In the first week of the Victorian election campaign, more than $1 billion has been promised by Labor and the Coalition in the crusade for critical votes.
With a campaign bus rolling through streets, attack ads on TV and a big focus on the cost of living, it’s been, for the most part, a very conventional campaign.
Hip-pocket issues are the biggest thing on most voters’ minds, but these promises have been continually overshadowed by questions about the premier’s integrity.
Throughout Labor’s eight years in office, issues have included the misuse of taxpayer-funded staff for campaign purposes and multiple inquiries at the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC).
The Centre for Public Integrity’s Colleen Lewis summed up the government’s record on integrity as “not good”.
Some of the questions on the hustings have stemmed from front-page stories about Daniel Andrews’s broken back and a car crash in 2013. Regardless of the merits of those stories, they’re a distraction for a government seeking a third term.
But the premier has been most sensitive about questions of his integrity in government.
“I act appropriately at all times and in all things,” Mr Andrews said in a rare statement, ahead of a press conference on Saturday morning.
A quick recap: The Age newspaper was stopped from publishing a story last week by a Supreme Court injunction sought by IBAC.
But on Friday afternoon it revealed details based on information gathered outside of the Commission’s investigation, suggesting the premier was a focus of a secret probe into the awarding of contracts to a union on the eve of the last election.
It thrust the government’s record on integrity back into the spotlight.
“Regardless of any smear, innuendo or media reporting based on anonymous sources, the only IBAC matters I will comment on are those that are the subject of a final report – as is appropriate and has always been my practice,” Mr Andrews said Saturday’s statement.
But since then, he has refused to elaborate on that statement, and its target, despite dozens of questions over multiple days.
It’s not what Labor wants to be talking about, but it is dominating the narrative.
It is sucking oxygen from the campaign at a crucial time, because the race is tightening.
Polls have consistently shown Labor with an election-winning lead, but as polling day approaches the contest is tightening, reflecting pre-campaign views from both sides of politics that the election will be closer than many think.
The biggest problem for both the major parties is that polling shows their respective primary vote sitting between 30 and 40 per cent. For the Coalition to be any chance of forming government, it needs its primary to be in the 40s.
The chance of a hung parliament with a diverse cross bench of the Greens and rural and suburban independents — including some teals — is a very real prospect.
Questions of Labor’s integrity barely registered with voters in 2018, when Andrews scored a thumping win. So will 2022 be any different or will cost of living matters, and health be more at the front of voters minds?
Either way, it is a distraction.
Since the IBAC and other stories have surfaced, there haven’t been any major show-stopping election commitments.
And with voters able to begin casting their ballots on Monday, time is precious, especially with the Coalition gaining confidence that the 18 seats it needs to win are not insurmountable.
Corruption watchdog’s role thrust into view
The injunction has also thrust the way IBAC operates right into the middle of the election campaign.
Unlike its cousin in NSW, IBAC has a high bar for holding public hearings as part of its corruption inquiries.
We haven’t even been formally told that several probes have been held.
Operation Richmond, for example, has looked into the government’s dealings with the United Firefighters Union.
There’s a heap of secrecy provisions, too, which bar witnesses from disclosing they’ve been interviewed or subpoenaed.
These very real restrictions on what can and can’t be talked about are a defence the premier has relied on to dismiss questions about his potential involvement in IBAC’s work – despite the opposition demanding he come clean.
“You should speak to IBAC about what IBAC has or hasn’t done,” he said on Monday.
But it does not preclude Andrews from answering other questions, including whether it was his office that told IBAC that there was a story set to be published, triggering the legal action. Or who whose smear and innuendo Mr Andrews was talking about in that statement.
Dozens of questions have been fired at the premier, but remain unanswered.
Many Victorians will dismiss this as a debate within a political bubble, and certainly some in Labor would like that to be the case.
The biggest danger for Labor is that the integrity focus reinforces a narrative that this government has lacked transparency and accountability.
During its time in office, the Andrews government has tightened the threshold on when IBAC could hold public hearings.
This week, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy promised to make it easier for IBAC to hold public inquiries if he wins.
The very idea of public hearings was at the core of the debate over a federal ICAC, with the former Morrison government arguing against public hearings because of the reputational damage it could cause.
The Centre for Public Integrity’s Professor Lewis, also an honorary professor at the Australian National University, said Victoria’s integrity system was “too restricted”.
“These bodies are the citizens’ watchdog body, they exist to act as accountability so why would we have barriers to it? It’s not a kangaroo court,” Ms Lewis said.
But she backed the Commission’s injunction to stop the press publishing details of an incomplete report.
“What we’re dealing with here is competing values and therefore, competing priorities. The right to be afforded natural justice in any IBAC inquiry versus the media’s right to report on a matter of public interest, especially one that is directly relevant to the forthcoming state election,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“Which one here has the top priority?
“I’ve really come to the conclusion that IBAC did the right thing by going to the Supreme Court to seek that injunction. The right to be afforded natural justice is absolutely essential, even if it comes at the temporary cost of the freedom of the press.”
But the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom’s Peter Greste has raised concerns about what the injunction would have more generally on reporting into corruption allegations.
“The effect of the court’s injunction is to say to journalists that you can’t publish anything, you can’t investigate anything until IBAC has done its work,” Professor Greste said.
“That really renders the whole point of media freedom redundant.”
The focus on integrity should be manna from heaven for the opposition, whose election strategy has been to focus on the “divisive” premier and his record in office.
But its own track record on integrity isn’t exactly sparkling.
The Electoral Commission is currently probing the Liberal Party over allegations of donations law breaches. It’s also been looking at the reported efforts of Mr Guy’s former chief of staff Mitch Catlin to solicit donations for his private business while working for Guy.
And of course there’s Mr Guy’s infamous Lobster with an alleged Mobster dinner from 2017, still hanging around.
Perhaps it’s a reason why so many voters are looking towards independents and minor parties when they cast their ballot in just over two and half weeks.
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