Mr D O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (16:31): I rise to grieve for the loss of integrity and Westminster accountability under the current government, but before I get into the details I just want to highlight how offended I am at the suggestion of the member for Oakleigh about categorising members of the opposition based on their surnames. This lecture comes from a government that constantly tells us about race and the need to avoid racism, and it stands up and says that we are something because of our surnames. How extraordinary that is. Member for Oakleigh, you should reflect on your commentary on that. That is just outrageous.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! Member for Gippsland South, I have reminded members repeatedly this week not to use the term, ‘you’. You are reflecting on the Chair, and I ask you to direct your comments through the Chair.
Mr D O’BRIEN: The member for Oakleigh just basically said this side of politics is no good because of our surnames and made some assertion that 28 out of 30 of us were from the United Kingdom. How the hell would he know? How would he know who our mothers are and if we have got ancestors from different parts of the world? That is just a disgraceful thing that the member for Oakleigh just said, and I am frankly quite offended and disappointed in him that he would say such a thing. And it goes to the integrity of this government. The integrity of this government, as the member for Ripon has outlined, has been besmirched for the last eight years time and time again, starting with the red shirts rort that no-one has ever paid any consequence for, an issue that the Premier of the day constantly said there was nothing in. When it first came up, he said, ‘This is something that all parties do’. Then when the Ombudsman’s report came out and referred to it as an artifice, the Labor Party was forced to pay back $380 000, but who ever took responsibility for it? No-one. No-one was ever charged.
Now we have got not one, not two, but three Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission investigations into the conduct of this government, or touching on it very, very closely. The member for Ripon again has outlined them: Operation Sandon, where the Premier has now been interviewed, involving John Woodman and the City of Casey. We have got Operation Watts, basically started by a member in the other place, Mr Somyurek, which is a deep investigation into branch-stacking activities and how that cuts across misuse of public resources, and I suspect there is a lot more to that one than we have heard so far from the public hearings. And of course there is Operation Richmond, involving the United Firefighters Union. Now, we know that the Premier has been interviewed twice on Operation Sandon and Operation Watts. We do not know what has happened with Operation Richmond, but I think you can bet your bottom dollar that they have had a very, very close investigation of the Premier with respect to what happened with the UFU, what happened with the dispute over the enterprise bargaining agreement back in 2015–16 and what has since happened with the merging of the CFA and the MFB into Fire Rescue Victoria.
I am sure that Jane Garrett, a member in the other place, and many others could tell us some more. We look forward to hearing what IBAC will in fact say, because so far there has been no accountability and there has been no transparency from the government on these issues. The Premier time and time and time again uses the line, ‘I will not give a running commentary on an investigation that is underway’. Well, it is very clear that the Premier is running from commentary on all of these investigations.
He tried that with the famous Coate inquiry back in 2020 into the mishandling of the hotel quarantine program, an inquiry I say is still one of the things that frustrates Victorians most, because for that monumental failure that was the hotel quarantine program that employed security guards to look after the hotel quarantine program, no-one was ever found responsible for that decision. That is one thing that really sticks in the craw of Victorians that I talk to, time and time again. We had the Premier’s ‘no running commentary’ at that time despite the fact that the Honourable Jennifer Coate herself came out during the inquiry and said it was not a court of law and there was no reason why the Premier and his ministers could not comment publicly on what had happened with that program while her inquiry was going on. Then we actually had the Premier called before that inquiry, and what did we hear constantly about the decisions made about that? ‘I don’t recall. I don’t recall’—time and time again. We had this decision made appointing private security guards to supposedly manage a highly sensitive hotel quarantine program, and we never got to the bottom of who was responsible for it.
I remember as a member of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee asking these questions of the Premier in August 2020. The Premier—I had to remind him—had actually asked PAEC to undertake an ongoing inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, and he tried that on at the start. When I asked questions about that, he said, ‘Well, Mr O’Brien, there is another process at play. I’m not here to answer that’. It just goes to the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability and integrity that this government produces, and that is why I grieve for Victorians and grieve for integrity and Westminster accountability from this government.
Indeed as much as it was the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions that was responsible for the procurement of those security guards, we never saw an admission or any accountability from the current Minister for Industry Support and Recovery. We never saw any accountability from the Premier. People will say—and I know Jon Faine likes to say—Jenny Mikakos lost her job. Well, Jenny Mikakos quit because she was not supported by the Premier in his evidence, not because she took responsibility for it but because there was a dispute between her and the Premier. I remember at the time it was extraordinary that days after the Minister for Health had quit the Premier confessed he had not even spoken to her—someone he had worked side by side with for 20 years. That Coate inquiry is one of the examples of where the integrity and accountability of this government had gone missing.
And we have seen it since. IBAC obviously has currently three operations, as I said, underway into or surrounding the activities of the Labor Party and this government. We saw, as the member for Ripon indicated, a member in the other place, Harriet Shing, shutting down questioning of Robert Redlich when it came to actions with respect to the interviewing of the Premier in relation to some of those inquiries. It was, I think, very brave and appropriate of Commissioner Redlich to come out after that incident where Ms Shing stepped in at the so-called Integrity and Oversight Committee and actually shut down the questioning, cut the feed and stopped that line of questioning and say basically that IBAC can speak for itself—it can answer those questions or choose not to if there is any perception of sub judice or anything similar. More strength to his arm for doing so.
I touch briefly on the stacking of the public service, and it was outlined in some detail in an article in the Age nine months ago titled ‘The chosen few: how Victoria is really governed’. It is an instructive piece on what has happened under the Labor Party in this state. There are a number of comments in there that tell the true story. Here is one quote:
These are not career public servants seconded for a period into a minister’s office but career political operatives and Labor loyalists inserted into the public service in decision-making jobs.
The Age has identified more than 30 senior public servants who served as advisers in the Andrews government.
That goes right to the heart of the Westminster system and the issues of accountability and a frank and fearless public service. The article has a number of interesting quotes, and I just wanted to share one too from a public servant who spoke about this:
“A lot of us feel uneasy about it,” he said. “You also feel ungrateful to complain because this government has doubled our executive ranks. There is money coming out of everyone’s ears in the public sector at the moment.”
So the government is putting in its people and it is buying them off. That is what the message is in that, and that is a shame for accountability and the Westminster system in this state.
I want to go back to IBAC because I want to mention a little bit about the way the Premier and his ministers conduct themselves when it comes to being interrogated, particularly on matters of budget. We have seen it in the last couple of weeks in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings, where the Premier and his ministers will say to me and to my colleague the member for Brighton and Mrs McArthur in the other place what is white is black and just completely deny the facts in front of them. It goes back and is a nice tie-in to IBAC. At the end of November 2020 in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee budget hearings, I was questioning the Premier on the cut in funding to IBAC in that year’s budget papers. It was quite clear: in budget paper 3, page 384, under ‘Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission’, the 2019–20 budget was $44.2 million, the 2019–20 actual was $46.6 million and the 2020–21 budget was $42.2 million. There is a bracket there: a 4.5 per cent cut in the IBAC budget at that time. I asked the Premier to read it out, and it stumped the Premier because he could not actually do so without confirming what we had been arguing, that there was a cut in the IBAC budget. I asked him to read it out:
Mr D O’BRIEN: Okay then, Premier. Let us go to allocations then, the column further to the left, which is the 2019–20 budget.
Mr ANDREWS: Yes, which I have just taken you to.
Mr D O’BRIEN: Yes. Which is what? Can you tell me what the figure for that was for last year’s budget allocation?
Mr ANDREWS: Well, it is there for you to see …
The Premier would refuse to even acknowledge what was there in black and white, and he went on to attack me. He said:
The table speaks for itself …
He went on to say:
Your active misinterpretation of those … papers is what is at play here, and we will have none of it.
‘I am so cocky I will just deny what is there in front of me’. We have seen it again in the last couple of weeks. I read out the budget papers—page 220 of budget paper 3, the health department outputs, a cut of $2 billion from last year to this year. The Premier said I was completely wrong, that it is not there. The Minister for Health said I was completely wrong, it is not there. When I asked the Premier about a $24 million cut to dental services and how the budget papers actually revealed 44 000 fewer Victorians would get public dental treatment because of his government’s cut, the Premier denied it and said I was wrong. I knew I had him. I knew I had the Premier angry and annoyed that we had actually identified the reality of the budget when he pulled out a reference to the federal coalition’s dental programs in 1996, some 26 years ago. That is when I knew the Premier was not prepared to put up with the truth getting out, when he reached back several decades to try and find a counterpoint to the argument.
Likewise, there were a number of these instances in the last few weeks in PAEC. The higher education budget has been cut by $117 million and the minister told me straight out, black and blue, ‘That is not true, Mr O’Brien’. Well, there it is. It is in black and white in the budget papers.
I said this earlier in my contribution on the appropriation bills: I invite all members of the government to actually have a look at the budget papers. Do not just read what the Premier’s office gives you. Actually have a look at what is in there and see what they say, because you will be surprised to find how many areas in this year’s budget are cuts. The Premier and his ministers lack the integrity to acknowledge what they are doing and accept the facts of what is happening in this state.
There are good people on the other side. I have no doubt that there are good members of Parliament in the Labor Party, but they do not speak up—they do not speak up when these issues come to the fore. It is a great pity for the people of Victoria. There is a lack of integrity in the Labor government of this state. There is a lack of accountability in the Labor government of this state. Something smells with the government of this state, and that stench will only be removed with a change of government this November.