4 June 2024

Victoria delivers nation's 'most significant overhaul of parliamentary oversight' after MP's sacking

| James Day
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Victorian Labor MP Darren Cheeseman was sacked by Premier Jacinta Allen for alleged inappropriate conduct towards other staff members. Photo: Victorian Labor.

A month after the firing of Labor MP Darren Cheeseman, the Victorian Government has tabled a bill supporting the establishment of a commission to investigate allegations of misconduct by members of parliament.

Under the Parliamentary Workplace Standards and Integrity Bill 2024, this commission will have a key role examining the behaviour of Victorian MPs – including bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and victimisation.

With $11.9 million from the 2024/25 State Budget, the commission will provide a formal avenue through which these complaints can be heard and investigated.

The bill will also establish the existing Parliamentary Integrity Adviser in legislation and introduce a Parliamentary Ethics Committee to promote ethical practices by Victorian MPs.

Premier Jacinta Allan said this was “the most significant overhaul of parliamentary oversight in the country”.

“Everyone deserves the right to feel safe and respected at their workplace – it is simply not negotiable,” Premier Allan said.

“With these reforms, we are held to the highest standards of conduct and integrity, because that’s what Victorians expect and deserve.”

READ MORE Darren Cheeseman sacked by Premier Jacinta Allen for inappropriate behaviour

The State Government said it had engaged extensively on the reforms with a broad range of stakeholders across the public, legal and human rights sectors.

Yet its model for the commission was largely inspired by the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Jenkins Report, especially in allowing it to investigate the behaviour of MPs.

At the end of April, Premier Allan said the Member for South Barwon, Darren Cheeseman, had resigned from his role as Parliamentary Secretary for Education. She said Mr Cheeseman had complied with her request to do so, which had come about “as a result of allegations of persistent, inappropriate behaviour in the workplace towards staff”.

However, the following week, Ms Allan said she had received new information about further allegations of persistent, inappropriate behaviour.

“After inquiries by my office, and in consultation with my colleagues, tonight (29 April) I asked the Member for South Barwon to resign as a member of the Parliamentary Labor Party and he has done so,” she said.

“Following these new allegations, it is now clear to me that there is no place for the Member for South Barwon in my government.

“The wellbeing of staff and their right to a respectful workplace is not negotiable.”

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Victoria’s new bill is also set to implement seven recommendations from the July 2022 report into Operation Watts, as well as the 2021 review of the parliamentary workplace commissioned by the Presiding Officers.

The former report, developed by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and the Victorian Ombudsman, relates to an investigation into allegations of branch stacking.

Following reports by The Age and A Current Affair, Operation Watts later found there was “rampant nepotism, forging signatures, and attempts to interfere with government grants to favour factionally aligned community organisations”.

In conclusion, two members of parliament had breached one or more elements of the Ministerial Code of Conduct and the Member of Parliament’s Code of Conduct. However, neither was referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions by the investigators, as “the difficulties in proof and the state of the law are such that we cannot recommend prosecution”.

“While we saw the evidence of disturbing practices engaged in by staff, most of who knew what they were doing was wrong, primary responsibility rests with the Members of Parliament for whom they worked and their factional leaders,” the report says.

“The unethical culture that was such a feature of this investigation whether as an explanation or excuse for bad conduct lies at its heart.

“Above all, we criticise a legislative framework that provides few if any consequences for abusing public resources and that allows such conduct to continue unchecked.”

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