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Daniel Andrews still looms large over Victorian politics, but Jacinta Allan is trying to move on

<span>Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP</span>
Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP

Daniel Andrews may have resigned months ago but his presence in Victorian politics looms large.

In recent weeks, there have been breathless stories about his post-politics golf club membership plans, a confrontation at a gallery gala and a blurry video of a man that is purported to looks like Andrews driving a car while appearing to be holding a mobile phone (the inconclusive video captured, presumably, by another man behind the wheel using a mobile phone).

Much of this can be dismissed as shameless attempts to get the clicks of people who love to loathe the former state leader.

But one story should not be ignored.

A 291-page report into the politicisation of the public service, released this week by the ombudsman, Deborah Glass, which lays bare the “increasing growth and influence” of the premier’s private office (PPO) during Andrews’ second term.

The report found the number of staff in Andrews’ office had grown over several years and was equal to the number of staff in the prime minister and New South Wales premier’s offices – combined.

Witnesses told the inquiry that decision-making had become centralised in the PPO, with independent advice ignored and experts from within the public sector cut out in favour of consultants – including during the development of plans for the Suburban Rail Loop.

Glass was most disturbed by the “fear” among public servants to speak out or provide the government with frank and fearless advice – a core Westminster principle.

Related: ‘Creeping politicisation’ in Victoria’s public service needs ‘urgent attention’, ombudsman warns

The PPO was now too “hands-on,” one witness told the ombudsman, and “want[ed] to get involved in every decision”.

A former executive described a “grim acceptance” across the public sector that the premier’s office was “over-involved”, with minister’s roles “diminished” due to the “overreach”.

The comments are not new revelations.

Speak to anyone involved in Victorian politics in recent years and you will hear similar complaints about the PPO. (Those close to Andrews argue that his policy agenda and infrastructure projects would not have been completed without an “authoritative” PPO).

While Glass did not find evidence that the public sector had been “stacked” with Labor operatives, as had been alleged in the referral that prompted her investigation, she warned public funds could be at risk due to the “creeping politicisation”.

Related: ‘Desktop research’: consultants had six weeks to pull together Victoria’s Commonwealth Games business case

It is not dissimilar to warnings by the state’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (Ibac) of the risk of “grey corruption”, caused by the concentration of power in leaders’ office and growing politicisation in the public service.

“In Ibac’s view, Victoria has not been immune from this trend … Accompanying this trend has been a tolerance, or, on occasion, tacit encouragement of rule avoidance, bending and breaking,” reads Ibac’s Operation Daintree report, released in April.

Immediately after the report’s release, Andrews held a combative hour-long press conference, during which he repeatedly dismissed it as “educational”.

But the new premier, Jacinta Allan, is clearly taking a different approach.

Since stepping into the leader’s role, she has urged more collaboration with her cabinet, the opposition and crossbench and has acted on some of Ibac and the ombudsman’s earlier recommendations – including to update the ministerial code of conduct.

It’s no coincidence the same day the report was released, her treasurer, Tim Pallas, said: “Allan has brought her own style and I feel totally relaxed and comfortable in the process that she’s put in place.

“What it tells us is she is going to be her own person. She’s going to expect the same level, or perhaps a higher level, of effort from the ministers,” he said.

Asked if that means she’s less controlling than Andrews, Pallas replied: “It’s probably true to say that there’s been a bit more of a relaxation on central control.”

Related: Victoria’s new premier: who is Jacinta Allan and what can we expect from her leadership?

Allan’s Thursday press conference was also a much more relaxed affair. There was no snark, no sparing with journalists and even a couple of jokes.

But despite the delivery, she took a leaf out of the Andrews playbook and repeatedly denied there was anything wrong in the public service.

“I believe we have a strong and functioning public service,” Allan told reporters.

“From time to time, like there is in any organisation, whether it’s the local footy [or] netball club … they’ll be people who come with differences of opinion, but that’s what you want.”

On Wednesday, a press conference alongside the prime minister and other state leaders was cut short by Anthony Albanese as reporters asked about the ombudsman’s report.

One of the last questions put to Allan was about the number of staff in her PPO.

Because Andrews had 80 in his.