- State Ombudsman Deborah Glass has confirmed she is investigating the alleged politicisation of Victoria’s public service.
- The probe was requested by State Parliament’s upper house in response to reports about the large number of former Labor staffers now in the top echelons of the public service.
The Victorian Ombudsman is investigating if the state’s public service has been undermined by the hiring of dozens of Labor apparatchiks for non-political positions.
Parliament’s upper house voted in February to call on Ombudsman Deborah Glass to look into facts outlined in an Age investigation that found more than 30 senior public servants were formerly advisers to Premier Daniel Andrews or his ministers.
The watchdog, tasked with investigating public sector wrongdoing, confirmed she opened a probe after former Labor minister Adem Somyurek – who is the key subject of a live corruption inquiry – garnered parliamentary support to refer the issue to the Ombudsman.
The referral requested her to investigate “allegations in the article published in The Age that ALP activists are “stacked” into the public service, thus compromising objectivity and professionalism and increasing the risk of corruption”.
While the “red shirts” affair has already been analysed by her office, Ms Glass indicated the alleged stacking of government departments was a “new element”.
Her office confirmed the public service investigation had already begun, but declined to confirm any more detail. The Ombudsman will not release any information about the inquiry, including resources to solicit information from public servants, until it has concluded.
Monash University political scientist Zareh Ghazarian said the Hawke and Howard governments had been accused of diluting the quality of the public service. He noted comments from Prime Minister Scott Morrison that ministers should decide policy not unelected bureaucrats.
However, Dr Ghazarian said he could not recall an integrity agency probing the phenomenon of politicisation.
“This is something that should be looked at. It’s a very significant moment, and [the report] could have a real impact,” Dr Ghazarian said.
If the Ombudsman concludes the report before the November state election, it could create a political distraction for the government, and could be used by the opposition to fuel its narrative that Labor has become too comfortable in government since gaining power in 2014.
The Age report that prompted the referral detailed concerns from serving and former bureaucrats as well as government ministers that the quality of government decision-making had been eroded because policy experts had been replaced by Labor loyalists.
The insiders argued that one of the key tenets of the Westminster system of government – that the public service is independent of the government and gives frank and fearless policy advice – had weakened over time.
A government spokesman said it was “a matter for the Ombudsman”.
Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said it was essential the Ombudsman looked into what she described as a “concerning” trend. “We need an impartial public service working on behalf of the community,” she said.
“This has basically uncovered evidence that the Labor Party activists have been stacked into the Labor Party public service, thus compromising the objectivity of the service,” he said.
Staffers move from minister’s offices to the public service in other jurisdictions. But senior public servants said that since the 2018 election win, there had been a noticeable rise in the number of political operatives installed in senior bureaucratic jobs in Victoria. Three experienced and non-political department secretaries left the government after the thumping election.
The sources for the August 2021 story, who spoke anonymously because they still work for the government, said power had become concentrated in the hands of the Premier and a handful of his trusted staff.
Some claimed the line between Mr Andrews’ office and his department, which tripled in size since he was elected, had become blurred.
Mr Somyurek, who was dumped amid allegations of branch stacking and foul language towards colleagues, and is now a critic of Mr Andrews, said in February: “We are heading towards – not back towards, because we have never had one – a spoils system.
“Now, that was trialled in another place at another time. It was trialled in America in the 1800s. That did not work well. Corruption was rife. We had Tammany Hall at the end of that, and that is where we are going.”
Sustainable Australia MP Clifford Hayes told Parliament that he supported the referral to the Ombudsman because The Age story detailed “political infiltration of the public service”.
“In nearly every department and within key government agencies, political operatives who have dedicated much of their professional lives to advancing the interests of Labor politicians are employed in executive public service positions,” he said.
Liberal Democrat MP David Limbrick, a libertarian who opposed lockdowns and vaccine mandates, said the alleged politicisation of Victoria’s public service was “potentially a serious, long-term and corrosive problem”.
“I think all Victorians would prefer that our health departments are managed by health experts and our electricity grid is managed by energy experts, rather than experts in politics,” he said.
“I suspect that some of the failures we experienced during the pandemic might be attributed to political considerations overriding expertise. It should be looked into.”