Just when Victorians thought the actions of their political representatives could not get any worse, they have. The public interest and good governance have, yet again, been casually flicked aside and even more taxpayers’ money spent on supporting a hyper-partisan, “whatever it takes” approach to politics.
Following on from the highly damaging “red shirts” scandal, the politically fatigued public is being subjected to another saga in which the incompetence of the government is on naked display. I refer, of course, to the current fiasco surrounding the Ventnor Affair “documents dump”.
This matter concerns decisions made by the current leader of the Opposition, Matthew Guy, when he was Planning Minister (2011-2013) in the Baillieu Coalition government. His decisions over the rezoning of land on Phillip Island are contained in some of the 80,000 pages of uncensored “cabinet in confidence” documents tabled in Parliament last week.
Among those documents is very private information about a leading member of the legal profession and her daughter; information that is irrelevant to the examination of Guy’s conduct in the Ventnor Affair. Nevertheless, it was released into the public domain because of an irresponsible, politically-motivated tactic designed and led by the Premier, Daniel Andrews.
The resulting gross breach of privacy is not confined to one person. The government’s actions have led to medical, financial and additional personal data relating to other Victorian citizens being made public.
In fairness to the government, some of the Ventnor Affair documents reveal highly questionable decisions made by Matthew Guy as planning minister. There is no disputing that Guy’s decisions should be thoroughly examined especially, as the Deputy Premier James Merlino claims, they “point to potential criminal behaviour” that could constitute “misconduct in public office”.
Matthew Guy must explain to a completely independent investigative body and to the Victorian community the vast difference between what he was advised would be an acceptable payout for the backflip on his bungled Phillip Island planning decision, and the highly inflated settlement he chose to adopt. His explanation to date, that he was trying to avoid a “lawyers’ picnic”, is not acceptable or convincing, especially as he had legal advice that strongly suggested a much lower figure would settle the matter.
Also unacceptable to the long-suffering Victorian public is the tactics used by the Andrews government that resulted in the tabling of 80,000 pages in Parliament, especially when the Government had made the considered calculation that forwarding 800 (not 80,000) pages to journalists was all they would require to gain the knowledge necessary to report on Guy’s actions in an informed manner.
It is now apparent that the government’s tactics were foolish in the extreme and as such it is not surprising they backfired so spectacularly. They not only display complete incompetence by the government, which may result in taxpayers having to pay out millions of dollars in compensations to those whose privacy has been severely breached by the tabling of the uncensored documents, they also lay bare the Labor Party’s war-like approach to politics and its total disregard for constitutional conventions that, in the interest of good government, should apply to cabinet discussions and decisions.
But the Liberal Party is also guilty of disregarding conventions and behaving disgracefully in Parliament. Their unacceptable tactics were also on naked display when they deliberately and in a premeditated and cunning fashion reneged on a previously-agreed-to pairing arrangement, requested and granted on religious grounds. The Liberals displayed their shabby true colours when doing so.
Victorians are now being subjected to a sick political class, which thinks nothing of tossing aside important constitutional and other conventions in their lust for power and revenge. The major parties seem content to waste their taxpayer-funded time continually lobbing grenades and shooting at each other from entrenched, hyper-partisan bunkers. The collateral damage in this unnecessary and demeaning warfare includes the public interest and the hard-earned money taxpayers must contribute to the fiasco that is state politics.
The concern is whether the politically sick system is terminally ill. One could be forgiven for thinking it is when the Premier, Deputy Premier, Treasurer and some ministers believe that the release of highly-private information about some Victorian citizens constitutes a “relatively minor breach”, is “unfortunate” and was “inadvertent”. Is that how they would react if the released information was about them?
If only Victoria had representatives that understood that public office is a public trust. Clearly too many do not, as the number of people who trust and respect politicians is plummeting to worrying levels. The red shirts scandal, bungled planning decisions followed by highly-questionable, taxpayer-funded payouts to remedy inept decisions, and now the “documents dump” Ventnor Affair will guarantee that trust slips even further.
What can be done to rehabilitate a sick political system before it is too late? This is the question that should exercise every voters’ mind as they cast their vote in the forthcoming state election.
Dr Colleen Lewis is an adjunct professor, National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University.