When The Age’s reporters travelled the state asking readers what issue they wanted more coverage of in this election campaign, integrity in politics and governance came first, for all age groups.
A poll of more than 800 voters taken exclusively for The Age between October 20 and 24 found the same issue was “important” by 84 per cent and “very important” by 57 per cent.
Perhaps more tellingly, however, only 5 per cent of those polled said it was the “single priority” at this election, and 62 per cent of those polled were in no doubt that Premier Daniel Andrews would be re-elected on November 26.
Andrews’ supporters have relied on this broad expectation of victory to brush aside questions about governance in Victoria, even as cases run by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) increasingly have knocked at the premier’s door.
From the Somyurek affair and the internal party misconduct it revealed to questions over the nature of the premier’s relationship with developer John Woodman and dealings with the United Firefighters’ Union and, most recently, the Health Workers Union, The Age’s reporting has been central to public awareness of this issue.
But we are left with more questions than answers. Apart from the Somyurek affair, we have no final reports or recommendations from IBAC on these inquiries, and so are in no position to know what it has found. Now we know IBAC will go to the courts to ensure its draft reports remain out of the reach of the public. So what do we make of all this at this election?
At May’s federal election, it seemed as if a corner had been turned on integrity and voters were prepared to penalise those who failed to address it. But at state level the picture is complicated by two factors: first, in IBAC we already have a watchdog to investigate such matters; and second, the Liberal opposition is not seen as credible in its approach to the issue, its promises of greater funding for IBAC and more public hearings notwithstanding.
In June, IBAC head Robert Redlich told The Age that “we have a very good electoral integrity system … a very sound judicial process … But as soon as we descend beyond those, our standards have been falling away.
“[The only way to improve that] is in part by public hearings and by tabling reports.”
We agree, and therefore consider it deeply unsatisfactory that Victorians approach the polling booth with a number of key reports still pending and without any insight into the questions asked of the most powerful politician in the state on no fewer than four occasions.
Both problems point to the fact IBAC is still not fully fit for purpose. Changes need to be made to the threshold for hearings to be made public, and to prevent people adversely named in reports from tying up their prompt tabling through court actions.
IBAC needs to make the pursuit of a stronger mandate from government and greater independence its top priorities, rather than wasting time seeking to criminalise those journalists who work to penetrate the cloak of secrecy that surrounds government decision-making.
You, Victoria’s voters, shouldn’t have to take the premier’s word for it that he has acted “appropriately at all times and in all things” – you should be able to find out independently.
You don’t have to settle for IBAC or for our laws governing ministerial and parliamentary conduct and disclosure as they are – you can insist that they conform to a higher standard, something we see already in Queensland and NSW. Perhaps the rise in polling for third parties at this election – something that has long been seen federally – will stir our major parties into effective action on transparency and stronger safeguards.
But those prepared to give the Andrews government the benefit of the doubt need to think about what Victoria’s current settings will mean when neither Andrews nor the Labor Party are in power. Do we really want to wait until then to tackle this festering sore on the face of our state?
Michael Bachelard sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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