Thursday, 22 April 2010

Holding the Line

Tony Fitzgerald QC hands over his report into corruption in Queensland

I came into contact with Carl Williams a number of times. I was usually appearing for the police in relation to subpoenas and other technical issues involving his murder trials. I never quite got used to his boyish good looks and cheerful demeanour, which seemed surreal in the sobre atmosphere of the Supreme Court.

Recently, following the murder of Carl Williams in his "high security" prison, there have been calls for inquiries into police corruption. Court orders prevent me explaining why people have supposed there might be any connection, but it is sufficient to say these calls follow the murders of several informers who were to give evidence against allegedly corrupt police.

Carl Williams behind glass in court

Premier John Brumby has dismissed calls for a Royal Commission, saying that Carl Williams was a serial killer and a royal commission into his death would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

The Premier misses the point. A proper independent inquiry (it need not be a royal commission) is not about Carl Williams - it's about us. It's about our values. It's about whether murders (even of criminals) might be occurring in order to cover up corruption by some police - who have been given special powers to exercise on our behalf. Corruption of those in whom we entrust power is very dangerous, and can metastasize through the whole body politic. We must be vigilant about it - for our own sake.

The problem of police corruption is not new and it is not confined to Victoria. If we are to deal with it, we must be prepared to learn from the past and from interstate and even overseas experience.

The 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland was responsible for a complete change in the culture of police and politics in the State. Lest we have to undergo our own Royal Commission here, we must be prepared to learn the lessons of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. We have a long way to go.

Three weeks before the 2006 state election the Victorian government entered into a secret written deal with the Police Association (the union for police officers) in order to secure their electoral support. Both the premier, Mr Bracks, and then police minister, Tim Holding, signed the six-page document, the existence of which did not publicly emerge until after the election.

The agreement was extraordinary. It was made without the knowledge of the Commissioner of Police - Christine Nixon at the time - and it undermined her position for negotiating an enterprise bargaining agreement with members. It directly trespassed into operational areas, such as the provision of weapons, which were her responsibility. It also committed the government to reimbursing the Police Association for legal representation costs incurred in defending members being investigated by the Office of Police Integrity.

A Commissioner of Police is entitled to expect that she will be the voice of the police speaking to government. In this case, her capacity to do so was seriously undermined.

The Fitzgerald Report emphasized that curbing police corruption required avoiding any direct link between the government and the police union, so as to enable the Commissioner to carry out the duties of properly running the police organization.

The secret deal with the Police Association was precisely the kind of arrangement the Fitzgerald Report warned against. It strengthened the hand of the Police Association, and weakened the Police Commissioner, in a way that is detrimental to the police service and to all Victorians.

Another lesson from the Fitzgerald Report concerns Police Media Units. Tony Fitzgerald warned about the potential use of media by

police officers and other public officials who wish to put out propaganda to advance their own interests and harm their enemies. (report at p 141)

Media units, including the police media unit, have a legitimate function to perform, but it is a function that can all too easily be abused. Instead of informing the public, the media unit can be used to spin a line which is deceptive, or even use their position to trade influence.

Fitzgerald warned that government media units in general could be used:

to manipulate the information obtained by the media. Although most Government-generated publicity will unavoidably and necessarily be politically advantageous, there is no legitimate justification for taxpayers’ money to be spent on politically motivated propaganda. (report at p 142)

If media units do not result in citizens being better informed about government and departmental activities, Fitzgerald argued that “their existence is a misuse of public funds, and likely to help misconduct to flourish” (p 142). Fitzgerald urged the introduction of guidelines to govern their activities and the establishment of an all-party parliamentary committee to scrutinise the cost and operation of ministerial media staff and units.

Currently in Victoria there is inadequate oversight of such units, in relation to the police media unit or in relation to government media units generally.

The Victoria Police has a very large media unit. It is much larger than that of the Prime Minister of Australia. Inevitably, the media unit will have access to information of great sensitivity, and it will have significant power in the dissemination of information. Independent oversight of this Police Media Unit, with clear protocols as to the appropriate limits to its conduct, and publicly available information as to its work, are essential to curb potential abuse by that body.

We ought never be complacent about police corruption – or indeed corruption in general. Where power is entrusted to people, some will abuse that power. Vigilance and independent oversight are required to ensure that we keep a system which is as beneficial as it can be.

External Link

Fitzgerald Report

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