Victorian Labor MPs were not in contempt of parliament when they authorised timesheets for electorate staff who were actually campaigning – but the party figure behind the “red shirts rorts” scheme acted with deliberate disregard for the code of conduct, an inquiry has found.
State parliament’s privileges committee investigated whether any upper house MPs were in contempt of parliament and therefore should be fined of punished for their actions, after the ombudsman found Victorian Labor wrongly used $388,000 of public money for campaign purposes.
The committee’s chairman, Vote 1 Local Jobs MP James Purcell, tabled the inquiry’s findings in parliament today.
“We find that the conduct of the members in question does not constitute contempt of parliament, even though in some cases the conduct was not up to the standard expected from members of parliament,” he said.
The report said the MPs who took part in the scheme should have sought more detail from within their party or the Department of Parliamentary Services before signing off on timesheets for staff who were working in other offices.
While the findings may provide some relief to Daniel Andrews’ Labor government, the scheme remains the subject of a police fraud investigation.
Former Labor treasurer John Lenders was singled out in the ombudsman’s investigation, which identified him as the architect of the scheme.
The parliamentary inquiry found Mr Lenders’ actions had adversely affected the reputation of parliament.
“On the balance of probabilities, the committee finds that Mr Lenders acted with deliberate disregard for the members’ code of conduct in establishing the scheme,” the report said.
“However the committee does not have ‘proof’ to a high civil standard that his actions were wilful, and therefore is unable to find him to be in contempt of parliament.”
The report recommended parliament implement the ombudsman’s recommendations as soon as possible.
The committee is made up of three Labor MPs and three Coalition MPs, who all voted along party lines. Mr Purcell and Greens MP Nina Springle were the deciding members.
In a minority report, the Coalition members said lack of contempt was not a lack of wrongdoing.
“The red shirts rorts scheme did not arise from a misunderstanding of what was an appropriate use of electorate office entitlements. Rather it was a deliberate scheme to divert public funds to Labor Party campaign activities,” their report said.
“While Mr Lenders may have designed the scheme, other members of parliament of equal experience were willing participants when they should have known the scheme was wrong.”
Ms Springle also authored a minority report, urging the Parliament to clean up the murky operational grey areas that enabled the rorting to take place.