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Motion: Independent oversite agency funding

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
3 February 2021

The integrity of our democracy requires strong independent accountability bodies. This has been proven time and time again. If left without oversight, governments will go off the rails. Decisions will be made in the interests of donors and mates and not the community. Anti-corruption commissions and the Ombudsman are two of the most important bodies we have to protect and oversee our democracy. Particularly here in Victoria, where we have one of the least democratic parliaments in the country, the Ombudsman and IBAC are essential to ensuring the government and our public service are acting in the best interests of the community. Powerful and properly resourced anti-corruption bodies have become a necessity around Australia. Only at the federal level is one lacking. Every state has one, and they have all been shown to be absolutely necessary. Whether it is police corruption, approving coalmines for cash, property developer corruption or misappropriation in relation to government contracts, anti-corruption commissions hold governments to account. Regardless of their politics, the reality is money and power do corrupt.

The Ombudsman also plays an essential role in holding governments and the public service to account for how they are delivering on their promises and the services the community needs. The Ombudsman often embarrasses the government of the day, but the point is to learn from the findings of the Ombudsman, not pretend everything is okay when it is not. Both the IBAC Commissioner and the Ombudsman made quite extraordinary statements around last year’s budget indicating their concerns about appropriate resourcing to enable them to do their respective jobs. The government’s response was to try and wave the concerns away, but the reality is that they do not like accountability. No government does, but when the IBAC Commissioner and the Ombudsman are taking the very unusual step of going public with concerns about funding it is incumbent on the government to listen—and if they do not, the Parliament certainly will and should.

IBAC is proving its value to the community with serious investigations into allegedly corrupt conduct of property developers and their relationships with local councillors and state MPs. Victoria desperately needs to break the influence of property developers on our cities and suburbs. The current IBAC inquiry has now lifted the lid on how the community is locked out of key decisions that affect it. Instead, fancy lunches and bags of cash seem to be the way business is done.

For years the Greens have been calling for IBAC to be expanded to play a more significant role in investigating complaints against the police. It is beyond time that the police in Victoria are no longer allowed to investigate themselves. We urgently need an independent body to investigate the police, and IBAC, with sufficient funding, could do this important work.

The Ombudsman plays a crucial role in looking to resolve disputes between members of the community and government agencies. One area I am particularly concerned about is resolution of complaints by public housing residents. Residents take a wide range of concerns to the Ombudsman, including maintenance and repair issues, faulty appliances, broken plumbing, out-of-order lifts and mould. The incompetence of the previous Department of Health and Human Services meant that the needs of public housing tenants were neglected and often ignored, leading tenants to turn to the Ombudsman for help.

The Ombudsman’s inquiry into the public housing lockdown is another example of carefully investigating government actions and their impact on the community. The finding that the lockdown breached the human rights of the public housing residents may have been inconvenient for the government, but hopefully they are taking her findings seriously so that it does not happen again. To keep doing its important work, the Ombudsman has clearly stated she needs more funding.

Recently the Ombudsman played a pivotal role in shining a light on the darkest areas of human rights abuses in the state, including the appalling case where a woman with a mental impairment was held in the solitary confinement cells of a Victorian prison for 18 months for no other reason than there was, and I quote, ‘nowhere for her to go’ to manage her behaviour. The Ombudsman has found such regular abuses in our exploding prison population are not isolated. Australia having recently ratified the UN’s optional protocol to the convention against torture means that the Victorian Ombudsman will likely have a significant additional role in monitoring ongoing compliance with these obligations in Victoria in addition to her ongoing essential work.

The government has raised procedural issues with this motion before us—that it is not appropriate to ask the IBAC Commissioner or the Ombudsman to appear before the Legislative Council. While we have some sympathy for that position, what the government has not done is commit to an alternative process whereby parliamentarians can question the Commissioner and the Ombudsman to discuss their concerns about resourcing. In the absence of the government being prepared to support a committee referral, they are just hiding behind process to avoid accountability.

On that note, I note the amendment that has been moved by the opposition that seeks to find a pathway through some of those procedural concerns that have been raised, which I think is an improvement on the original motion. We will be supporting the amendment. Accountability matters, so we will be supporting both this motion and the amendment proposed to try and negate some of the critique of the procedural issues that have been raised.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
3 February 2021
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