confidence because they are critical agencies in the fight against corruption in this state.

I certainly have total confidence in the IBAC commissioner, I have total confidence in the Ombudsman. Both are people of the highest integrity. But they cannot do their job unless they get the resources that they need. And both of those people, both independent watchdogs, have expressed their concern at the funding that has been provided.

If we look at the annual report of the IBAC commissioner, and I am quoting, he says:

A strong anti-corruption agency must be independent, accountable and adequately resourced. The ability of IBAC to meet the growing demands and expectations of Parliament and the people of Victoria depends upon the resources, as well as the powers, at our disposal.

IBAC is committed to deliver what is required for the Victorian community; however, without additional funding, we will not be able to maintain current services. This will significantly impact our capacity to independently and robustly expose and prevent corruption.

The Ombudsman in her annual report says:

Most of the new functions and powers recently bestowed by Parliament came into effect on 1 January …

Whether I can make meaningful use of them, however, and indeed to continue to respond effectively to the increasing demands on my office, remains doubtful … and once again my ongoing funding has fallen substantially short of what is needed to respond to public expectations of my office.

… the apparent reluctance to fund my office could risk looking like an attempt to undermine it.

The government of course denies absolutely that the resources are inadequate, and particularly the Premier has been very voluble on that point.

But it is interesting; when the Ombudsman appeared on the Neil Mitchell show on 2 December, Mitchell asked her, ‘Could she do the job properly?’. And she said, ‘On that budget, no, I can’t’.

Neil then went on to say, ‘Well, the spin is actually you have got an increase. Have you got an increase?’. The response: ‘It looks like an increase when you look at it in the budget papers, but because I didn’t get enough last year I was obliged to run a deficit, so if you look at the total amount I spent to do my job, it’s a decrease’.

The same day, when the Premier was asked about that, he effectively called the Victorian Ombudsman a liar—effectively called an independent watchdog a liar. He said, ‘It’s not based on fact’, and that is a response he repeated in this Parliament this afternoon. 

You have got to wonder what is going on when the Premier of the state goes as far as he has on that point.

So is this just a cynical attempt to hamstring the operations of two very effective and principled watchdogs? I think it is. I think that is exactly what is behind this disgraceful campaign from the Premier to nobble and discredit two key agencies fighting corruption in this state, and I think this house should express its deep concern at the behaviour of the government.