Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Grievance debate

Government integrity

Michael O’BRIEN

Government integrity

Michael O’BRIEN (Malvern) (17:30): What an extraordinary contribution by the member for Mordialloc. He did everything except stamp his feet, but given the findings of Operation Watts, he is a bit careful around stamps, is old Tim.

I grieve for the people of Victoria who are suffering from a government that lacks even the most basic skerrick of integrity. Our state has to endure being governed by an Andrews Labor government that is more like a gang than a government – a bunch of bandits enriching themselves at the expense of Victorians and enriching their Labor mates at the expense of Victorians.

As the Leader of the Nationals said, one day this will all come out – the cronyism, the corruption, the conflation of the ALP’s interests for the public interest – and when it does, it will make Bjelke-Petersen’s, Neville Wran’s and Eddie Obeid’s efforts look like Play School. And we are here to make sure it comes out, because Victorians deserve a clean government. Victorians deserve a government with integrity that is effective and efficient and puts their interest first and is not lining the pockets of ministers.

A quick recap on this week’s scandal: we saw the Minister for Government Services, the Assistant Treasurer, exposed as having a mountain of shares which he chose not to divest himself of. He chose not to divest himself of them even when he took on ministerial office. He could have made the decision then to sell those shares. He could have made the decision to put them into a blind trust. He chose to do none of those things. He kept an active interest in shareholdings, and he refused to answer today whether he had acted as a day trader. For goodness sake, you could have a minister there, an Assistant Treasurer, day trading – day trading – when he should be acting in the public interest, working hard for Victorians. How can this government accept that that is an appropriate level of ministerial conduct? That tells you all you need to know about this government. So owning shares that he should not have, conflict of interest, an unreserved apology – but again, he thinks that is it, that is all that matters: ‘I’ve said sorry, I move on’; it is not the way it works – and then a breach of the ministerial code of conduct.

In today’s question time it was very, very instructive. The Assistant Treasurer would not answer if his staff, if his office, were present in meetings that dealt with issues concerning companies in which he had a direct financial interest. He said, ‘I haven’t.’ But the question was ‘Have you or your staff?’ – ‘Have you or your office been involved in any meeting’, any meeting, ‘that involves a company in which you have a direct financial interest?’ He deliberately chose to only say ‘I have not been in such meetings.’ What does that tell you?

This is a man who, for those of us who have been here for quite some time know, is not short of a word. Loquacious does not even begin to describe him – more front than Myer, always thinks he is the smartest person in the room, no matter how big the room is – and there is no way that the Assistant Treasurer missed that question. He listened very, very carefully, and he chose to only answer half of it? Why?

A member: Spin.

Michael O’BRIEN: Why? Scripted by the Premier’s private office or just a guilty conscience, who knows? But we will be finding out.

Today we saw tabled in this place Operation Clara, a special report from the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. Just on IBAC, as somebody who first entered this place in 2006, I saw four years of the Labor government then, the Bracks-Brumby governments, refusing to implement and institute an anti-corruption commission in this state, and they had been in for close to 12 years. They refused to have an IBAC. Why? Because they did not want anybody looking over their shoulder. That is why. What did they have to hide? Everything. It took a Liberal–Nationals government to give this state an independent, broad-based anti-corruption commission, and that is part of our legacy of four years in government.

We instituted IBAC to clean up corruption in this state, and that is not something which this government can take any pride in, because in fact what did this government do with IBAC? It gutted the powers and it cut the budget. This government does not want an anti-corruption watchdog, it wants a lapdog, and it is going to cut the budget and cut the powers until it gets it. Well, I say well done to former commissioner Robert Redlich. He did a very, very good job as IBAC Commissioner, despite the budget cuts, despite the legislative cuts to his powers and functions and despite the cutting of the feed by Ms Shing in the other place, who actually had the audacity to gag the IBAC Commissioner in a parliamentary hearing. That is the sort of thing you would expect in a banana republic. Ms Shing may as well have been in there with a uniform with epaulettes on and a cocked hat, because that is the sort of banana republic behaviour you would not expect to see in a democracy or in a Westminster system of government and certainly not in my state of Victoria.

In Operation Clara today we found that a former Labor minister and former Labor MP, Mr Theo Theophanous, was found by IBAC to have engaged in improper conduct. He misused his position on a state government board for his own lobbying purposes, he failed to declare conflicts of interest and he engaged in improper lobbying conduct with ministers and departmental officials. This is a person who is Labor royalty – absolute Labor royalty. And what is the government’s response? They have kept him on State Trustees. Theo knew what was coming. He resigned from the Victorian Planning Authority last week, but he is still on the board of State Trustees.

John Pesutto interjected.

Michael O’BRIEN: A state corporation, as the Leader of the Opposition points out – a state corporation designed to look after and take care of people who cannot look after themselves and entrusted with the use of others’ assets. Here is somebody who has been found by IBAC to have engaged in inappropriate conduct, conflicts of interest and misusing his own public position for his private benefit, and this government kept him on the board.

This then led to me having a look at the board of State Trustees. I am not going to go through them all, but this is a board which has been, like many boards in this state, stacked out with people who have got strong affiliations with the Labor Party. There is Theo Theophanous, who certainly as recently as lunchtime today is a member of the board and a member of the Labor Party. There is Tony Clark, a multiple-time Labor Party candidate. And there is Julie Ligeti, currently chief of staff to the federal Minister for Skills and Training, formerly, I think, chief of staff possibly to Rob Hulls when he was Attorney-General and a lifetime Labor staffer. These people may well have skills that allow them to contribute, but when you see Labor name after Labor name after Labor name you have got to say that something is rotten in the state of Victoria, and it is the politicisation and the corruption of the public sector. That is why this side of the house is very keenly looking forward to the Victorian Ombudsman’s report on politicisation of the Victorian public service and why members opposite are not looking forward to it, I guarantee you that. The only trouble will be, with the Opal paper mill closing down thanks to this government, where are they going to find enough paper to print the report?

Then we see the Treasurer. The Treasurer is no stranger to these sorts of issues. Of course you see in Operation Clara it is reported that Mr Theophanous referred to the Treasurer as his very good friend, and yes, he spoke to him about the Australian Education City consortium, but apparently he just did it as a private citizen, just because he is keen on the project. The fact that Theo Theophanous was then at the same time grabbing money for his daughter’s political campaign is completely separate and has nothing to do with it apparently – nothing to do with it at all. It was found by IBAC that Mr Theophanous had engaged in improper conduct in lobbying the Treasurer. What did the Treasurer do? When somebody was acting improperly, did the Treasurer say, ‘I’m going to report this to the authorities. I will blow the whistle. I will do the right thing and uphold public standards’ or did he sweep it under the carpet? Did he cover it up? Did he look after a Labor mate?

Tim Richardson interjected.

Michael O’BRIEN: Well, let me tell you, member for Mordialloc, the Treasurer had the opportunity today in question time to set the record straight. I asked him the question, ‘Did you report it?’ and he refused to answer. What a gutless effort. What a gutless effort on the Treasurer’s part.

Of course, the Treasurer is no stranger to ideas of conflict of interest. I quote from an article in the Australian newspaper from 29 May 2019, headed ‘“Transurban Tim” Pallas divests shares’. I would never call him that in here, but this is simply quoting an article in the newspaper. Of course, we found the scandal that the Treasurer had personally invested money in a fund which invested in Transurban at the same time he was doing a deal with Transurban – personally doing a deal with Transurban – that led to Transurban getting the benefit of $37 billion in new tolls from Victorian motorists for paying $4 billion. Now, I know a good deal when I see one: pay $37 billion and get $4 billion back. Bad deal for Victorian motorists – Victorian motorists are being ripped off by this government, because they did a bad deal, a dodgy deal, with Transurban. We are paying higher tolls for a West Gate Tunnel that is not even built. On what planet do you say it is fair that Victorians should have to pay more to go to work, pay more to get home from work and pay more to take the kids to sport or to ballet, every single day, to drive on a road that does not even exist? It is outrageous, and this Treasurer personally financially benefited from a deal he did with Transurban because he had a financial interest in the success of Transurban. This is what this government is all about. They are all about lining their pockets and looking after themselves. That is it.

A member: Danny learned from it.

Michael O’BRIEN: Danny did learn from it. I do recall the member for Essendon, in his former life as a lobbyist, appearing before an upper house inquiry into the issuing of gaming licences where, I have to say, the arrogance in his refusal to answer questions was off the planet, absolutely off the planet. The sort of disrespect he showed for democracy, for transparency and for accountability when he was a compelled witness before an upper house inquiry into the issuing of gaming licences by a former Labor government is exactly the same attitude he has shown here.

We know the sort of dodgy behaviour we have seen here. We have seen breaches of the ministerial codes of conduct by the Treasurer. We have seen it by the Assistant Treasurer. We have seen it by other ministers. What does it take to get sacked as a minister by this Premier? Well, not incompetence, because there is plenty of incompetence sitting on the front bench there. Not corruption, because we have certainly seen some of that in our time, and those ministers are still there. There is only one thing it takes to get sacked by this Premier, and that is to stand up to him. That is all it takes to get sacked by the Premier, and it is about the only thing that it takes to get sacked by the Premier.

Jane Garrett, may she rest in peace, had the courage of her convictions. She was the Minister for Emergency Services. She cared deeply about the CFA, about protecting Victoria and supporting volunteers. And when faced with a choice of bending to the will of this Premier and Peter Marshall, the head of the United Firefighters Union, she chose Victorian safety and the service of volunteers, and she lost her job for it. She lost her ministerial position, and she never got it back. That is what it takes to get sacked by this Premier in this government: to stand up for Victorians, to stand up for volunteers, to stand up for principle.

Who else lost their jobs? Well, we saw: Mr Somyurek, still in the other place; Robin Scott, the former member for Preston; and Luke Donnellan, the former member for Narre Warren North. They lost their jobs –

A member: Marlene.

Michael O’BRIEN: And Marlene Kairouz, the former member for Kororoit. They lost their jobs because their faction had grown a little bit too powerful for the Premier. The member for Mordialloc has gone very quiet now – very quiet at this point; very, very quiet. He knows when he is beaten, and he was prepared to salute the new flag –

A member: The red flag.

Michael O’BRIEN: Yes, to salute the red flag, to go from the right to the left, to look after himself. But the point is: there is really only one way you get sacked in this government. You stand up to this Premier in a factional sense, as did Marlene Kairouz, Mr Somyurek, Robin Scott and Luke Donnellan – and he made them pay a price – or you stand up for volunteers, you stand up for the CFA, you stand up for Victorians and Victorians’ safety.

This is a government with no standards, with no integrity, with absolutely no honesty and no focus on the fact that they should be there for Victorians. I can tell you when I had the honour to serve as a minister and as a treasurer I did not own a single share. I was not day trading. I was there to work for Victorians. My job was to put money in their pockets, not to put it in my own. This is a government that has run out of steam, run out of ethics and run out of integrity.