Lessons of the past worth heeding

Brian Walters, 17 November 2007

THE hearings before the Office of Police Integrity again raise the issue of police corruption. Those hearings may well give rise to further proceedings, and it is best to avoid comment on the revelations that have emerged.

But this is an occasion to step back and consider ways to discourage corruption in the police force.

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 royal commission on 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, we must be prepared to learn the lessons of the Fitzgerald commission. We have a long way to go.

Three weeks before last year's state election the Victorian Government entered into a secret written deal with the Police Association (the union for police officers) to secure their electoral support.

Both the then premier, Steve 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 Chief Commissioner of Police, 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 chief 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 commission emphasised 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 organisation.

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 royal commission 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.

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 that 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.

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". 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.

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. 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 organisation.

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 that is as beneficial as it can be.

Brian Walters is the immediate past president of Liberty Victoria.