The Victorian government and three crossbenchers have blocked a push from the opposition for an independent committee to scrutinise government funding for the state’s integrity watchdogs, who have complained in recent months that a lack of resources has been hampering their work.
The state’s investigative bodies came under the spotlight on Wednesday afternoon after the opposition’s leader in the upper house, David Davis, proposed that Parliament’s integrity and oversight committee undertake an inquiry into their funding levels.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass accused the government of “seriously underfunding” her integrity body.Credit:Penny Stephens
The “short, sharp” investigation would have asked Ombudsman Deborah Glass and Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission chief Robert Redlich, QC, to give evidence on what further resources they required and why.
“I brought the motion because Labor has turned off the funding taps to the Ombudsman and the IBAC,” Mr Davis said.
“Why have they turned it off? It’s because they don’t want inquiry or scrutiny by these independent officers. They have a lot to hide.”
Mr Redlich said in December that IBAC could not keep up with an increasing workload despite a fresh funding package in the state budget. Ms Glass similarly wrote a scathing letter to Premier Daniel Andrews questioning the government’s commitment to fighting corruption and misconduct and warning the government was “seriously underfunding” her agency.
Liberal MP and leader of the upper house David Davis was frustrated by Labor knocking back his proposal.Credit:The Age
Investigations by both bodies have exposed alleged wrongdoings by the Victorian government in the past year: IBAC’s investigations triggered the resignation or suspension of executives in Casey council and V/Line, while the Ombudsman recently found a snap lockdown of public housing towers breached human rights. Ms Glass is also investigating claims of Labor Party branch-stacking.
Fifteen Labor MPs, along with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party MPs Stuart Grimley and Tania Maxwell and independent MP Catherine Cumming, voted against the opposition’s motion on Wednesday, causing it to lose 18-16.
Labor MP Nina Taylor argued public hearings in front of a committee would undermine the process behind the government allotting funds for the next budget in May.
Her colleague Enver Erdogan agreed before accusing the opposition of “more grandstanding and playing politics” and saying he did not believe Ms Glass had been consulted on whether she wanted to appear before a committee.
Labor MP Enver Erdogan spoke against the motion.
“I don’t think we want a running commentary on every single government department funding process,” the Labor MP told Parliament.
Shadow attorney-general Ed O’Donohue replied that investing in integrity bodies – and allowing scrutiny on their funding – was worthwhile because healthy oversight mechanisms prevent government corruption and the wasteage of taxpayer money.
“It goes to the heart of integrity in the operation of our democracy and the spending of billions of dollars of state government resources,” Mr O’Donohue said.
In response to complaints from Mr Redlich last year, Mr Andrews said his understanding was that IBAC was asking for more money in anticipation of higher levels of demand.
“We’ll work with all of our agencies … they will go through the normal bid process and we’ll try and provide them with as much funding as we can,” the Premier said.
Reason Party MP Fiona Patten was one of several crossbenchers who spoke in favour of examining government funding for IBAC and the Ombudsman on Wednesday, pointing out their public complaints were not a good look for the government.
“It may seem that we are starving the body that is keeping us on the straight and narrow and is keeping us honest. And that is not the perception that I think we should be presenting to the public,” she said.
Mr Davis said the motion for a parliamentary committee to hear from Ms Glass and Mr Redlich was not unreasonable and slammed the government for rejecting it.
“It’s extraordinary that Labor and a tiny clutch of independents voted against proper scrutiny of funding for the IBAC and Ombudsman. Why support Labor with the cover-up?“
Liberal Democrats MP David Limbrick noted that the coronavirus pandemic had brought on record levels of government activity and spending, highlighted by a $24.5 billion government debt facility taken out last year.
“It seems very obvious to me that their [IBAC and the Ombudsman’s] budgets would also need to increase commensurately with the work they need to do … I’d like her [Ms Glass] to have the resources and abilities to investigate whatever is put to her attention,” he said.
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