The Red Shirts affair proves politicians cannot be trusted

The Victorian Ombudsman’s report into the ALP’s scheme to manipulate guidelines and rules so they could gain access to parliamentary monies, in order to partially fund the “Australian Labor Party’s Community Action Network” in the lead-up to the 2014 state election, presents a perfect case study on why the electorate no longer trusts MPs. The entire report should be compulsory reading for all Victorian parliamentarians (and beyond) as it lays bare behaviours that explain why MPs are held in such very low regard individually and as a profession.

Illustration Matt Davidson
Illustration Matt Davidson

The following may seem harsh, but after analysing all 203 pages of the Ombudsman’s report, it is not possible to excuse the Labor Party people involved in what is now commonly referred to as the “Red Shirts affair”. There is no plausible excuse that justifies their conduct.

One of the unfortunate legacies from this saga is that all MPs cannot be trusted to put the public interest before party and personal interest. They cannot be trusted to adhere to the rules and guidelines specifically established to ensure MPs’ decisions are ethical. They cannot be trusted to be open or accountable. Quite simply, they cannot be trusted.

The scheme outlined in the Ombudsman’s report reveals a calculated, premeditated plan designed to allow Labor MPs to access parliamentary funds for party political purposes, despite the Members’ Guide clearly stating that such conduct is prohibited.

Many chose to ignore the guide. Among them were six MPs subsequently considered to have strong leadership abilities and other competencies required to be ministers in the Andrews government. This raises the question: why were they not competent enough to comply with the rules set out in the Members’ Guide?

The Guide states that MPs are personally responsible for making sure all expenses paid from their Electorate Office and Communication Budget (the parliamentary administered fund that pays for electorate officers) covers electorate or parliamentary matters only.

Victoria's Ombudsman found hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were used to pay for Labor campaigners called the "red shirts".
Victoria’s Ombudsman found hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were used to pay for Labor campaigners called the “red shirts”.

Photo: Scott Barbour

Many failed to comply with this rule and this calls into question the conduct of six serving ministers and the capacity of all involved in the scheme to understand the difference between the public interest and party interests when representing their electorate and how to distinguish between parliamentary and partisan political matters.

There is also the issue of MPs’ obligation to ensure the accuracy of the timesheets they authorise. On most occasions they authorised timesheets that had been pre-populated months before, and not by those responsible for verifying their accuracy. Would MPs accept this standard of behaviour from appointed public servants?

The report also raises industrial relations questions. People answered advertisements that stated they would be employed as field organisers for the ALP. After accepting the position they were subsequently told (collectively) that most of them would also be employed as casual electorate officers and hence part of their wages would also be paid out of parliamentary funds. When somenewly-employed, junior field organisers queried the legitimacy of this arrangement, the advice given by a former Labor Party treasurer, John Lenders, that all was legal, but that field organisers should not discuss the arrangement publicly because it could become “a political issue”. One field organiser recalled Lenders saying words to the effect that the public “would not have a positive impression of the arrangement”. In this regard John Lenders was 100 per cent correct.

The voters went to the polls ignorant of the unethical behaviour that had been going on for nine months prior to the 2014 election. Once the scheme became publicly known, the Andrews government spent an as-yet undisclosed amount of taxpayers’ money attempting to keep it secret. It did so through a series of court cases designed to stop the Ombudsman, an independent statutory officer of the parliament and one of Victoria’s citizens’ watchdog bodies, from investigating. It failed to do so.

The matter was originally referred to Victoria Police by the leader of the opposition some two months prior to the Ombudsman receiving her referral to investigate from the Legislative Council. She then wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police inquiring “as to whether an Ombudsman’s investigation would prejudice any criminal proceedings or criminal investigations”. The reply from the Chief Commissioner noted that Victoria Police “is presently assessing a referral of an alleged electoral funding fraud involving the Victoria ALP”. As a result, the Ombudsman was asked not to undertake a separate investigation until the outcome of the Victoria Police assessment was finalised.

It took seven months for the police to complete their assessment at which time they wrote to the Ombudsman advising that “Victoria Police have assessed the claims made … and have not identified evidence to prove any criminal offence. No further action is proposed”.

Despite this advice, on Thursday this week police conducted early-morning raids on former part-time junior field organisers, with one claiming he was strip-searched and confined to a cell prior to being interviewed and released.

Why did it take police seven months to complete their initial assessment and what has changed to make them adopt such draconian measures when interviewing former part-time employees of the Labor Party? The police need to explain.

One of the unfair consequences of the Red Shirts saga to date is that the reputation of every MP in the Victorian Parliament has been damaged. It also leaves voters wondering if anyone standing for parliament in the forthcoming state election (except perhaps independents) can be trusted to act in the public interest. Voters have a little over four months to decide.

Dr Colleen Lewis is an Adjunct Professor in the National Centre for Australian studies, Monash University.

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