Senior bureaucrats in spotlight as Ombudsman’s key public service findings due

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Politicisation of top Victorian government bureaucrats will be a target of a long-awaited report to be released on Wednesday, but Victoria’s public service union has urged the state ombudsman against recommending restrictions on workers’ rights to be involved in political parties.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass’ report will contain the findings of a two-year probe prompted by articles in this masthead about the influx of political operatives into senior public service ranks and centralisation of decision-making within then-premier Daniel Andrews’ private office.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass investigated whether the state’s public service had been undermined by the hiring of dozens of Labor operatives.Credit: Paul Jeffers

The $125 billion Suburban Rail Loop will be a key focus of the report, according to four sources familiar with the ombudsman’s investigation and all speaking anonymously to detail confidential information.

The sources said Glass had investigated the unorthodox way the government’s signature infrastructure project was first developed by a team of private consultants working without input from transport and planning bureaucrats.

Another focus of the investigation was whether the state’s broader public service had been undermined by the hiring of Labor loyalists into high-ranking positions that were intended to be apolitical.

In 2022, this masthead’s investigation reported that more than 30 former advisers to Andrews and his ministers had gone on to be appointed as senior public servants.

A key focus of the new report is the broader culture of the upper levels of government departments and agencies, not any political bias or associations relating to the state’s 300,000 public sector employees, according to two senior public servants familiar with the probe, speaking anonymously to detail confidential deliberations.

One source said this had included interviews with witnesses involved in recruitment and job selection, and people who had applied for senior bureaucratic roles when advertised.

Glass cast a wide net after Victoria’s upper house referred the issue to her for investigation, publicly calling for witnesses to come forward if they had seen evidence of politicisation in departments and agencies.

On Monday, witnesses who provided evidence to the investigation were sent letters telling them the report would be tabled on Wednesday. Some people identified in the report were also sent sections relating to their evidence.

One source confirmed that appointments in the now-dissolved Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions were captured by the probe.

The findings form the final report by the outgoing Ombudsman, who has been a frequent critic of the Labor government in scathing reports. She criticised the then-Andrews government for hard lockdowns during the pandemic of nine public housing towers, finding the lockdowns were not based on direct health advice and violated state human rights laws.

Glass also teamed up with the former commissioner of the state’s anti-corruption agency on Operation Watts in 2022. That report called for reforms to stop the use of taxpayer-paid staff for party political activities, and more anti-corruption measures such as a parliamentary integrity commissioner.

Since 2014, the Victorian government has on average accepted 95 per cent of the Ombudsman’s recommendations, but this fell to 83.7 per cent in 2022-23 because it was yet to respond to eight requests made in Glass’ social housing report.

Speaking on ABC Mornings on Tuesday, Premier Jacinta Allan defended the way the Suburban Rail Loop was first proposed when asked if there was “centralisation and secrecy” behind its origin similar to the now-cancelled Commonwealth Games.

“You’re conflating a particular view and a conspiracy theory that some want to run about centralisation versus good government process and decision-making,” she said.

“Given it involved government investing significantly … in a heavy rail connection that will bring significant land value to people in those areas, we had to very carefully work through the development of that project.

“It’s entirely appropriate for that to be done in a way that does not, if you like, compromise those sorts of outcomes.”

Ahead of the release of Glass’ report on Wednesday, a submission was sent to the ombudsman from the state’s Community and Public Sector Union urging against limiting the abilities of public servants to be involved in political parties.

The union said parliament’s referral for an investigation of the issue was politicised and sought to “weaponise people exercising their civil and political rights”.

“Over the years, the public service has sustained attacks on its independence and integrity, many of which have been politically motivated,” the union said.

“It is worth noting that examples of poor governance and breaches of public sector employment principles will occur regardless of who is in government, yet the current mechanisms that protect the apolitical nature and transparency of government practices are capable of identifying and investigating such breaches.

“[The] CPSU wishes to reiterate that public service employees can be politically active and exercise their civil liberties. They do so within the confines of the Victorian Public Service principles that overarch their employment.”

The union was also critical of the investigation, arguing that it was not the best use of resources.

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