‘Haven’t seen signs of life’: Watchdogs sound alarm over lack of branch-stacking reforms

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Victoria’s public service watchdogs have warned they have not been consulted on key reforms arising from an investigation into Labor’s branch-stacking scandal, 12 months after they handed down recommendations for change.

That’s despite the Ombudsman and Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) wanting legislation to safeguard against the future misuse of public money introduced into parliament in three months’ time.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass. Credit: Penny Stephens

The revelations are contained in the joint Operation Watts progress report, which was tabled in parliament on Thursday morning. Operation Watts refers to the Ombudsman and IBAC’s first-ever joint investigation, which probed branch stacking and unethical behaviour in the backrooms of Spring Street.

The inquiry’s final report, handed down in July last year, detailed “rampant nepotism, [the] forging [of] signatures and attempts to interfere with government grants to favour factionally aligned community organisations”. Those allegations were first reported by The Age in June 2020. 

Premier Daniel Andrews last year apologised for his party’s conduct and vowed to adopt all 21 recommendations.

Among the suggestions was the creation of a parliamentary ethics committee to monitor the conduct of MPs, as well as the establishment of a parliamentary integrity commissioner to investigate non-criminal complaints.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass said on Thursday that she and IBAC “haven’t seen much signs of life towards making those happen”.

“We’ve seen the commitment to doing so, but we haven’t seen anything resembling a consultation, a draft or legislation,” Glass told ABC radio.

Thursday’s progress report states it has been more than a year since IBAC and the Ombudsman’s recommendations were handed down and accepted.

“[The Department of Premier and Cabinet] has assured us that the enabling legislation is being worked on, but it has not yet indicated a timeframe for its introduction to parliament beyond reiterating the government’s commitment to implement key reforms by June 2024,” the report states.

“[That] date was chosen on the basis that the necessary legislation would have been passed by December 2023.

“We would welcome the opportunity to be consulted on the provisions of any draft bill, but note this has not yet occurred. We note that the premier undertook in October 2022 to consult with MPs from all parties in 2023, which to our knowledge has also not yet occurred.”

Operation Watts followed a joint investigation by The Age and 60 Minutes that uncovered former Labor minister Adem Somyurek’s branch-stacking operation. The reporting prompted the premier to sack him from the Victorian parliamentary party. Since then, Somyurek has positioned himself as a critic of Andrews and integrity agencies, and was last year re-elected to the upper house as a member of the Democratic Labour Party.

Operation Watts made adverse findings against Somyurek and another former Labor minister, Marlene Kairouz, but stopped short of referring the pair to the director of public prosecutions for criminal charges.

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