Misuse of Parliamentary staff budget entitlements in 2014

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Ombudsman Deborah Glass has found 21 ALP Members of Victorian Parliament - including 11 serving and 10 former MPs - breached Parliament’s Members’ Guide by certifying payments to electorate officers used for party political campaigning.

Ms Glass has this morning tabled her report into a matter referred to her by the Legislative Council in November 2015.

The Legislative Council asked the Ombudsman to investigate allegations of ALP MPs’ misuse of staff budget entitlements before the 2014 state election.

Ms Glass said there had been “a well-organised campaign by the ALP to recruit and deploy full-time field organisers in the run-up to the 2014 Victorian state election, of which 21 were employed part-time as electorate officers and paid some $388,000 out of parliamentary funds.”

“I make no criticism of the campaign or the field organisers.

"But while some electorate officer work was done for some Members of Parliament, the arrangement to employ field organisers as electorate officers was an artifice to secure partial payment for the campaign out of parliamentary funds, and was wrong.”

Ms Glass said: “The evidence is that MPs who participated in the arrangement and signed time-sheets believed it was legitimate and that they were contributing to an approved pooling arrangement.

“But while they received little or no personal benefit from the use of parliamentary funds for campaigning purposes, which almost invariably benefited the election prospects of others, 21 Members of the 57th Parliament breached the Members’ Guide.

“The principal architect of the arrangement was the former Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, John Lenders.

"While he too derived no personal benefit from the campaign as he was, in any event, retiring, he carries the greatest share of responsibility for breaches of the Guide.

“There is undoubtedly a blurred line between permissible and impermissible uses of parliamentary funds, and what is or is not political activity prohibited by the Guide.

"But in seeking to maximise the use of resources available to the Party, Mr Lenders crossed the line.”

Ms Glass said the Legislative Assembly’s assertion of exclusive cognisance - that the upper house did not have the powers to launch an investigation into members of the lower house – was a limiting factor in the investigation.

“I did not regard the scope of my investigation to be limited to the Legislative Council, but I decided not to test my view in the courts; enough time and public money had been spent on legal proceedings, and I could still investigate the matter by focusing on Council members.

“While I can draw cogent conclusions from the evidence available, there are gaps in the evidence of which Parliament should be aware.”

Ms Glass said she considered “public confidence would be well served” by the ALP paying back the public funds that had been misused. She said today: “I am pleased that following a review of the conclusions of the draft report, they have now done so.”

She commended the legislative reforms that had been made or proposed since these events in 2014, but said more needs to be done to provide clear rules and directions regarding the use of parliamentary resources.

“Trust in our politicians is declining and risks diminishing further with allegations of misuse of public funds,” Ms Glass said.

“The reputation of Parliament would be greatly enhanced if an independent agency was clearly empowered to deal with such matters,” she said.

“The public debate in this case confirms the importance of having an independent body, able to investigate allegations without fear or favour – and to give short shrift to the spurious – when the integrity of MPs is called into question.”

Read the report here: Investigation of a matter referred from the Legislative Council on 25 November 2015

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