Premier Daniel Andrews is being investigated in a secret anti-corruption commission probe over his role in the awarding of two grants worth $3.4 million to a Labor-linked union on the eve of the 2018 election.
Sources familiar with the IBAC probe, known as Operation Daintree, told The Age the premier and some of his advisers had been a key focus of the investigation, which is looking into how the money was promised to the union despite objections from Health Department officials.
The inquiry is the fourth Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission investigation to interview Andrews during his current term of office, but the first known inquiry to closely query his actions.
At the heart of the anti-corruption investigation are two related grants to the Health Workers Union (HWU) to train hospital staff to deal with violence against health workers.
The Health Department eventually signed off on the first grant in the face of aggressive lobbying of the premier by HWU boss Diana Asmar, despite objections from departmental officials, according to sources with knowledge of the process who spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity.
People interviewed as part of the inquiry were asked whether advisers from the offices of the premier and health minister pressured departmental officials to sign off on the contract, the sources said.
Hours after The Age sent a series of detailed questions relating to the IBAC investigation to the premier’s office and a number of others on Wednesday, IBAC sought and was given an interim injunction in the Victorian Supreme Court preventing the publication of the story.
The reason cited was that information “contained in a proposed report, or a draft or part of a proposed report” by IBAC could not be published because “such a publication would constitute a breach of confidence”.
The Age opposed the order in a closed court hearing on Thursday, but failed in its bid to overturn the injunction.
This article has been written on the basis of information discovered outside the draft IBAC report.
The premier’s office did not answer The Age’s queries. Instead, Andrews’ media manager responded with a series of questions seeking further details of the allegations and questioning whether The Age trusted its sources.
IBAC interviewed several others involved in the contract negotiations as part of its investigation, The Age was told, including former health minister Jill Hennessy.
The corruption watchdog released a statement on Friday saying all examinations for the investigations were held in private as they did not meet the organisation’s thresholds for public hearings.
“When IBAC drafts a report arising from an investigation, relevant people involved in the investigation will be given an opportunity to respond to IBAC’s preliminary findings,” the statement read.
“These responses must then be considered before IBAC finalises the report. This natural justice process is critical. It would be quite unfair to these persons if preliminary findings or other private information were to become public.
“Reputations may be unfairly damaged, or witness welfare harmed. No public interest is served in preliminary findings being published. It is for such reasons that IBAC took the necessary step of seeking an injunction.”
A crucial meeting
The government awarded a $1.2 million contract, which is outlined in public documents, to the HWU on the eve of the 2018 election. Seven days earlier, and before the tender had been finalised, Andrews publicly announced an additional $2.2 million election promise for the same training program alongside Asmar.
Publicly available footage shows the premier announcing the funding as a “partnership” with the union during a press conference with Asmar and Jill Hennessy, who was health minister at the time, a week before the caretaker period.
Andrews said at the time: “We’re announcing today $2.2 million in additional investment, in partnership with the HWU, to make sure every member of staff is trained and has the knowledge and the skills to keep themselves safe. We know that health environments can be very challenging.”
Two sources with knowledge of the investigation told The Age that a critical meeting between the premier, Asmar and others in early October, weeks before the $2.2 million announcement, had been a particular focus of IBAC investigators. Sources alleged Andrews promised the money.
The Age has confirmed that IBAC investigators questioned witnesses about whether political advisers in the offices of both Andrews and Hennessy had applied pressure on public servants to approve the $1.2 million payment to the union.
On the election campaign trail on Friday, Andrews was asked if IBAC investigators had interviewed him or his staff.
“What IBAC is or isn’t doing, who they have or haven’t spoken to, is a matter for them,” he said.
Asmar said in a statement to The Age she could not comment on “any inquiry” resulting from the awarding of the contract, but said the union had acted appropriately during the contract negotiations.
“The Health Workers Union acted solely in the interests of our members and health workers,” she said. “Any union secretary would have lobbied government to protect their members’ workplace safety.
“Violence against health workers is real, and it was entirely appropriate for the premier to support this much-needed initiative.”
Revelations of the anti-corruption investigation will prompt fresh questions about the government’s integrity record, particularly because Operation Daintree is probing Andrews’ personal actions, unlike other corruption inquiries for which he was questioned but was not central.
It is the fourth known anti-corruption inquiry that has privately interviewed the Labor leader, who is seeking his third term as premier. He was also questioned in IBAC’s operations Richmond, into Labor’s dealings with the firefighters’ union, Sandon, into allegedly corrupt developers, and Watts, which criticised Labor’s internal culture.
The Age has confirmed that the union first approached the government with a proposal for the training program in early 2018. Other suppliers were not considered, which is unusual for a contract of that size.
Before the Health Department’s due diligence process for the training course was completed, the government – which was about to go into caretaker mode – made a fresh $2.2 million pledge for an expanded training course for 1000 workers, which is referenced on the union’s Facebook page and a government press release.
Tender documents show the first promised contract, of $1.2 million, was eventually signed off on October 30, the day before the caretaker period before the 2018 election. Once this phase begins a month before election day, the government cannot enact government policy. In the days before it, convention dictates the government should not bind a future government to controversial decisions.
The union’s training entity, the Health Education Federation, received only a fraction of the promised funding because COVID-19 lockdowns brought the training program to a halt in 2020.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said department officials later attempted to cancel the union’s contract because they determined the program was of poor quality. Asmar rejected that criticism, telling The Age the training module was refined over time and run by “highly credible” instructors.
“It was necessary for a training program for frontline health workers to be developed by the people that represent frontline health workers,” Asmar said. “From day one, however, the Health Department had to be dragged kicking and screaming from their sloth-like state by their political masters to action this important issue.”
The Health Department did not respond to detailed questions from The Age.
Integrity in government has been a key issue in the early stages of the 2022 election campaign. Voters across the state, consulted as part of The Age’s Victoria’s Agenda project, said they wanted to know how the parties would protect Victoria’s political system from corruption and misuse of public funds.
The Coalition initially targeted the government on integrity issues in the lead-up to the election campaign, before that line of argument was derailed by revelations that Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s then chief of staff Mitch Catlin sought $100,000 in payments to his private marketing company in a contract that, if signed, could have breached the state’s rules on political donations. Guy was copied on the email that contained the proposed contract.
Guy described the number of anti-corruption investigations to examine the government as “unprecedented” during a press conference on Friday.
“It’s one of the reasons I have said that I believe the corruption commission needs its powers to be expanded, and its powers to be more secure and expanded.”