PAUL AUSTINJune 5, 2010
VICTORIA’S chief corruption fighter, Ombudsman George Brouwer, fears Premier John Brumby is taking the state in the wrong direction by caving in to pressure to set up a complex new anti-corruption system.
In forceful submissions to the Elizabeth Proust review of Victoria’s anti-corruption system, Mr Brouwer makes clear he believes the best and cheapest way to confront official corruption is to bolster the powers of existing agencies and allow his office to scrutinise cabinet documents and investigate ministers, other MPs, ministerial advisers and local councillors.
But instead, Mr Brumby has accepted Ms Proust’s recommendation that the Ombudsman be downgraded, with some of his powers stripped away and vested in a new Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission.
The Age understands Mr Brouwer might use a report to Parliament before November’s state election to make public his concerns about the diminution of his role and the complexity of the new anti-corruption system Mr Brumby says he will introduce over the next 18 months.
Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu has accused Mr Brumby of punishing the Ombudsman for embarrassing the government in a range of critical reports, including on failures in the child protection system and corrupt behaviour in the Labor-dominated Brimbank Council.
”John Brumby is undermining and stripping the independent Ombudsman of powers because he has exposed the corruption and incompetence inside the Brumby government,” Mr Baillieu said.
Mr Brumby denies this, but concedes the Ombudsman’s office is being downgraded, from being a ”de facto crime commission” to taking on more ”traditional” tasks of tackling administrative failures in the public sector and dealing with citizens’ complaints.
Ms Proust, a former head of the public service, says she considered recommending the Ombudsman’s office be enhanced so it became Victoria’s official top anti-corruption body, but decided instead to call for a new commission.
Under the Proust model, embraced by Mr Brumby this week, the Ombudsman will lose his power to act on complaints by whistleblowers and be required for the first time to report to a parliamentary committee.
This is a repudiation of Mr Brouwer, who told Ms Proust he should retain his whistleblower powers and be granted extra powers to pursue allegations of corruption by ”elected officials and members of parliament”.
In a submission in January, he said it was ”critical” that he continue to report to the Parliament as a whole, not ”individual members of parliament”, because MPs could be conflicted, partisan, subject to political pressures or the subject of an Ombudsman’s investigation.
In a further submission in March, Mr Brouwer said Victoria’s main corruption-fighting bodies – the Ombudsman, the Office of Police Integrity and the Auditor-General – had been as effective as, and less expensive than, anti-corruption commissions in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.
He said the Victorian system could be Australia’s best if ”gaps” were plugged by strengthening his powers and giving the Ombudsman ”unrestricted coverage of all public officials”.
He told Ms Proust: ”Any weakening of the powers, extent or coverage of the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman or of his independence … would not be in the public interest or the best interests of good governance.”
But in her report to Mr Brumby, released on Wednesday, Ms Proust criticised the Ombudsman’s office for the way it conducted investigations.
She reported claims that the office used intimidating tactics – ”for example, interviews had been conducted in windowless rooms with the investigator seated between the witness and the door”.
The Ombudsman responded that accusations of unfair tactics tended to come from ”people or associations with vested interest who have been found out” and who wanted to ”attack and undermine the office”.
”This applies especially where the Ombudsman has found wrongdoing by elected officials, especially in a political context, as in the case of Brimbank City Council,” he wrote.
But Ms Proust recommended the Ombudsman Act be ”modernised” to ensure ”the rights of people involved in investigations – both citizens and public officials – are explicitly enshrined in legislation”. ”The Ombudsman must base investigation policies and procedures on codified principles of procedural fairness,” she wrote.