The group of state MPs who oversee Victoria’s corruption watchdog have turned on each other amid claims Premier Daniel Andrews’ office directed a politically charged statement that took a swipe at the agency.
Veteran Liberal MP and former treasurer Kim Wells has accused Andrews’ office of “direct political interference” into the Integrity and Oversight Committee, whose new Labor chair inflamed tensions between the government and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission.
The publication of a stinging submission from IBAC to the committee last week, reprimanding MPs over the inquiry into witness welfare following a suspected suicide, was met with a late-night riposte from new Labor committee chair Gary Maas.
After being appointed chair a day earlier, he issued a statement saying IBAC’s language in its submission demonstrated the need for the inquiry.
Liberal deputy chair Brad Rowswell immediately hit back at Maas’ pronouncement and claimed neither he nor the committee’s officers were consulted before it was sent, in what he argued was a break from long-standing convention.
Wells, who also sits on the committee, told The Sunday Age that he strongly suspected Maas was instructed by the Premier’s office to take the rare step of seemingly criticising the integrity agency that has found itself at the centre of political debate in Victoria.
“For a brand-new chair who knows nothing about the committee to put out a statement of that nature smacks of direct political interference by the Premier’s private office,” Wells said.
He emphasised it was “incredibly inappropriate for a member of the executive government to get involved or interfere with any parliamentary committee”.
The Premier’s office did not respond to three specific questions about any involvement it may have had in Maas’ statement. Instead, a government spokeswoman said: “The chair of the Integrity and Oversight Committee speaks for himself.”
Maas also did not respond to questions about whether he had consulted the Premier’s office or whether the office drafted the statement. “I made that statement and I stand by it,” he said.
Two Labor MPs, speaking anonymously to avoid blowback from Andrews’ office, said it was common for the Premier’s staffers to be involved in the affairs of a committee. This entanglement ranged from mundane tasks such as assistance on research to overbearing directions on key decisions and recommendations in policy reports.
“It’s part of the command-and-control model. It’s about knowing what’s being said, controlling the flow of information and managing the story,” one said.
The committee has been examining IBAC’s witness welfare protocols since February. The inquiry was prompted by the suspected suicide of former Casey mayor Amanda Stapledon, who was being investigated as part of IBAC’s probe into alleged land-rezoning corruption at the council.
Hearings blew up when former chair Harriet Shing, a close ally of Andrews who has since been promoted into the ministry, demanded to “cut the feed” when IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich was asked why Andrews was questioned by IBAC in private rather than in public. Shing also blocked Ombudsman Deborah Glass from answering questions about the so-called red shirts rort because it was subject to active investigation.
IBAC has been concerned since the committee called for public submissions from people who had experience dealing with the agency. When submissions criticising IBAC were leaked to the media, the agency was worried it had no ability to defend its record, prompting a submission from IBAC about its “grave concerns” the inquiry was compromising ongoing inquiries. It said Shing was “unresponsive” to its complaints that the committee was breaching its own rules.
On Thursday, Andrews backed the inquiry probing issues related to the suspected suicide and said Shing was a “woman of the highest integrity”. “I am so, so pleased that she has joined the cabinet,” he said.
Constitutional law expert William Partlett said a key principle of the Westminister system in Australia was the supremacy of Parliament and its committees to have oversight of the elected government.
The Melbourne University associate professor said Parliament should be able to scrutinise the decisions made by the government without the compromising influence of party loyalty.
“This is a problem in Australia … Parliamentary committees not representing the Parliament and being openly, or behind the scenes, directed by the executive,” he said.
The Centre for Public Integrity, a think tank focused on corruption and institutional accountability, said the composition of the committee should be altered so that government MPs do not hold a majority.
“Scrutiny by an executive-dominated parliamentary committee is not real scrutiny,” Catherine Williams, the group’s research director, said.
Written by Paul Sakkal. Originally published in the Age on August 13, 2022.