INTEGRITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2018
Mr PEARSON (Essendon) – I am delighted to make a contribution on the Integrity and Accountability Legislation Amendment (Public Interest Disclosures, Oversight and Independence) Bill 2018. With the house’s indulgence I would like to congratulate the Manager of Opposition Business. With the departure of the former member for Box Hill and the retirement of the former member for Sandringham, the Manager of Opposition Business now holds the title of father of the house. He is the last member of this place who can recall seeing Jeff Kennett at the dispatch box when he was Premier. That is something to note, as is the fact that I am delighted that there are so many new members on our side of this place who were recently elected.
I did want to go to the Manager of Opposition Business’s point about the issue around public hearings for IBAC. It is an interesting point that the member made, because if you go back in time and in history, and if you go back to the establishment of the Star Chamber in the Palace of Westminster, which was in operation around the late 15th century until its abolition by the Habeas Corpus Act of 1640, that body was established to hear matters involving the nobility and the wealthy. The view was established that people who had an issue and who wanted to seek justice could not do so through the lower courts. The notion of the Star Chamber was established and created to enable the nobility to seek redress. It was a private deliberative body involving privy councillors and common-law judges. By its secretive and withdrawn nature it became abused by the monarchy, and the term ‘Star Chamber’ in common lexicon today is used to indicate a body where there was no oversight and there was no review, and so therefore abuses were meted out, in this case by the monarchy, to the nobility.
One of the great things we have seen happen in our judicial system over the passage of time has been the opportunity for public scrutiny and the opportunity for the media to be able to examine issues that come before the courts, to make some observations and to provide a level of commentary to the general public about the conduct of the judiciary in certain cases. Where I divert and where I differ from the views expressed by the Manager of Opposition Business is that if you go back in time—I will not say to 3 October 1992 because that was polling day, which was a Saturday—to 5 October 1992, which was a Monday, and let us suppose that someone was hauled before the Magistrates Court at Broadmeadows for having committed an offence. It would have been reported at the time, but there would be very little in the way of information around that particular case available now. It would be very difficult, for example, to go on Google, search the matters that came before the Broadmeadows Magistrates Court on 5 October 1992 and find that particular case, unless you really went out of your way. It is not available digitally is the point I am trying to make.
The issue with IBAC is that it is a very powerful body, and if a person is called before IBAC it is usually because they have a serious offence to be held to account for—or at least that is the public perception—and that, I think, is the real challenge, because if you look at somebody who is brought before IBAC for questioning, irrespective of whether there is a finding of innocence or guilt, it becomes very easy for people to turn around and do a search on that person. Let us suppose, for example, John Citizen gets brought before IBAC to answer a charge and there is no finding of guilt levelled against John Citizen, and John Citizen goes about his ordinary life. What happens if John Citizen goes for a job interview and the interviewer decides to put that person’s name into Google and see what comes up? ‘Oh, that person’s been before IBAC. We’d better not employ that particular person, because they’ve been the subject of an IBAC investigation’. That is the risk we have got to try to balance. In this day and age, because we create a digital signature that stays with us for a very long period of time, we need to have a different threshold test. That is not to say there will not be any hearings. All that this bill is seeking to do is to say to IBAC, ‘You have extraordinary powers, and if you are going to conduct public examinations and there is a risk that a person’s reputation is going to be harmed as a consequence of that, there needs to be just cause for that to occur. You cannot just, on a flight of fancy, bring someone before a public hearing’.
I think that strikes the right balance between making sure that people who have done the wrong thing have the opportunity to be held to account by IBAC and making sure there is a higher threshold test—so there is an ability to make sure that the person has done something really quite serious or that there has been systemic behaviour. That is what the bill addresses. I think that is important to consider when you think about the environment that we are living in now. It is very different for a person brought before IBAC now than, for example, someone brought before a lower court back in 1992. I think that is a really important distinction to make here. This is a very comprehensive bill. It has been thoroughly reviewed, and it encompasses a wide range of acts. I note that there are amendments to the Parliamentary Committees Act 2003, and again it emphasises the fact that the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee (PAEC) will continue to oversee the matters relating to the Auditor-General. As a former chair of PAEC, I think this is indeed welcome. I think it is important that there are those checks and balances in place.
I note the member for Gippsland South says, ‘Bring him back’. I will watch with interest to see whether the member for Gippsland South continues to discharge his duties on behalf of the National Party on this august body. I am very pleased to see that there will be, in the same way there is for PAEC, a performance audit of the Ombudsman, IBAC and the Victorian Inspectorate. As the member for Gippsland South would know, we conducted in the 58th Parliament a financial audit and appointed a financial auditor of the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO), which was a fairly pedestrian exercise. It was about making sure that what is in the accounts and what is on the balance sheet are reflected by reality. We were able to engage a firm to do the performance audit, and that was about trying to find ways in which VAGO could be better. It was quite a robust process. It was quite a thorough report that was produced and tabled in the Parliament. It was a way of making sure that the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office was performing as well as it could and to the best of its ability. I think that ensuring that these performance audits are conducted every four years is really important because it enables a third party to go through these investigative bodies, these regulatory bodies, and ensure that they are doing the very best that they can. I note that there will be two new functions of the Ombudsman in relation to helping the Ombudsman resolve complaints and promote improved public administration. I know that the member for Gippsland South will share my passion—my burning desire—for the potential of big data. I do hope that the Ombudsman is able to look at the way in which big data can be utilised to improve the quality of public administration in this state, because the reality is that government is a major acquirer of data. There are a series of datasets that are held right throughout the inner agencies and the outer agencies, and there is the capacity to try to bring all this data together, to use algorithms and to try to do some predictive analysis of the way in which we can discharge our duties. As I said many times in the 58th Parliament, we are living in the age of Hadrian, we are not living in the age of Trajan. We need to try to find ways in which we can improve our efficiency and drive greater public service reform by making sure that we use what we have got to the best of our ability. It is a comprehensive bill that is before the house, and I note the member for Gippsland South is eagerly awaiting his call. I commend the bill to the house.