Video Transcript

Victorian Special Minister of State The Hon. Gavin Jennings MLC - Corruption Prevention and Integrity Conference 2017 address

Can I start by paying my respects to the traditional owners of the land in which we meet? Those of the Kulin Nation – their elders past and present – as the first inhabitants of this state, and all the waves of migration that now leads to the rich diversity of multicultural Victoria.

We do have our obligations to make sure that we rise up and meet the expectations of each and every citizen. And in terms of the conference that IBAC's putting on today – the Corruption Prevention and Integrity Conference – that’s essential in terms of public confidence in our public institutions and that's as important as any other aspect of public policy and the institutions – not only of government but in terms of the statutory independent functions of agencies and institutions that keep our democracy in good order, our public sector accountable, and hopefully rise up and meet the expectations of our community for better practices within public service.

I think that there is no higher value than commitment to public service – so Stephen and the team who put on the conference, thank you for doing this. I'll come back and talk about Stephen's work a little bit later with other agencies and other agency heads.

I give a lot of credit for the great work that's done each and every day on behalf of the people of Victoria and in terms of the discipline that underpins integrity accountability, as I go through what is a snapshot of actually the key moments – from my experience – in relation to public policy development in the interlocking elements of legislative reform and capability that has been built in this state to deal with corruption. Dealing with corrupt – not only corrupt practices but, in fact, the standards of behaviour in public life and the way in which the public service organizes itself to mitigate against those now and into the future.

I'm not going to go back into ancient history but I actually just want to have

a marker. I was part of the Bracks and Brumby administration and I know in the last year or two of our administration, we spent a lot of time agonising about the way in which we could add to the rigor of the interlocking nature of the agencies that dealt with integrity and accountability.

In retrospect, this has been seen as tinkering on the edges of those reforms, so those through the additional powers to the Ombudsman, in the first instance, and the creation of the Office of Police Integrity – and they were designed to try and address what was community concern at the time. It was not seen to be enough in terms of institutional change, of grunt, of capacity within the institutional arrangements and the legislation that underpinned it.

When we left office, the incoming coalition government introduced IBAC and, to their credit, they brought reform in terms of the agenda of bringing a new delineation – new legislative cover – in relation to the way in which the field would be addressed.

But, unfortunately, while they did do that, I think there were some fundamental problems in relation to the scope of IBAC in its first iteration. Whether it, in fact, had the right investigative thresholds and they were matters that we – in Opposition at that time – recognised that we wanted to do something about. And in coming to government, we did something about that.

We also recognised, at the time, that there was an increasing expectation within the community for greater follow-the-dollar powers for the Auditor-General and, indeed, for addressing questions about the appropriate way in which our citizens could access the services and support of the Ombudsman.

Within that trajectory – on the way through – in 2013, Stephen O'Brien became the first IBAC commissioner and started building a capability within that organisation. By the time that we first met at the end of 2014 as an incoming minister, we talked about the way in which IBAC had carved out its jurisdictional responsibilities; the way in which it embarked upon some investigations and started to lead to some demonstrable traction at that period of time.

Stephen would well remember that, in fact, the first case that came to light was in relation to inappropriate conduct in this field of symmetries; then into transport procurement; then – at a moment of great infamy and shame – in relation to the education department; and then, on the way through, in terms of investigating practices in the police force that, obviously, is an important remit of IBAC. And they have been very telling in terms of the momentum, the trajectory and the gravity of issues that IBAC has addressed from that time to now.

When we came to a government – in terms of our legislative intent and our election commitments – we worked very closely with the agencies: IBAC, the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman, to actually look at the way in which we could deliver legislative reform in relation to those aspects that I've identified.

By 2016 – through the prism of the stronger systems bill – we did expand the scope of corrupt practices that IBAC was able to examine. We did actually reduce the threshold so that IBAC could undertake preliminary examinations rather than reaching an evidentiary threshold that had precluded them from pursuing certain matters; we did introduce follow-the-dollar powers for the Auditor-General; and we did increase access for our citizens to the work and support provided by the Ombudsman.

We did make it a mandatory requirement within that legislation for heads of departments to report corrupt practices to IBAC – and to report them in a timely and appropriate real-time disclosure that would not have meant that either the tracks had been covered or corrective actions had taken place, which would have precluded the appropriate scrutiny of IBAC.

We think the mandatory requirement was a very strong signal for a change in the culture of the public service and our expectations of the public service in relation to what should be the appropriate scrutiny that agencies were subjected to and, indeed, to not limit the effective scrutiny and review of IBAC.

This is consistent with conversations that are going to be taking place in this conference in the next couple of days in relation to what lessons we need to learn – whether they be in procurement; whether they be to support speaking-up cultures within organisations; and the way in which we can provide ethical leadership.

They were the issues that we identified that came through our legislation and what we would expect to follow. And, indeed, in May 2016, we didn't rest on our hands in relation to that important piece of overarching legislation.

We committed to continual improvement and launched a broad-scale public consultation in relation to the principles that should underpin further refinement and legislative reform. I just want to briefly remind you of those principles as the building blocks of our understanding of the breadth of our remit and, not only that, but any specific either legislative or research resources or other form of support that needed to be provided to our agencies to equip these following principles.

Certainly, we start with accountability. It's pretty clear that individuals and corporations – or individuals and bodies – within the public sector need to be accountable individually and collectively for their actions.

And, indeed, the agencies themselves need to actually demonstrate – through the way in which they acquit their responsibilities – that, in fact, we have a system that provides for adequate scrutiny and accountability across the activities within the public sector and within government generally.

We actually have to guarantee that the agencies operate in an independent fashion. That's not only a perceived independence but actual independence, free from political interference. And be able to be structurally and operationally independent of one another even though there has to be an interlocking nature in their work.

I want to come back at the end of outlining these principles and talk about some of the painful truths that are actually associated with independence that, in fact, I've had to live with and the agencies have had to live with. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll come back to that point in a few minutes.

We need to actually make sure that the agencies are operating through the

principle of effectiveness. We have to actually make sure that they've got the appropriate powers that underpin what the expectations of their investigative pathways may be – their scope of scrutiny. And that the powers are proportionate to the way in which they acquit that responsibility.

Obviously, in relation to all of these activities, they need to be transparent in terms of when they're exercising powers. For instance, in a couple of minutes I'll talk about the way in which IBAC may acquit its public hearing roles – it needs to actually be able to demonstrate that it undertakes that activity in accordance with its legislative remit; within terms of what community expectations may be; and in terms of procedural fairness for where it actually sits within the process. We have to be transparent about that.

IBAC itself actually makes sure that police standards are assessed so, as part of its responsibility, it actually checks on the transparency and appropriateness of police actions. Just as IBAC, itself, is actually subject to the scrutiny of the Inspector in relation to making sure that there is a degree of transparency and accountability in the way in which it acquits its work.

So, there are interlocking levels on which transparency needs to be seen to be operating.

Our agencies need to be collaborative in terms of the way in which they undertake investigations, and part of our responsibilities is to try to make sure that when an investigation pathway is opened up, there are no gaps in that pathway. That, in fact, there is complete cover of the scrutiny that our agencies collectively bring together.

That’s not only in relation to what it might mean in terms of referrals from one agency to the other – in terms of those investigations – but also the important function that they collectively have in relation to education, better practice, and ethical leadership across the public sector.

So, I'm pleased that, at events such as this, there will be a very prominent featuring of the agencies; all of the relevant agencies in this conference in the next couple of days.

We have to make sure of the first principle that we have to be a cohesive system. You want to make sure that there's no duplication of efforts so, in relation to this interlocking nature and the investigative pathways, we don't want the agencies to be tripping over one another in relation to duplicating effort.

We don't want them to get in the way of the timely examination of matters. And we actually want to make sure that there are no inappropriate demarcations of responsibility or confusion over the demarcation of responsibilities of the agencies.

We want to make sure that they operate within the spirit of fairness – being mindful of human rights obligations; being mindful of practices that ensure the equality of all people who actually appear before our agencies or are scrutinised by our agencies, that they are treated fairly.

As you can see, a first-principle approach in terms of the ongoing reform is where we think that it lays the foundation for good quality thinking in terms of the legislative requirement. The scope, the remit and the adequate understanding of both within the public sector and outside – in relation to the community – and in relation to how we approach this important work.

Now, on the question of independence, I want to just refer to a couple of examples – and this is in the in the spirit of full disclosure.

Recently, one of my parliamentary colleagues and their office were referred to IBAC. As far as I'm concerned, I am welcoming and appreciate the way in which IBAC will undertake that work.

They will not have any political interference from me or any member of the government in relation to pursuing that matter – as should be the case and will be the case. In fact, my colleague and their office will actually stand or fall on the basis of the evidence that's actually assessed by IBAC.

In relation to the matter that created somewhat a vexing situation for me as minister who was responsible for the Ombudsman Act, the government joined action in the Supreme Court in trying to determine the jurisdictional responsibilities of the Ombudsman in relation to a referral from the Parliament of Victoria.

A number of people – here and elsewhere – actually may think that that is a self-serving exercise. Well, that's a judgment call that you may make.

The issue – from my vantage point and the government's legal advice – was that there are very clear reasons the referral sat outside the scope an investigative pathway laid out in the principles of the Act. And the concern of the government was that that matter should be tested to prevent against inappropriate or impractical referrals being made by the Parliament.

Now, in its wisdom, the court determined that, in fact, the referral from the Parliament was valid and that investigation is proceeding. The area that I find somewhat disappointing and distressing is that because of living within the spirit of political interference that beyond that very public examination in the courts of the jurisdictional cover, there had been no political interference.

And, in fact, it has come as a bit of a disappointment that the Ombudsman and I have actually had some difficulty in being able to actually work – perhaps collaboratively – on a number of things that we might have been able to work on. We still might be able to work on but, from my vantage point, I didn't want there to be any contamination of what might be the determination of that review and that investigation by the Ombudsman.

Fast-tracking to September 2017; we didn't rest on our laurels in relation to that review in 2016.

2017 is going to be not only remembered because Richmond won its first flag in 37 years but also because it saw the establishment of the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner, which brought together aspects that stemmed back as far back as our election commitment in terms of bringing together freedom of information and privacy protection.

When we came to government, we had the situation where the head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet had issued certificates to deny the Freedom of Information Commissioner access to information.

We actually had a jurisdictional challenge within VCAT about whether the Freedom of Information Commissioner could undertake their work where we had a situation where privacy protocols and the implementation of privacy protections were not in place.

And we saw that there were some difficulties that those agencies were confronting when we came to government. So we moved to try to bring about an election commitment of establishing, at that point in time, a Public Access Commissioner.

We then streamlined that thinking in trying to streamline the work of the FOI Commissioner and the Privacy Protection Agency into one statutory body, which, again, is a model that's been implemented in New South Wales, Queensland and in the Commonwealth. It's a model that we actually think has a lot of benefits not in terms of diluting statutory responsibilities but, in fact, harmonizing them to actually get a better culture of information sharing.

It's very consistent with the government's agenda in terms of our family violence reform and information sharing in that we want to make sure that we have the appropriate legislative basis and culture to share information to keep women and children safe in our community. To wrap services around them in a timely way without necessarily there be any legislative or cultural impediments to that.

I'm very pleased that Sven Bluemmel from Western Australia, who has had a lot of experience in this field, has had the bravery to actually cross the continent – and it’s good to see you standing in the audience today.

In terms of that important work, we look forward to bringing that practice together into the future.

But again, within that important initiative – and I see Kate's rising up the stairs, I take that as a clue that the scones are being jammed or buttered or something – so I'm just going to talk about that briefly talk about the work going forward.

We've still got further work to do in accordance with that review that I outlined – in relation to police and professional standards; in terms of that interlocking nature of where IBAC's work.

We actually want to have a further dialogue about IBAC with the community – about the appropriate role that public hearings may play – because, in fact, at the moment there are a lot of commentators who want their cake and to eat it too.

They actually want public hearings but they don't want to get in the way of prosecutions. They see the value of actually exposing corruption in real time and the investigative pathway but they imply that they, in fact, want some judgments that are made at the same time.

So, I think we've got a bit of public policy work – that’s not to actually diminish the important role of public hearings. I think there have been many successes that have been amplified already through that practice. As a philosophical and a legal framework, particularly in relation to reconciling the community's expectations for exposing corruption in a very visible way using coercive powers – and that what's entailed there – and also receiving prosecutions, I think that's an ongoing piece of public policy that we should reflect on.

I think it's very important for us in relation to protected disclosures that we can complete the appropriate legislative regime that where we protect whistle-blowers in an appropriate way with due rigor; we actually encourage a culture of reporting with sufficient protections in place for whistle-blowers.

We want to have a better clearing house arrangement for across the public sector of how protected disclosures will be dealt with. We want to actually have a bit of triaging in relation to the way in which those protected disclosures will be appropriately managed across the public sector and through which agency, depending on the serious nature or less serious nature of what has been disclosed.

By the end of the year, we'll actually have completed a monumental rewrite of the Audit Act and, recently, you may have noticed that, in fact, we've introduced a commitment to deal with political donations. There are a number of people who think that that's not significant in its own right. Can I give you an example of why we believe that's a significant issue in its own right?

Last year, the Prime Minister of Australia gave a certain amount of money to the Liberal Party. Under our reforms, it would take him 1750 years to actually make that same contribution to his political party into the future. I would suggest that actually means that it's a significant reform.

Not necessarily for the prime minister – he may be a one-off prime minister in relation to the scope of his donations – but all of you know that there are other wealthy individuals in our community and corporations that, in fact, believe that they get access to public policy or influence through political donations.

Our intentions are to be pretty ruthless in relation to the thresholds; in the way in which that would be done in the future to provide the Victorian Electoral Commission with real-time opportunities to disclose any amounts over $1000 within a fortnight of being donated to a political party.

These reforms will also deal with associated entities such as unions. They'll also deal with third-party campaigners, which may be the Get-Ups of the world. The political donation reform will apply to all of them.

It's a fairly onerous piece of legislation when you start working through the mechanics of it. I spent a lot of quality time with the parliamentary councillor earlier in the week – no, in fact, was the end of last week, I tell a lie; it was the end of last week – in relation to the way in which we'll make that piece of legislation work.

I'm going to conclude now because I know that I have to conclude. Your presence tells me that but I want to thank Stephen for his work. Five years is probably – I don't know if it has gone like that or has it been glacier-like? He's not, Stephen’s not quite sure. I think from building an organisation from scratch – building a capability from scratch – growing in the role and the leadership role that IBAC now plays in the community and the regard that it’s actually had.

It is much to our eternal shame that certain procurement policies, the allocation of funding arrangements with education… everyone will remember that from here on in. I know that Gill Callister's coming back in this conference later in the week, talking about the lessons that have been learned from that experience. It was a very telling watershed moment in relation to public administration in the state.

Thank you to Stephen and his team as he elegantly and gracefully actually acquits his responsibilities but, beyond Stephen and the team at IBAC, I also thank Deborah Glass and Andrew Greaves.

I thank Mike Ison and David Watts, as outgoing responsibility in relation to FOI and Privacy Commissioner, and welcome Sven. I thank Robin Brett, the Inspector; Brendan Murphy, the Public Interest Monitor, and David Wolf, who also plays an important role in terms of the Inspectorate for local government.  

All these individuals and the people who work with them play a fundamentally important role. You know that they play an important role otherwise you wouldn't be here.

I thank them for their work on behalf of the government each and every day and I look forward to great successes for these organisations and the increasing confidence that our community might have that we have a higher degree of integrity and accountability into the future.