ArticlesCrime and corruption
|The Fitz lowdown for Victorians|
|The appointment of Tony Fitzgerald to look into an aspect of Victorian police affairs rekindled interest in the Fitzgerald mode of inquiry. Phil Dickie proffered this explanation in The Sunday Age.|
|Victorian Premier Steve Bracks deserves full marks for creativity in dealing with the issue of increasingly violent criminals and an increasingly smelly police force. The latest gambit in the desperate effort to stave off an open public inquiry is to have Fitzgerald but not a Fitzgerald Inquiry.|
But Tuesday’s announcement that noted Queensland corruption buster Tony Fitzgerald QC was to help Victoria’s ombudsman look into the apparent leak of a highly confidential police document started unravelling almost immediately. While Fitzgerald himself was quietly emphasising his part-time advisory status, Premier Bracks was freeing his ombudsman’s new assistant to look well beyond the leaked document if necessary.
For Fitzgerald it was nearly 17 years since he reinvented the art of the official inquiry. For Bracks, and for Victorians generally, it is probably a good idea to have a closer look at what Fitzgerald did and what happened next.
The dogs had been barking for years about corruption in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland and any number of allegations from junior cops, minor crims and bypassed tenderers for government contracts were raised in the media. Most ended up a two day wonder as the writs started flying, the media went on to the next thing and anyone who had put their head or hand up was hounded out of employment, out of the state and sometimes both.
In early 1987 however, the media gave up repeating allegations and built up a substantial case that police up to alarmingly senior levels had encouraged the growth of some notable criminal franchises in vice, gambling and possibly drugs. The government opening position was that “there is no evidence that massage parlours are used for prostitution” but after four months of being worked over by the Courier-Mail and having a Four Corners report detonated under them, they cracked and announced an inquiry.
Police Commissioner Lewis and former policeman turned minister and powerbroker Don “Shady” Lane exerted themselves powerfully to have another former police officer turned judge given carriage of the inquiry. The Chief Justice scotched this by simply declining to make a judge available. Gunn, despite being threatened by Bjelke-Petersen, took the counsel of Ian Callinan QC to appoint the relatively little known barrister Gerald Edward (Tony) Fitzgerald QC.
The initial terms of reference limited Fitzgerald to looking at five criminal identities fingered by the media and any benefits or favours they may have extended to police over the previous five years. Another matter best described as a complete red herring offered Fitzgerald the opportunity to crucify a journalist should he so desire. (He didn’t)
For the corrupt, the alarm bells started ringing when Fitzgerald went back to the government after only a month in the chair and said he wanted to go back 10 years and add a crucial new clause four – the freedom to pry into “any other matter or thing appertaining to the aforesaid matters”. A year later Fitzgerald went back again to have clause four amended to allow him to pursue any other matter whether it appertained or not.
The amendments blew the inquiry wide open and in due course the inquiry blew thirty years of National Party government into kingdom come. But at first it was often difficult to guess what Fitzgerald was about – he opened public hearings in an almost leisurely way by allowing senior police to warble on about how they policed vice in Queensland. It was hardly high drama but perceptive commentators thought Fitzgerald might be allowing the police to set themselves up.
And so it proved. In the three weeks before the first witness with any actual allegations against police entered the box, Lewis had verballed every police minister he had ever had and the government had decided to cut police off the legal expenses gravy train once they were implicated in misconduct. Crime figure Geraldo Bellino had told the inquiry – and the taxman – that his illegal casinos earned him $1 million a year.
Fitzgerald capped off his first month by mentioning the availability of indemnities in return for evidence. A fumbling Snr Sergeant Harry Burgess took the stand and became the first of a parade of officers up to assistant commissioner level to confess their own corruption and that of others. Bagman and meticulous book-keeper Jack Herbert, arrested on the run in London, had a clearly marked path ahead of him on his way to being a supergrass.
The problem with inquiries into police corruption from the viewpoint of politicians is that the damage is never limited to the police. The sad truth is that police are the easiest public servants for the media to catch out because they do deals with unsavory and unreliable criminals.
But police are rarely corrupt in isolation and the line between the underworld and normal society turns out to be fairly indistinct when energetically probed. The Fitzgerald Inquiry left a trail of embarrassed celebrities, politicians and business identities, judges and other statutory office holders, companies, banks, law firms, valuers and real estate agents in its wake.
The entire police licensing branch in full frolic for a decade couldn’t come close to matching the money thrown by developers at a single minister. But untangling the affairs of ministers, premiers and governments was a much more complex affair than tracing a flow of cash from prostitute to pimp to bagman to officer’s pocket. Far more typical of high level corruption is the loan with no repayment requirement, the unit at low or no cost and the post-retirement sinecure.
Fitzgerald didn’t get far into the drug trade and its networks of protection, but in dissecting the Queensland system from the Premier’s office to the gutters of Fortitude Valley he felt qualified to make far reaching and comprehensive recommendations for reform.
The business of guilt and innocence was left to a newly appointed Special Prosecutor who went on to rack up the most impressive total of charges and convictions ever to come out of a Commission of Inquiry. Heading the list was Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who went on to become beneficiary of a controversial jury swap and subsequent hung jury.
Lewis, the first serving Australian police commissioner to receive a knighthood later became the first jailed for corruption. Two assistant commissioners of police were acquitted, but Lewis had the company of numerous superintendents, inspectors and other ranks in jail. Four cabinet ministers went to jail and one died – of natural causes - facing charges. Two out of the three national business identities charged were convicted as were five crime kingpins.
Perhaps the most far reaching consequence of the Fitzgerald Inquiry was that every subsequent Royal Commission or equivalent inquiry now had a much higher bar to jump. The investigative techniques, the strategies and sometimes even the former Fitzgerald personnel were recognisable in the WA Inc Royal Commission which did indeed pop a former premier into jail, and in the Woods Royal Commission that found NSW police corruption that had somehow escaped the attention of that State’s permanent anti-corruption commission.
The example most dreaded by Premier Bracks however is probably WA, where the government similarly ignored a mounting crescendo of calls for a Royal Commission into police corruption at an ever mounting political cost. Existing institutions are doing just fine, the government argued. Finally they cracked, called the Royal Commission and endured the exposure of the corruption that the existing institutions had managed to remain blind to.
Investigative journalist Phil Dickie’s Courier Mail stories into police corruption contributed to the establishment of Queensland’s Fitzgerald Inquiry. He went on to spend four years researching organised crime for the Criminal Justice Commission. He has been a freelance journalist since 1994.