In July, together with the Victorian Ombudsman (VO), the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) tabled a special report in Parliament on Operation Watts, a major joint investigation into allegations of serious corrupt conduct involving Victorian public officers, including Members of Parliament (MPs).
The special report highlighted widespread misuse of public resources for political purposes after investigating a range of matters including allegations of misuse of electorate offices, ministerial office staff and resources for branch stacking and other party-related activities.
The Operation Watts investigation related to activities of the Moderate Labor (ML) faction of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Factions are internal groups of like-minded members, usually with a common policy agenda.
The Operation Watts special report illustrates a catalogue of unethical and inappropriate behaviour ranging from the hiring of unqualified people into publicly funded roles, using those roles to support factional work, nepotism, forging signatures, bullying and attempts to interfere with the government grants process.
IBAC Commissioner The Honourable Robert Redlich AM, KC stated his deep concern for the misconduct by parliamentary members in their appointment of staff to pursue factional agendas.
They key findings of the investigation related to:
The misuse of staff for factional work
- While there is a political dimension to the work of staff of MPs and ministers, these staff should not be used for party-political, party-specific or factional work.
- The Operation Watts investigation focussed on the activity of the ML faction of the ALP from 2017 – 2020 and found that factional leaders, in particular, Adam Somyurek and Marlene Kairouz, had significant influence over the placement of staff as electorate officers or ministerial staff.
- Some MPs in the faction felt unable to refuse when told by a factional leader to employ a particular person, and staff working for MPs in the faction felt under pressure to work at the direction of factional leaders.
- Staff were placed under significant pressure to do factional work during office hours.
- While many of these staff understood it was improper and unethical to use their time to do factional work, they were placed under significant pressure, with evidence of bullying.
Work relating to branch stacking
- Branch stacking is an administratively intense activity that involves recruiting ‘non-genuine’ members to a political party. Their membership fees are paid for by the faction and, in turn, the faction can ‘harvest’ the members’ votes in internal party matters.
- It was improper for publicly funded staff to be occupied with factional matters during office hours. By requiring, encouraging or permitting electorate office staff to do such work during their hours of employment, the relevant MPs breached various obligations that applied to them including the Ministerial Code of Conduct and the Members of Parliament Code of Conduct contained in the Members of Parliament (Standards) Act 1978.
Publicly funded jobs being given to factional allies and operatives
- Operation Watts found that members of the ML faction or their relatives were given publicly funded employment in electorate or ministerial offices as a form of reward for their recruitment of members or their work in organising the faction – and the usual recruitment and selection processes were not followed or were used with little regard for the person’s ability to perform the public duties they were employed to do.
- It was also common to employ relatives of the employing minister or MP, relatives of other factionally aligned MPs, or relatives of factional operatives.
- More than 15 relatives of ML faction MPs or operatives were employed in ministerial and electorate offices.
Grants to community organisations
- Operation Watts found there was a close relationship between certain factional operatives of the ML faction and three community organisations that received grants from departments or agencies overseen by the ML-aligned ministers Robin Scott and Marlene Kairouz.
- Those three community organisations were the Somali Australian Council of Victoria (SACOV), the Australian Light Foundation (ALF) and the Cambodian Association of Victoria (CAV).
- The evidence shows that people in the ML faction, including Mr Somyurek, sought to improperly influence the grant process in favour of SACOV, and that those attempts were not openly refused, although they may not have ultimately been acted upon.
- The investigation did not find or receive evidence that any ministers overrode departmental advice on grants or sought to improperly influence departmental advice or decisions. However, the lobbying of ministers and their staff by factional operatives on behalf of SACOV inevitably gave rise to perceptions of a conflict of interest and favoured treatment in relation to grants that SACOV received from departments or agencies in the portfolio o a minister in the ML faction.
Read the summary
The Operation Watts special report makes 21 recommendations to address ongoing corruption risks and promote a culture of integrity across the Victorian Government and the Parliament of Victoria.
Read the recommendations summary
What happens next?
A key recommendation arising from the report is the establishment of a Parliamentary Ethics Committee and a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner.
Further recommendations cover reforms to the Department of Parliamentary Services and electorate officers' employment arrangements, improving accountability arrangements for MPs and Ministers, including updates to the Ministerial Staff Code of Conduct, and improving grant management frameworks for state and local government funders of community organisations.
The Victorian Government's response to the report
Following the release of the Operation Watts special report, Premier Daniel Andrews met with Commissioner Redlich and Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass to make an in principle commitment to implementing the recommendations in full.
IBAC and the VO welcome this commitment and we look forward to all parties and the cross bench accepting and implementing the reforms.
From here, IBAC will monitor the implementations of the recommendations and will follow up to ensure the recommendations are adequately acquitted.