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Outgoing ombudsman rebukes 'knee-jerk' justice reforms

The outgoing Victorian ombudsman has taken the state government to task in her final report, suggesting it has bent to media-driven tough-on-crime policies.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass speaks during a press conference at the Victorian Ombudsman in Melbourne. Image AAP

Victoria has lost its way as a justice reform leader because of the government's reactionary tough-on-crime policies, the outgoing ombudsman says.

In her final report, tabled in parliament on Monday, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has reflected on her 10 years as the state's public sector integrity watchdog.

Ms Glass particularly hammered the state government for its approach to the justice system, after last week reneging on its pledge to institute a presumption of bail for children.

"Real reform was, and is still, needed in the wider justice sector," she wrote.

"But this requires a government not driven by headlines that all too often have triggered a knee-jerk tightening of bail, parole and sentencing laws.

"The kind of tightening that swept up troubled, non-violent people like Veronica Nelson who should never have been in a prison cell when she died, tragically, in January 2020."

Ms Glass acknowledged she had been unable to persuade editors of some mass media outlets or their audiences that tough-on-crime policies "make us less safe" and their impact on the public purse.

"But history is full of examples of enlightened governments taking brave steps and leading public opinion," she wrote.

"Without them we would still have public hangings, Dickensian prisons and sweatshops, not to mention institutionalised discrimination against women and minorities.

"Victoria was once a leader in justice reform. Perhaps one day we will be one again."

Ms Glass' office launched 349 formal investigations and made 608 recommendations across 99 reports, with 95 per cent accepted.

One of her first major probes centred on "red shirts" scheme, which found Labor misused $388,000 of taxpayer funds during the 2014 election campaign.

Ms Glass said she had no great desire to investigate the referral but had an even greater aversion to being told by the government she didn't have jurisdiction to investigate MPs.

"This had now become a battle for my independence, with gender overtones," she wrote.

"How would it look if I simply bowed to the government, when my male predecessor had stared them down, and other legal arguments had been made, including in parliament, that I did have jurisdiction?"

The government ultimately lost the argument in court but Ms Glass said the litigation affected their relationship for the rest of her term.

She revealed she met with Daniel Andrews when he was opposition leader but never again over his almost nine years as premier.

She was shocked at the "speed and suddenness" of Mr Andrews' sacking of the state's top public servant Andrew Tongue, creating a "legacy of fear" among bureaucrats.

In her first meeting with his replacement Chris Eccles, Ms Glass said it was made clear the ombudsman's funding was not on the government's list of priorities.

The ombudsman said the "nothing to see here" response from the government to last year's report into the alleged politicisation of the Victorian public service was predictable but disappointing.

"I have done what I can, both to expose the subtle but dangerous impact of creeping politicisation ... it is now up to others to hold the government to account," she wrote.

Premier Jacinta Allan said she didn't agree with the ombudsman's justice reform critiques, declaring internal policy processes were rigorous.

"That is absolutely an approach that I intend to continue with," she told reporters on Monday.

Ms Glass will step down as ombudsman on Friday, with Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission chief executive Marlo Baragwanath taking over.


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