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The Victorian ombudsman wants the power to access cabinet papers and other sensitive documents to properly investigate ministerial decision-making in what would be the biggest shake-up of cabinet secrecy in Victoria in years.
Cabinet briefings are kept secret from everyone – including public service watchdogs – for up to a decade.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Ombudsman Deborah Glass.Credit: Paul Jeffers
Ombudsman Deborah Glass, whose term expires early next year, made the suggestion on Monday during what she said was likely to be her final appearance before parliament’s integrity and oversight committee.
“I am unable to access documents relating to the deliberations of ministers, or any material marked ‘cabinet-in-confidence’,” she said.
“As an officer of the parliament who may receive referrals from parliament and IBAC in relation to the conduct of ministers, an ombudsman should be able to access such documents in those circumstances.”
Glass acknowledged that similar restrictions on cabinet papers were “reasonably common” in other states. However, she told the committee she was the only ombudsman in Australia who could investigate ministers based on a referral from parliament.
“That is, to my understanding, unique among ombudsmen in Australia. And that is where it becomes particularly pertinent.”
During 40 minutes of questioning, Glass reiterated calls for her agency’s funding to be “entirely removed” from the state budget carve-up and instead be set by an independent tribunal. The ombudsman also requested an overhaul of reporting obligations she said were causing “significant diversion and delays” at the expense of core work.
“But I recognise that will, along with all the other matters I have raised over the years, be a matter for the next ombudsman,” she told the cross-party MPs who sit on the integrity and oversight committee.
“I wish [the next ombudsman] the very best of luck in this hugely important role. And I hope the committee will bring its independence to bear in the selection process.”
The role of the Victorian ombudsman is to investigate systemic failures and maladministration in the state’s public sector. Glass’s request for broader powers comes after she suggested in April that Victoria had become a laggard in parliamentary integrity.
A Victorian government spokeswoman said: “We’re always open to looking at how we can better strengthen our integrity system. That’s why we are reviewing the police oversight system, are reviewing lobbying rules, and are implementing recommendations from IBAC’s Operation Watts.”
Integrity experts have previously backed calls for the state to reduce cabinet secrecy.
Acting Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission boss Stephen Farrow also took questions from the committee on Monday. He confirmed he had applied to become former commissioner Robert Redlich’s full-time replacement.
Asked how he had handled any conflicts of interest – real or perceived – in relation to investigating the government while also waiting on ministers to approve or reject his job application, Farrow said: “I take very seriously any conflicts of interest. Any concerns … are subject to external scrutiny.”
As for whether IBAC was constrained by its legislation, particularly on the definition of corruption, the acting commissioner said his agency was not “unduly restrained” but that Victoria’s definition was very different to other states. He also acknowledged there had been challenges with IBAC’s procedural fairness provisions.
Redlich has previously called for Victoria to broaden its definition of corruption and, among other things, expedite the publishing of final reports.
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