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Ombudsman Jurisdiction

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Sam Hibbins MP
Member for Prahran
13 February 2017

Mr HIBBINS (Prahran) — I rise to speak on behalf of the Greens to the government's motion. We will be opposing this motion, which seeks to assert the rights and privileges of the Legislative Assembly in regard to the Ombudsman's inquiry into the misuse of taxpayer funds by the Labor Party so that the motion supported by the Legislative Council calling for an Ombudsman's investigation cannot be taken to apply to current or former members of the Legislative Assembly. This is clearly an attempt by the government to restrict and derail an investigation into its own conduct. They claim they have done nothing wrong, yet it seems that at every step of the way this government's members are fighting to prevent this investigation by the Ombudsman.

Mr Pearson interjected.

Mr HIBBINS — I will start with the law, as set out in the Ombudsman Act, section 16. I will read the act, because clearly the member opposite still cannot quite get his head around it. Section 16 of the Ombudsman Act states:

(1)   At any time—

Honourable members interjecting.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER — Order! I am having great difficulty listening to the honourable member, so if the member for Warrandyte wants to have a conversation, just cross over the way. I am having some difficulties with people interjecting across the table. The honourable member for Prahran to continue, without other assistance.

Mr HIBBINS — It states:

(1)   At any time—

(a)    the Legislative Council or a committee of the Legislative Council;

(b)   the Legislative Assembly or a committee of the Legislative Assembly; or

(c)    a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament—

may refer to the Ombudsman for investigation and report any matter, other than a matter concerning a judicial proceeding, which that House or committee considers should be investigated by the Ombudsman.

(2)   Where a matter is referred to the Ombudsman pursuant to subsection (1), the Ombudsman shall, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Act, forthwith investigate that matter and report thereon.

'Any matter' would include matters involving members of another chamber. Now, this is not the Legislative Council investigating these members or casting judgement on them; it is a referral to the Ombudsman, who will investigate and report. If there is any potential subsequent action from this Parliament on those members involved in these allegations, if deemed necessary, I am sure that would be undertaken by this house.

As I said, if the government's view is that it has done nothing incorrect, then you would think it would be welcoming the chance to get this over and done with and to clear its name, but that is not what it is doing. They are trying to prevent this investigation.

We have heard that this provision in the act somehow should not be read as it is read, and it could result in the misuse of powers of these provisions in the act, but that situation still remains regardless of this motion. We could in theory see members of the government referring matters relating to members of the opposition within this act. This house could be investigating political opponents. This situation still occurs, so the question really before it is: is this referral a misuse of these powers? I think you have got to have a look at the allegations. The allegations are by whistleblowers who were Labor staffers, alleging that Labor MPs misused their staff budgets by employing electoral officers to work as campaign staff at the last election, doorknocking, organising, calling voters — sometimes not even meeting the MPs they were working for — clearly in contravention of the guidelines set out by this Parliament in the Members Guide, in effect rorting the system at the expense of taxpayers to help fund their political campaign.

The Premier denies that they have done anything wrong, saying the rules were followed, yet here we are debating a motion to prevent this issue being investigated. Are these really the actions of an innocent party? I am not casting judgement; let the Ombudsman investigate and cast judgement.

Let us have a look at the time line of this. We have had a motion by the Legislative Council that the Ombudsman have an inquiry into these matters, in line with the provisions in the Ombudsman Act. It was moved by the Victorians Greens leader, Greg Barber, in the other place, because we need to restore trust and confidence to the public about the use of taxpayer dollars following these allegations by Labor staff members. Following this, we have had the Ombudsman going to the Supreme Court, seeking a determination as to her jurisdiction to investigate this matter. We have got the government deciding to become a party to those proceedings, claiming the Ombudsman did not have the power to investigate. We have got the Legislative Council passing a motion seeking to become a party and reaffirming its right to call for an investigation. The Leader of the Greens also, out of his own volition, joined those proceedings, and the Supreme Court found that the Ombudsman did have jurisdiction to conduct that investigation. The government appealed that decision; it failed. And now it has appealed to the High Court, and I am not presuming or judging what that outcome might be, but what is clear is the taxpayer is having to foot the bill.

Sitting suspended 1.00 p.m. until 2.01 p.m.

Mr HIBBINS — As I was saying, it is the taxpayer that is footing the bill for the government's defence in this matter. The government's attempts to delay and to restrict this investigation are certainly ironic given that this is an allegation of misuse of taxpayer funds and now we are spending more taxpayer funds on the government's attempts in the courts to stymie this matter.

This motion gets it wrong, but the motion agreed to by the Legislative Council is within the provisions of the act. We have rulings from the Supreme Court that state that the Ombudsman has jurisdiction over this matter, over this referral from the Legislative Council. The government has gone to the appeals court, which has also stated that this referral does not impinge on the principle that the houses should not infringe on each other. We have got rulings from the Supreme Court and from the Court of Appeal.

These allegations are serious. They go to the integrity of the election and of parliamentary entitlements. They are a cloud over this Parliament and its integrity. This matter needs to be resolved. It needs to be resolved to restore confidence in the Victorian Parliament, and the best way to do this would be for the Ombudsman to investigate. The Ombudsman is best placed to look into this matter, and then we will see what results from that investigation. This motion is misguided. It is wrong. It is an attempt to block — to restrict — this investigation to potentially cover up a scandal.

This government likes to push its progressive credentials, but this is far, far from it. Their actions in this regard to prevent this matter from being investigated, to shield their MPs from facing any questions, just show how low the Labor Party can really go in looking after themselves and putting themselves and their mates first. The Greens oppose this motion.

Mr Pearson — You are just a class traitor.

Mr HIBBINS — A class traitor? My parents were teachers. The member for Essendon is misguided, not only in relation to this motion but in his constant interjections. The member for Box Hill indicated that he hoped the member for Essendon would speak against this motion in the interests of upholding that principle. You will never hear something like that from that yes-man over there, that company man, the member for Essendon. That is the last thing you will ever hear.

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Sam Hibbins MP
Member for Prahran
13 February 2017




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