‘Creeping politicisation’ in Victoria’s public service needs ‘urgent attention’, ombudsman warns | Victorian politics #Creeping #politicisation #Victorias #public #service #urgent #attention #ombudsman #warns #Victorian #politics

Victoria’s ombudsman says there is evidence of “creeping politicisation” 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 takes aim at the government’s Suburban Rail Loop project.

The investigation followed a referral from state parliament’s upper house by the former Labor minister Adem Somyurek in February 2022.

Somyurek, who was sacked from Daniel Andrews’ cabinet and quit the Labor party before he was expelled after allegations of branch stacking, had asked the ombudsman to investigate the politicisation of the public service.

At the time, he alleged it had been “stacked” with Labor operatives but Glass’s investigation did not find evidence of this.

She did, however, find the public sector had been politicised in “other, equally pervasive ways”.

“Politicisation can take many forms. It is not just the hiring of people with political affiliations. It is also the closing down or marginalisation of apolitical, independent voices,” Glass said in a statement.

“Creeping politicisation is a reality in Victoria, and requires urgent attention.”

The ombudsman’s report cites the Suburban Rail Loop as a key example of the “erosion” of the Westminster principle that the public service must provide frank and fearless advice to ministers.

The project – a 90km underground railway line running between Cheltenham in the south-east and Werribee in the south-west via Melbourne airport – was first worked on by Development Victoria and a small team at consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), with the knowledge of a handful of members of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and ministers.

The ombudsman’s report confirmed the project was kept secret from the transport department secretary at the time, in another break from usual public service processes.

Another senior bureaucrat from the department was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prevented him discussing the project with their boss.

“[The Suburban Rail Loop] was subject to excessive secrecy and ‘proved up’ by consultants rather than developed by public servants,” Glass said.

She added that the project also “blindsided” Infrastructure Victoria – the same agency the Andrews government set up to “remove short-term politics from infrastructure planning”.

“The lack of rigorous public sector scrutiny over such projects before they are announced poses obvious risks to public funds,” Glass said.

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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.

The report also found merit-based hiring for senior positions had been “undermined”, largely due to the sidestepping of open and advertised processes.

This included direct appointments of former ministerial staffers to government departments, “rushed and shoddy” recruitment practices, poor record-keeping and opaque selection methods.

Glass said bypassing merit-based processes “makes it less likely that the public sector will attract and retain capable leaders”.

“The quality and candour of advice upon which important decisions are made will suffer,” she said.

The ombudsman and her office interviewed 45 “highly placed public officials” and reviewed records from across more than a dozen agencies as part of the investigation.

It makes eight recommendations, including the establishment of a “public service head” to replace the premier as employer of department secretaries and administrative office heads.

The report will put pressure on the government as it prepares to sign a $3-4bn contract to begin tunnelling on the first section of the Suburban Rail Loop, between Cheltenham and Box Hill, in Melbourne’s south-east.

Dubbed “SRL East”, this part of the project has been costed at $34.5bn and is expected to be completed by 2035, according to its business case.

#Creeping #politicisation #Victorias #public #service #urgent #attention #ombudsman #warns #Victorian #politics

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