The Age Editorial published on June 30 2022.
The message could not have been clearer at the last federal election. Voters do not see integrity, transparency and the misuse of public funds for political purposes as esoteric topics for think tank discussion groups, but fundamental issues that go to the heart of good government. These issues changed votes.
That is a message Premier Daniel Andrews should be listening to carefully. He may be favourite to win the state election in November, but that should in no way give him reason to think that paying lip service to issues around integrity will satisfy citizens.
There are red flags that need to be dealt with. One that cannot be brushed aside was the news this week that the premier’s appointment of new Planning Minister Lizzie Blandthorn had raised conflict-of-interest questions due to her lobbyist brother representing major development, construction and infrastructure clients. John-Paul Blandthorn heads the prominent Labor-linked lobbying firm Hawker Britton and is a former senior adviser to the premier.
While The Age is not suggesting there has been, or will be, any impropriety between the Blandthorn siblings, according to investigative journalist Royce Millar, integrity experts are flagging that the planning minister’s appointment highlights major weaknesses in the state’s outdated rules around lobbying and the revolving door of political insiders who move between working in government and for businesses seeking favourable decisions from government.
As Millar points out, unlike more strongly regulated jurisdictions such as NSW and Queensland, Victoria’s lobbying rules are not enshrined in legislation and are similar to the federal rules, which in 2020 the Australian National Audit Office labelled a “light-touch approach”.
John-Paul Blandthorn wrote to Public Sector Commissioner Adam Fennessy, who administers the Victorian register of lobbyists, detailing voluntary precautions he would take to resolve any potential conflict of interest. It included the presence of an independent person whenever he met his sister in relation to her portfolio and keeping a log of meetings with the minister’s office that could be reviewed. The government said the departmental secretaries and the public sector commissioner were developing a “robust management plan” to ensure the independence of the minister’s decision-making.
Neither of these efforts is good enough. They highlight the weakness of the system. Any rigorous conflict-of-interest mechanism would make such undertakings mandatory, not voluntary. And this is not the only example relating to integrity that is raising concerns in Victoria.
The Centre for Public Integrity also released this week its review of the powers of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. Former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles, QC, one of the centre’s board members, told The Age his to-do list for beefing up the powers of IBAC included the need to better define what constitutes corruption, enshrining in legislation ministerial and parliamentary responsibilities, abolishing the requirement for public hearings to be held only in “exceptional circumstances” and ensuring the appointment of IBAC commissioners is overseen by an independent parliamentary committee.
This came on the back of the head of IBAC, Robert Redlich, QC, warning of an increased risk of corrupt behaviour in Australian politics, and calling for his integrity agency to be given stronger powers to investigate pork barrelling and other potential wrongdoing.
The Morrison government failed to take the implementation of a federal integrity commission seriously, and it paid the price. In the lead up to the state election, the Andrews government needs to do better. Having an integrity commission is one thing, but ensuring it has the resources and powers to do its job properly has to be the goal.