Why investigative journalism is at the heart of The Age

When it comes to politics, I am an idealist – not naive, but refusing to resort to cynicism about how citizens deserve to be governed. I want The Age to have an ethos that assumes politicians should work on behalf of Australians for the good of Australians. Our institutions, while subject to criticism, act as protectors of values we hold dear – the primacy of parliamentary democracy, equality before the law, nondiscrimination and transparency in decision-making.

With that context, this week’s report from IBAC and the Ombudsman on branch stacking and misuse of public funds in the Victorian Labor Party was, while certainly not uplifting, welcome. One of the dangers in a liberal democracy – and I have sensed it often – is that cynicism sets in: “Politicians are all the same”; “They spend our money to help their mates”; “They lie”; “They are more interested in political advancement than in the public good”.

Former minister Adem Somyurek and Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit:

The practices and culture revealed in the report could be dismissed as “that’s how politics works”. But what the report made clear is that the public has a right to demand more. My sense is that Australians are insisting on higher standards from every side of politics at all levels of government, and that is encouraging. One of The Age’s purposes is to champion reform that improves the integrity of our political system.

It was not good enough that former NSW deputy premier John Barilaro was appointed to a $500,000-a-year trade commissioner job in the United States with almost no process, and it is right that the public is now learning how this happened. It was not good enough that the former federal government promised commuter car parks before the 2019 election overwhelmingly to coalition seats, as the Auditor-General found.

And the “egregious” behaviour revealed by IBAC and the Ombudsman within Victorian Labor is not good enough, even if it has gone on for decades. Their two-year investigation called Operation Watts uncovered “extensive misconduct” by MPs of Labor’s moderate faction, some instances of which were “extraordinary and shocking”.

The resulting report made adverse findings against former ministers Adem Somyurek and Marlene Kairouz and said they should be referred for parliamentary investigation over the misuse of taxpayer resources for factional purposes. It also said Victoria’s laws around the employment of parliamentary staff were weak, and that it would be difficult to prove criminality – the report recommended the laws be strengthened.

The report made no adverse findings against Premier Daniel Andrews or any of the other MPs and staffers it named. But the questions being asked about the credibility of the premier insisting he was aware of widespread branch stacking that went beyond the Somyurek faction, but that he didn’t have any personal knowledge of it, are fair.

Andrews, leader of Victorian Labor for 12 years, says he’s the one who will clean it all up after taking “full responsibility” for what has happened. He says the government will adopt the report’s 21 recommendations. I will not be cynical about this promise because it must be done, but scepticism seems reasonable.

The party’s factional brawls matter beyond who wins and who loses. As Ombudsman Deborah Glass put it: “Trust in our politicians is declining and will decline further if real action is not taken. The case for meaningful reform is now both compelling and urgent.”

This was “grey corruption”, the report concluded, where “decisions are made and rules are bent or broken for the benefit of a decision maker’s friends, political organisation or networks”.

It may not always reach to a criminal standard, but “its effect on public confidence in democracy and its institutions is deeply damaging”.

The Age placed integrity issues at the centre of our coverage of the May federal election, and we will do the same at the November state election.

I am proud of our role in revealing the widespread improper practices within the Victorian ALP, vindicated by the IBAC and Ombudsman’s investigation. It was an Age/60 Minutes investigation in June 2020 that exposed the detail of what was happening. This time, with numerous leaked videos that showed exactly what was taking place, it was impossible for Labor to deny or skirt around. You can read our full coverage here.

Work like this by investigative journalist Nick McKenzie and political reporter Sumeyya Ilanbey takes months of digging. It relies on whistleblowers, gaining the trust of sources, and careful checking of facts. It is legally risky – we are still defending defamation action brought by Somyurek.

The Age’s commitment to investigative journalism in the public interest is long-standing. I can think of no other organisation as committed, despite the risks.

We could do none of it without our subscribers. Once again, thank you for your support.

Gay Alcorn sends a newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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