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Ombudsman’s journey across the globe and back to fight injustice

“It continues to be the only lockdown, before or since, announced with no notice whatsoever – and giving rise to the obvious impression it was made on the grounds of security rather than public health,” she said on the first anniversary of the hard lockdown earlier this month. “It’s disappointing the state government has not accepted a key recommendation to say sorry for that.”

The government accepts mistakes were made but “made no apology for saving people’s lives”.

That pursuit of justice, coupled with her public push for more funding, has put her at odds with the Andrews government during her seven years heading the state’s public sector watchdog.

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Late last year Glass teamed up with Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission head Robert Redlich calling for more funding, amid claims by Glass that the lack of resources could be perceived as an attempt to undermine the agency’s probing of government corruption. Premier Daniel Andrews retorted that the claim had “no basis in fact whatsoever”.

Her approach has irritated some Labor MPs, with some privately questioning whether she is choosing activism over accountability.

Ken Coghill, a former Labor MP who is now an adjunct professor in governance at Swinburne University, says Glass isn’t one to “hide her light under a bushel”.

“The ombudsman’s role is one of the most importance in ensuring the integrity of government,” he says.

“It needs to be someone of the highest integrity who is prepared to chase down wrongdoing … clearly Deborah is a person with these qualities.”

The relationship between Glass and government was further strained by a series of more political investigations, including a probe into allegations Labor MPs were engaging in branch stacking. She also delivered a scathing report into the misuse of staff budget entitlements during the 2014 state election that saw Andrews voted into office.

Her final report found 21 Labor MPs breached the guidelines by certifying payments to electorate officers who were used for campaign purposes.

Coghill says it is “extremely helpful” for an ombudsman to be politically aware.

“An ombudsman needs to know how to make a point without appearing to favour either side … she is testing the boundaries without going beyond [them],” he says.

Coghill believes Glass’ commitment to transparency and accountability is ingrained in her personality. He cites her move to Melbourne seven years ago after working for the UK Independent Police Complaints Commission, when she refused taxpayer-funded relocation costs, as an example of her commitment to put the public first.

It was in the role overseeing complaints against British police forces that Glass admits her resilience was tested “to the absolute limit”.

“There were times when I thought I was going to drown. It was that tough,” Deborah Glass says of her time with Britain’s Independent Police Complaints Commission.

“There were times when I thought I was going to drown. It was that tough,” Deborah Glass says of her time with Britain’s Independent Police Complaints Commission.Credit:Joe Armao

Those 13 years dealing with complaints, corruption and death took a toll and ultimately brought her back to her home city as she sought a new job freeing her from late-night phone calls asking her to investigate another death in custody.

“There were times when I thought I was going to drown. It was that tough,” Glass says of her time with the commission – a job that earned her an Order of the British Empire (OBE).

“I am not sure how I got through … but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“There was no down time, you are on call if someone dies in police custody. You never go anywhere without your phone,” she said. “The stress levels there are off the scale.”

In 2012 Glass made the controversial decision to launch an investigation into police misconduct in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which saw 96 football fans die from crush injuries sustained during an FA Cup semi-final match at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium.

Fans mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool, April 2009.

Fans mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster at Anfield Stadium in Liverpool, April 2009.Credit:AP

The investigation, 23 years after the event, led to police officers being charged with offences including manslaughter, misconduct and negligence over their actions during and after the disaster.

“There is no doubt that the work I did for the IPCC is, without doubt, the most challenging and difficult of my career,” she says. “It changed me as a person. It said something about the power of the individual and the importance of retaining your humanity when dealing with a crisis.

“We lose sight of the human element, we forget all too often that there are people involved.”

That focus on putting people first is what first lured Glass away from her job at a top Melbourne law firm in search of something more. “I had teenage ambitions to save the world,” she says. “I wanted to travel, I wanted to see the world.”

Raised in suburban Melbourne, Glass excelled at Mount Scopus College. The daughter of a doctor, she said hers was the sort of family where if you did well you pursued a career in law or medicine. She couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so she enrolled in Law at Monash University.

After graduating in the early 1980s she landed a job at a law firm but dreamt of a bigger life. As a young Jewish woman, with no interest in the AFL, she never felt like she truly fitted in.

“It was the mid-1980s, I’d grown up in the 1970s and Melbourne was a very white place and I never felt particularly connected,” she said. “When I left Australia it was on a one-way ticket and with a rucksack on my back and I swore I’d never come back.”

She landed in Europe, first in Italy and then Switzerland, travelling on the Swiss passport she inherited through her father’s father. She says she “sponged off relatives” until she saw an advertisement in an English-language newspaper for management trainees at investment bank CitiGroup.

From there she was sent to Hong Kong around the same time as the catastrophic stock market crash of October 1987. It prompted the Hong Kong government to set up an independent regulatory body responsible for the city’s securities and futures markets.

Glass describes this as a light-bulb moment in her life: “I realised that what I really wanted was to take what I had learnt about the financial markets and use that in the public interest.”

After almost a decade in financial services regulation and with Hong Kong handed back to China from British rule, Glass followed her then-husband to the United Kingdom in search of a new challenge.

Recruitment consultants recommended lucrative compliance roles with multinational companies, but Glass thought “I don’t want to do that. That’s not me, that’s not my values.”

Instead she took a small career break, taking on volunteering roles including reading with refugees and as a “lay visitor” at police stations to check on the treatment and welfare of people held in police custody.

“I gained an understanding of the pressures people were under and the balancing act to ensure people’s welfare. It developed into an interest in police-community relations.”

It prompted her to apply for a job at the UK Police Complaints Authority, and in 2004 she became a commissioner with the new Independent Police Complaints Commission of England and Wales.

Returning to Australia in 2014, Glass was appointed as Victoria’s ombudsman for a 10-year term. Last year alone her office handled more than 45,000 complaints levelled at the state’s government departments, local councils, statutory bodies and their contractors.

With three years to go, Glass refuses to wind down. During a recent leadership meeting to mark seven years in the job she made it clear she would not spend the final 36 months “coasting along” and would instead look for opportunities to “step things up”.

Glass is also refusing to back away from her fight with the government over funding. She believes there is a growing hunger in the community for accountability which she attributes to a growing number of scandals without resolution. “I think it’s a genuine desire to see our elected officials held more firmly to account,” she says. “There are real questions about accountability and the public is not stupid.”

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Glass says, somewhat tongue in cheek, that in her experience governments will fund their integrity agencies “as little as they can get away with”.

She claims the state government’s budget allocation fell about $2 million short of the $22 million spent by the ombudsman’s office last year.

“I am not prepared to wear too much of a reduction … Parliament has given me a job to do and I will do that job,” she says. “If there is too great a mismatch between what the government gives me and what the Parliament expects of me, I will run a deficit.”

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