Ombudsman could investigate Victorian education department boss

Education department secretary Gill Callister may be investigated by the Ombudsman.

Victoria’s education boss could be investigated by the Ombudsman over explosive claims she tried to pressure a youth justice executive not to give damaging court evidence against the Andrews government.

Fairfax Media can reveal that a parliamentary committee will refer the allegations involving education department secretary Gill Callister​ to the state watchdog, paving the way for a potential probe into one of Victoria’s most senior bureaucrats.

The move comes after former Parkville College executive principal Brendan Murray accused Ms Callister of trying convince him to testify in the Supreme Court that youths who had been temporarily sent to the Barwon adult prison could be given an appropriate education qualifications – despite his view to the contrary.

At the time, Mr Murray had been called as a witness by human rights lawyers who were suing the government for the “unlawful” placement of youth offenders into the Grevillea unit of the adult jail.

Brendan Murray was the executive principal of Parkville College

While Ms Callister has denied the claims, they are nonetheless sensitive because they essentially suggest attempts were made to deter Mr Murray from casting doubt on the government’s decisions.

Mr Murray raised the allegations in May, when he provided evidence to an upper house inquiry examining Victoria’s youth justice centres.Under parliamentary privilege, he had claimed that Ms Callister and another department executive, Stephen Fraser, had called him in the lead-up to his testimony, and during a 25-minute conversation, had sought to convince him “that we could lawfully provide qualifications at Grevillea that were equal to what could be provided at Malmsbury and Parkville”.

He also alleged that he later received a follow-up call from Mr Fraser, who used to work for Education Minister James Merlino, where “I was told what would be important to [say], and certainly what the department would like me to say”.

Fairfax Media understands the Legal and Social Issues Committee – made up MPs from the Liberal, Labor, Greens and Reason parties – viewed the allegations as serious, but did not think they were the appropriate body to get to the bottom of the issue.

Instead, the majority of members voted on Friday to refer Mr Murray’s evidence to Ombudsman Deborah Glass for further investigation.

The department declined to comment on Friday afternoon, but Ms Callister has previously told the parliamentary inquiry it was “completely wrong” to suggest Mr Murray had been pressured in any way.

Meanwhile, Mr Murray – who earlier this year became the most senior youth justice insider to speak out about the crisis in the system – welcomed the referral.

“I appreciate that such checks and balances are in place within Victoria’s Parliament,” he said. “Should the Ombudsman accept the committee’s referral, then I would have complete confidence in Deborah Glass and her office to thoroughly investigate this matter impartially and independently.”

Mr Murray helped set up Parkville College in 2012 to rehabilitate young offenders, but clashed with the department after an investigation into an email he sent to human rights lawyers, which challenged the government’s stance about bed capacity.