It is a truism that taxpayers’ money should not be used for personal gain. This should be ingrained into every person employed on the public purse, but as this, and so many other Ombudsman investigations in past years illustrate, it is not always the case.
This investigation focuses on the use of public funds by some of the senior management and board of the popular tourist resort of Mt Buller and Mt Stirling. The Resort sits on Crown land and is managed on behalf of the Minister for the benefit of the state – the people of Victoria. In this investigation, we identified more than $30,000 worth of public funds being used for such things as international family travel and the entertainment of the CEO’s friends. The privileged access to the snowfield’s accommodation also enjoyed by the Resort’s staff and board was used for the entertainment of friends, family and associates.
Mt Buller is no-one’s personal playground. It is public property and its management is the temporary custodian.
Of perhaps most concern is that people in positions of the highest responsibility gave evidence that they were unaware of their obligations regarding the use of public funds. There is a sound argument that a publicly owned tourist resort should embrace the best of the private sector when appropriate. But it must also never forget that it is not a private business. It has a responsibility to the public when it comes to spending the public’s money.
Three of the subjects of this investigation had little or no experience of the public sector. Previous Ombudsman investigations have demonstrated the risks associated with such people coming directly from the private sector into publicly funded roles – plainly, those risks continue.
In the Resort CEO’s own words, the research and development provisions of his contract – used to justify family flights to the United States on one occasion – were designed to assist him with regular travel ‘to the US for holidays’. While the charms of a lake house in upstate New York are undeniable, Victorians do not pay taxes to fund public sector employees’ private holidays.
The cultural risk associated with private sector individuals must be factored in to recruitment processes for public sector roles. I would prefer to help government build a sturdy stable door than spend my time chasing after horses with expensive tastes that have long since bolted.
To this end, I have recommended that Victoria’s Travel Principles be revised to make it clear that public sector organisations are not permitted to enter into employment contracts that provide travel entitlements inconsistent with the principles. I have also recommended the CEO return the cost of his holiday to the public. I am glad to report this has been accepted.
I must also acknowledge the bravery of the whistleblowers who drew these matters to my attention and assisted with my investigation. The public owes them a debt of gratitude for shining a light on this conduct.