Victoria’s ombudsman says there is evidence of “creeping politicisation” and a “culture of fear” in the state’s public service, with ministerial staffers frequently hired in government departments and independent advice ignored.
Deborah Glass on Wednesday tabled her long-awaited report on the alleged politicisation of the public service, which also took aim at the government’s Suburban Rail Loop project.
The investigation followed a 2022 referral from state parliament’s upper house by the former Labor minister Adem Somyurek, who alleged that the public service had been “stacked” with operatives from the party.
Glass’ investigation, which focused primarily on the second term of the Labor government under Daniel Andrews, did not find evidence of this.
She did, however, find the public sector had been politicised in “other, equally pervasive ways”.
“Government bypassing of traditional bureaucratic structures, concentration of decision-making outside of specialist departments, and a culture of ‘over responsiveness’ towards the preferences of ministers – all loomed large across our various lines of investigation,” the report said.
“Creeping politicisation is a reality in Victoria, and requires urgent attention.”
The report cites the Suburban Rail Loop as a key example of the sidelining of the public service.
The project – a 90km underground railway line running between Cheltenham in the south-east and Werribee in the south-west via Melbourne airport – was the brainchild of a former ministerial staffer who had taken up a position at Development Victoria.
While the report made no findings against the staffer, nor did it find they had been elevated to the job to progress the Suburban Rail Loop, it said they had kept the project a “secret” and worked on it with a small team at consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Only a handful of members of the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) and some ministers were aware of the project in its early stages.
The ombudsman’s report confirmed the project was kept secret from the transport department secretary at the time, in another break from usual processes.
“(The Suburban Rail Loop) was subject to excessive secrecy and ‘proved up’ by consultants rather than developed by public servants,” Glass said.
The report said: “Those within the government who were excluded from the project … were left wondering why specialist departmental knowledge was left untapped, and whether, if fully tested, the funds devoted to the SRL might instead have gone to better uses.”
She said the “growth and influence of the premier’s private office” was raised by some witnesses as another example of the “worrying concentration of decision-making outside of specialist departments”.
Glass said as of mid-2022 the Victorian premier had roughly as many staffers as the prime minister and New South Wales premier combined.
Glass said the biggest barrier during her investigation was the reluctance from witnesses to take part due to fear of repercussions.
“The fear factor was certainly disturbing,” she told reporters.
The report contains eight recommendations, including the appointment of a public service head to replace the premier as the employer of department secretaries and administrative office bosses, which is in place in New Zealand but is unlikely to be adopted by the government.
The opposition leader, John Pesutto, described the report as the “most serious and most damning indictment in the last 10 years” of the government and reaffirmed his commitment to “press pause” on the Suburban Rail Loop.
The Greens justice spokesperson, Tim Read, said his part would accept the ombudsman’s recommendations.
In a response affixed to the report, DPC secretary, Jeremi Moule, said he was “pleased and not surprised” that the ombudsman “did not find even one example of partisan political hiring in the Victorian public sector in the last twenty years”.
He said “well over a half a million people” had worked in the sector during this time.
In an email to staff, Moule said he hoped the report “will bring to an end unfounded and unfair criticisms of Victoria’s skilled and dedicated public sector workforce”.
The treasurer, Tim Pallas, said the ombudsman found “not one example of (an) inappropriate appointment”.
“This suggestion that there is a culture of fear could not be further from the truth,” Pallas said.