The findings of today’s Operation Watts report, the product of a joint investigation by IBAC and the Ombudsman following branch-stacking allegations first reported by this masthead in June 2020, were damning not only for the individuals involved, but for Victoria’s integrity framework.

The report is a clarion call for reform, criticising Victoria as a “laggard” in parliamentary integrity and lamenting the fact that the parliament has failed to dedicate more time to solving the problem of alleged bad behaviour by our politicians.

The premier has accepted all of the report’s recommendations, and committed to action. Some of the key recommendations include a new cross-party parliamentary ethics committee, and an independent parliamentary integrity commissioner to investigate breaches of parliamentary ethical obligations.

Significant reforms are also proposed in respect of the role and management of electorate officers: these include a widening of the kinds of conduct banned by the Parliamentary Administration Act’s prohibition on party-specific activities, and a prohibition on party-specific work in the electorate officers’ code of conduct and the ministerial staff code of conduct.

The report further recommends the creation of an offence where a parliamentarian directs or allows someone to perform party-specific activities while employed to help discharge the parliamentarian’s public duties, and proposes that the ministerial code of conduct make clear that public resources must not be used for party-specific purposes.

In proposing a parliamentary ethics committee and parliamentary integrity commissioner, the report identified the need to promote an ethical culture in parliament: this includes reinforcing “respect and support for the institution of parliament”. The fact that the report’s writers considered there were grounds to make such a recommendation should alarm all Victorians.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass and commissioner Robert Redlich speak about their two-year investigation into corruption in the Victorian Labor Party.Credit:Paul Jeffers

But that such grounds exist is beyond dispute. We saw this during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns, when the government refused to table its rolling public health orders before the committee that is established to scrutinise executive law-making.

We also see this in more longstanding practices. For instance, when the executive claims that it can’t provide documents to the parliament because of a claim of privilege, the Standing Orders of the Legislative Council require it to produce those documents to the Clerk, so they are there should a claim be disputed. Yet in a persistent and staggering show of disrespect for the parliament no Victorian government – ever – has complied with this requirement, and its claims to privilege have never been held accountable.

This call for urgent and meaningful reform from the state’s top integrity agencies presents an opportunity to bolster the Victorian integrity framework more broadly. For example, the fact that the IBAC’s jurisdiction does not extend to conduct that could be reasonable grounds for dismissal or termination of a public official is a feature shared only by the Tasmanian and South Australian integrity commissions (and is far away from the jurisdiction of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, which is also able to investigate substantial breaches of applicable codes of conduct).

We also lag behind best practice in the regulation of lobbying. Our ministers aren’t required to disclose their diaries (unlike all our east-coast neighbours), and the sanctions available for breach are weak.

While we do, to the credit of the current parliament, have donations caps and disclosure obligations that are undeniably a vast improvement on the previous regime, we are the only Australian jurisdiction that caps donations but allows for registered parties to nominate an entity from whom payments are not political donations (when they would count as political donations if they came from any other entity).

This effectively serves as another pot of money available to parties which do nominate such entities, and in a jurisdiction where electoral expenditure is uncapped (another area where Victoria is an outlier), this matters. The fact that only the ALP, Liberal and National parties have nominated such entities suggest that there is no or negligible benefit to be gained from this provision by smaller parties, and it is not even available to independent candidates. There is a serious equity issue here that needs to be redressed.

The reforms outlined here are minimum. Increased ambition – for example, in the form of an Independent Funding Tribunal to depoliticise the funding of accountability institutions, and a robust Public Appointments Framework – would put us at the forefront of integrity policy.

As the report warns, “trust in our politicians is declining and will decline further if real action is not taken”. The consequences of deteriorating public trust are very real: the riots that occupied our city’s streets last year bear out the OECD’s warning about the impact that declining public trust can have on social cohesion.

We must seize this opportunity to return Victoria to its former status as a leader in parliamentary integrity, establish it as a leader in integrity policy, and restore Victorians’ trust in their politicians.

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