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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Adeshola Ore

Secrecy over cabinet documents hampering investigations, Victorian ombudsman says

Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass
Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass says an independent tribunal should set funding levels for the state’s integrity agencies. Photograph: Alex Murray/AAP

The Victorian ombudsman has renewed calls for access to cabinet documents, saying the restriction inhibits the watchdog’s ability to properly investigate ministers and referrals from parliament.

Appearing before a parliamentary integrity hearing on Monday, Deborah Glass said her office was hamstrung by the fact it cannot view cabinet-in-confidence documents.

“As an officer of the parliament who may receive referrals from parliament and Ibac [Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission] in relation to the conduct of ministers, an ombudsman should be able to access such documents in those circumstances,” she said.

In December 2020, Glass handed down a report into the Andrews government’s decision to place nine public housing towers under an immediate lockdown at the beginning of the state’s second Covid wave. She concluded it was not based on health advice and violated human rights.

Glass’s report found the decision to enact an immediate lockdown stemmed from a crisis cabinet meeting. But the government claimed the documents were legally privileged and refused to hand them over.

About 3,000 residents lived in the Flemington and North Melbourne towers at the time of the lockdown, which led to police surrounding buildings and temporary fences being set up. Earlier this year, the government agreed to pay the thousands of residents a collective $5m in compensation.

Last year, the Queensland government pledged to release cabinet papers within 30 days instead of 30 years in response to a damning integrity review.

Glass also renewed calls for the ombudsman’s office to have its funding “entirely removed from political processes”.

“When your funding is at the mercy of the government of the day, then that’s just a bad principle,” she said.

Glass said an independent tribunal should determine funding for the state’s integrity agencies – a proposal supported by Ibac and the auditor general’s office.

Glass was appointed to a 10-year term in March 2014 and her replacement is expected to be announced early next year. The government is also due to announce the next Ibac commissioner.

The acting Ibac commissioner, Stephen Farrow, told the hearing on Monday he had applied for the permanent job. Farrow has been in the acting role since December, when Robert Redlich’s term ended.

Redlich appeared before the integrity hearing last week and called for an overhaul of the legislation governing the anti-corruption body. He said the threshold required for the agency to be able to launch an investigation – if it believes a criminal offence has been committed – has “stifled” its role.

In March, the Herald Sun published a letter Redlich sent in the final weeks of his term in December to parliament’s presiding officers, which included a claim that government MPs involved in the integrity committee had sought to discredit the agency.

He alleged in the letter that government MPs instructed consultants to “dig up dirt” on Ibac as a form of retaliation for its numerous investigations into the government.

At the time, the premier, Daniel Andrews, refuted the claims, saying his government behaved appropriately at all times.

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