The Victorian government is under pressure to speed up promised integrity reforms, following a scathing report detailing “extensive” misconduct by its MPs.
The Operation Watts investigation — a joint probe between the state’s ombudsman and the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) — uncovered rampant nepotism and the widespread misuse of public resources within the Victorian Labor party.
The Victorian Greens will introduce an anti-corruption bill when parliament resumes this week to strengthen IBAC’s powers and establish a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner within the next few months — almost two years sooner than the timeline indicated by the government.
The Labor Party has promised to implement all 21 of the report’s recommendations, which includes advice to establish a Parliamentary Ethics Committee and an Integrity Commissioner by June 2024.
But Brunswick MP and Greens integrity spokesperson Tim Read said the government should act immediately on the reforms.
“There’s no reason why the government couldn’t make a good start on it this year and have an integrity commissioner appointed early next year,” Dr Read told the ABC.
“There’s a lot of precedent to this — it’s not as if there’s a hell of a lot of thought that needs to go into it.”
Catherine Williams from the Centre for Public Integrity said the government must start implementing some reforms before November’s state election if it was determined to crack down on corruption.
“It’s very easy for governments to make promises to introduce change, however, we know from past experience what we need to see are steps being taken,” Dr Williams said.
“A commitment is one thing, what we really require is action.”
The Liberal opposition has also backed the push to speed up reforms, with Matthew Guy saying he would be “more than happy to look into it” when parliament returns.
Premier Daniel Andrews said on Friday the government would be “faithful” to the timeline provided by the integrity agencies.
“Some of it will be able to be achieved quickly, other elements of those recommendations in that reform will take a bit longer, but we’re committed to all of them,” Mr Andrews said.
“If we can better it, if we can do it even faster, then of course we will.”
Reports reveal misconduct likely to be repeated
Last week, a fresh report from the Victorian Ombudsman into Labor’s red shirts affair warned that until corruption was addressed with the “necessary rigour”, the scandals were “unlikely to be the last”.
The calls for urgent reform come amid other integrity investigations involving the state government, including political donations by a property developer linked to big projects.
Concerns were raised over a potential conflict of interest stemming from Lizzie Blandthorn’s appointment as Planning Minister in June, due to her brother’s role as a director at construction lobbying firm Hawker Britton.
Dr Read said while the recent IBAC investigations had shone a spotlight on the state’s weak parliamentary accountability laws, the Greens’ integrity platform was not new.
“For years, there’s been concern about inadequate integrity measures in the Victorian government and parliament — it’s just happened to intensify over the past couple of months,” he said.
Legislation to weaken the influence of lobbyists
Under the integrity and anti-corruption reforms proposed by the Greens, lobbyists would also be prevented from having an undue influence on state MPs.
If passed, the bill would legislate codes of conduct for ministers and lobbyists, make ministerial diaries publicly available and lengthen the waiting period from when a minister leaves parliament before becoming a lobbyist.
“If a minister meets with a property developer, we should know about that,” Dr Read said.
“And if a minister becomes a lobbyist for a property developer, then there should be a time lag between those events.”
In Victoria, parliamentary secretaries and ministerial officers must wait 12 months before taking up lobbying work, while ministers and cabinet secretaries must wait 18 months.
Dr Williams said the “cooling-off period” should be a minimum of two years, and ideally, five years.
“Influencing networks don’t dissipate in such a short period, and that’s the purpose of the prohibition,” she said.
“If you want it to be meaningful it needs to be substantially longer.”
In 2019, the Greens attempted to establish a Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, but the bill failed to garner enough votes.
“There’s nothing like being vindicated, however, everybody would have been better off had the government supported us,” Dr Read said.
“And not just the government, but also crossbenchers who voted against the idea.”
The opposition has committed to boosting funding for IBAC and the state’s ombudsman if it wins the November election.
Under the plan, the coalition would pump an extra $10 million into IBAC’s annual budget and increase the Victorian Ombudsman’s funding by $2 million per year. IBAC would also gain broader powers for public hearings.
Written by Leanne Wong. Originally published by the ABC on Mon 1 Aug 2022.