Integrity experts have welcomed a deal struck by the Andrews government to relinquish control of parliament’s integrity and oversight committee, while the Coalition accused Labor of buying crossbench support to bury a probe into corruption.
But the agreement with the Greens and Legalise Cannabis could still see Robert Redlich, the former head of the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC), called to give evidence about the government’s treatment of the watchdog before the revamped committee.
Former IBAC commissioner Robert Redlich, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, and the state’s Opposition Leader John Pesutto.Credit:The Age
The opposition had sought to establish an upper house inquiry to investigate claims – including allegations that Labor MPs directed independent auditors to “dig up dirt” on the watchdog – that Redlich made in an outgoing letter last year.
In his letter, Redlich also called for the integrity and oversight committee to no longer be dominated or chaired by Labor representatives.
Under the new deal, Labor has agreed to relinquish that control. The government will no longer have a majority on the committee, and it will be chaired by a non-government MP. In exchange, the left-wing crossbenchers agreed to reject the upper house inquiry.
The revamped committee will increase by one member to be made up of four Labor MPs, two Coalition, and two from the crossbench. A non-government MP will hold the deciding vote as chair.
The Centre for Public Integrity (CPI) welcomed the changes to the committee, which oversees IBAC, the Victorian Ombudsman, the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner, and the Victorian Inspectorate.
“It’s important that a committee that is there to oversee government isn’t controlled by government,” said former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles, KC, one of the founders of IBAC and a CPI director.
He said the government’s dominance was “patently problematic”, undermined the critical work of the committee and “seriously eroded Victorians’ trust”.
Associate Professor William Partlett, of Melbourne Law School, said it was a good first step but that the government should institute legislative reform so that all oversight committees operated free from government dominance.
The now doomed motion from Georgie Crozier, the opposition’s leader in the Legislative Council, for an upper house inquiry was adjourned on Wednesday to be voted on at a later date.
The expanded integrity and oversight committee — which added Rachel Payne from Legalise Cannabis to its ranks — could investigate Redlich’s claims anyway.
Shadow attorney-general Michael O’Brien called on the Greens and Legalise Cannabis to ensure it does. He also accused Labor of attempting to bury the inquiry.
“What has this government got to hide?” O’Brien said. “Why are they so scared of Robert Redlich’s concerns being aired?”
As recently as last month the government refused to relinquish control of the committee. But it was forced to negotiate with the crossbench as the Coalition edged closer to getting the support needed for the inquiry motion to succeed.
The Greens were still prepared to vote with the Coalition as late as Tuesday and were not opposed to calling Redlich to give evidence.
The committee also has veto powers over the appointment of the new IBAC commissioner.
Greens integrity spokesman Tim Read, who is on the committee, said the agreement satisfied most of Redlich’s concerns about government influence.
“Were it not for the Liberals, we would not be able to have achieved this agreement with the government. So, credit to the Liberals for doing that, and credit to the government for taking them seriously, and credit to the other parties with whom we’ve worked to achieve this agreement,” he said.
“It is also a committee that has the power to investigate whatever it wishes to within its purview, including the matters raised in the letter, however that’s a matter for the new committee to discuss.”
Read said his priorities were lowering the threshold of corruption that IBAC can investigate and making its funding independent of the government of the day.
The Greens and Legalise Cannabis said the Coalition’s inquiry would have generated headlines, but their deal had ensured an outcome.
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, the leader of the government in the upper house, said the Coalition’s proposed inquiry would have become a “circus”. She questioned the legality of setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate the integrity and oversight committee, which has parliamentary privilege.
Premier Daniel Andrews said he had no problem being in minority in the committee, but that the Coalition’s proposed upper house inquiry would have been a “lawyers’ picnic” and dismissed it as a stunt.
“I’ll leave it to others to make a judgment about whether the Liberal Party are all about the politics or whether they’ve got the interests of Victorians at heart,” Andrews said.
Crozier said there was no reason that the upper house inquiry shouldn’t also go ahead.
With Bianca Hall
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