This is my first report to Parliament into the matters referred to me by the Legislative Council in February 2022. It concerns those parts already investigated: the now infamous ‘Red Shirts’ scheme that operated before the 2014 State election, and allegations of branch stacking.
‘Red Shirts’ was the subject of my 202-page report to Parliament in March 2018, and the misuse of public funds connected to branch stacking activities resulted in the joint
233-page Operation Watts report with the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (‘IBAC’), tabled in July 2022.
Is there anything else to investigate? The short answer is no. I explain why in this report.
In my 2018 Red Shirts report I concluded that the scheme was an artifice, and wrong. I also concluded that 21 Members of Parliament who participated in it had breached Parliament’s Members’ Guide.
But I did not conclude it was criminal. Nor did Victoria Police in its initial assessment, or the Director of Public Prosecutions in a later assessment.
Nor was it corrupt, as defined by the IBAC Act, despite much media, public and political commentary to that effect. According to the Privileges Committee of the Legislative Council in 2018, the conduct did not even amount to a contempt of Parliament. And despite assertions to the contrary, there is no persuasive evidence the Premier designed, propagated or facilitated the scheme.
Allegations of misuse of public funds connected to branch stacking were subject to a rigorous joint investigation by IBAC and the Ombudsman. That investigation noted it was highly likely that the misuse of publicly funded staff for party or factional purposes had occurred for a long period and was not limited to one faction of the ALP. But lack of evidence made it impossible to make more specific findings about other factions.
It is time to end this debate. I cannot, of course, rule out that further evidence may yet come to light, but with the passage of time and difficulty in proof I am not prepared to spend further public resources on these matters.
I now look forward to some public debate on what should happen when MPs cross the line. Investigating allegations about badly behaved MPs has taken up considerable resources of both the Ombudsman and IBAC in recent years, while some bad behaviour is not referred or investigated at all.
I recommended an independent investigative agency back in 2018. Instead, we have seen further allegations of misuse of public funds.
I welcome the government’s commitment to implementing the recommendations in Operation Watts, which exposed the continuing weaknesses of the Victorian parliamentary integrity system, and the absence of an effective framework with which to enforce parliamentary standards.
I look forward to real reform in this area, and to a commitment across the political spectrum to achieving this reform. I will be monitoring the progress.