Melaleuca Media
Fitz or no Fitz, Victoria needs that inquiry

This advice for Victoria on how to deal with its police corruption and public confidence crisis was published in The Australian on 9 June 2004.

Victoria is heading down a well trodden path in its reluctance to set a Royal Commissioner loose on the issue of police corruption in the State. Queensland, New South Wales and West Australia were all similarly adamant that the situation was under control and existing institutions could handle it.

All eventually gave in to public and media clamour and found existing institutions both internal and external to the force were not looking hard enough, not looking in the right place or not looking in the right way. Or some combination of the above.

With Victorian Premier Steve Bracks it appears to be a question of backdown by degree, or retreat to some prepared position as the previous one is overtaken by events. So far, there have been announcements that the chief commissioner of police is to be given extended powers to enable her troops to investigate themselves and the ombudsman is to be given extended powers to be a not-quite-Royal Commissioner.

A new retreat is now in the offing after the smoke and mirrors exercise to have a Fitzgerald without a Fitzgerald inquiry got shot up from behind over the weekend. With Bracks lending every encouragement to a view that Fitzgerald would be able to chase any rabbit down any burrow, Fitzgerald himself emerged to make it definite that he had a one rabbit, one burrow agreement and he had no intention of going any further than that.

As this paper has previously noted, Bracks is at the mercy of the next media revelation, the next atrocity on a supposedly protected witness or the shortening odds that a stray bullet from Victoria’s gangland wars will claim some innocent victim.

The government’s position is that it is catching the corrupt and putting them up in front of the courts, and that any inquiry will imperil these prosecutions. Tied to this is the argument – plastered all over the Victoria police web site home page by Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon – that Royal Commissions are hugely expensive and in West Australia and New South Wales they didn’t score many successful prosecutions anyway.

While there is some truth in all of these propositions they don’t add up to an argument. The basic aim of a free ranging inquiry is to cut deeply into a deep ranging rot and give an institution some chance at a fresh start, not least in public reputation. It is not about prosecutions, current or prospective.

At any rate, whether current prosecutions go ahead and result in plausible outcomes is more properly a matter for individual courts than pronouncements on the floor of the house. Courts do have ways of dealing with an over-abundance of public interest and not everything said in one legal forum is necessarily considered admissible in another. Jurors often turn out to be much more sensible than judges and lawyers think they are.

As events feed the clamour for a broader inquiry, the government response feeds speculation as to why they might be so reluctant. While no-one has ever suggested that Bracks is anything at all like Bjelke-Petersen, there is nevertheless a reasonably high probability that elements of Victoria’s police are not corrupt in isolation.

Indeed, the experience of Queensland was that the police take from criminals was much less than what others higher up the food chain exchange with contractors and developers. The sad truth is that most corruption is outed by parliaments or the media and police are by far the easiest class of public servants to catch out on journalist and opposition resources.

There are myriad mechanisms for the corrupt to prosper. To take just one, local government can be a much more fertile breeding ground for corruption than policing and this is where many promising careers in State and Federal parliaments begin. And much more criminal money is likely to be laundered through property deals than across the casino table.

While Victoria can’t be sure where an inquiry beginning with police corruption will end up, there are a couple of Garden State peculiarities that might warrant closer attention.

It is well remarked in the popular folklore that Victoria’s police are more a danger to its citizens than any other Australian force. Although occasionally challenged by New South Wales, Victoria’s criminals also seem more violent than the national average. A proper inquiry might look at whether there is some connection.

Similarly, a number of observers up to and including the Full Bench of the Federal Court have noted significant issues with gambling and casino regulation in Victoria. Sudden recent moves to exclude some alleged criminals from Crown Casino underline impressions there might be some problems in this area.

Royal Commissions or equivalent level inquiries aren’t a sure thing. A lot depends on what a Royal Commission is asked to do, who gets to run it and how they choose to run it. The salutary lesson is again from Queensland, where Mr Justice Harry Gibbs, later a Chief Justice of the High Court, somehow managed to find no corruption in the Queensland police force of the early 60s.

A decade and a half later Mr Justice Edward Williams ran a slightly more competent but no deeper microscope over Terry Lewis and associates and pronounced them clean.

But since Fitzgerald QC tore up the rule book, used his moral authority and public support to lever more freedom to move from the politicians and anchored his hearings into the context of a well resourced and determined investigation, inquiries have tended to find plenty of what they are looking for and more.

Victoria will, inevitably, have one someday soon and it will find that there is significant corruption not confined neatly to the Victoria Police. The real challenge for the State will be to get the bit after the Royal Commission right in the way that other States haven’t.

Those pushing for a permanent anti-corruption commission as the cure to all Victoria’s ills might like to consider that the best efforts of such bodies did not alleviate the need for Royal Commissions in NSW and West Australia. And a quick referral to Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission is Queensland Premier Peter Beattie’s preferred method of closing discussion and avoiding parliamentary questions on a growing scandal. Rarely is there any sort of unsettling outcome from a CMC inquiry.

Fitzgerald, again, might have been on the right track in suggesting that the control of both corruption and organised crime should be structured around a powerful research capability that is much more focussed on reducing social harm and economic cost than it is in playing “gotcha”.

It is a notion that was never really allowed a chance to prove itself in Queensland. Research got subordinated to the game of cops and robbers and was eventually hived off to the Premier’s department to do what it was told.

Perhaps Victoria’s Royal Commissioner could help revive the model.

Freelance journalist Phil Dickie played a key role in the establishment of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, was the author of The Road to Fitzgerald and spent four years researching organised crime for the Criminal Justice Commission.