JACK WATERFORD. AFP needs a leader who is a character with character, not a bureaucrat with opinions (Canberra Times 20.7.2019)

Jul 23, 2019

The ‘old-fashioned cop’ type Dutton is said to want are mostly known for preferring their prejudices to the facts. 

The AFP College, on Brisbane Avenue Barton, has long been a matter of fond memory for people who watch the strange antics of those who enforce the law from Canberra. It was originally a Commonwealth hostel for single public servants, with monastic cells and refectories. In the late 1970s it was briefly a bar, an illegal casino and a brothel. Plain clothes police, off and not-off duty, congregated there in hordes, particularly ACT Police detectives from their boss, Inspector Colin Winchester down. There were also quite a few Commonwealth Police in mufti spying on ACT police figures because they, at least, regarded their presence as an indicator of corruption. ACT Police contempt for the plastics probably reinforced the fun of staying. They may have thought differently when it became an issue at the inquest into the death of Winchester.

Bob Hawke, then with the ACTU and not a few federal politicians and lawyer were oft to be seen at the Pine tables, as were any number of reasonably well- known Sydney criminals and what passed for ta Canberra blue-collar underworld.  Opinions among other patrons about the promiscuity of the way cops consorted after hours with crims and other ne’er-d-wells, including politicians were divided. Some saw it as evidence of blatant disregard for the law and an indicator of bribe-taking, of the type then so common among police in NSW. Others, including me, sometimes, saw it as evidence of a certain sophistication among the slightly smarter cops – of hanging around where the criminals were and the crime was, as well as gathering any amount of intelligence about who was talking to whom, and, sometimes, about what.

As a youngish reporter who knew fairly well most of the sorts of cops to be seen at Pine Lodge, I never took any great umbrage on behalf of the public, though I always listened very carefully when young, mostly uniformed, cops spoke of their uneasiness about it, and their doubts about the probity of some of their superiors. The problem of being a genuinely honest cop in those days was you never really knew if you could trust your superiors.  I would also always make a mental note of habituees given on other occasions to lecturing the public at large on adherence to the letter of the law, or to claiming that police always enforced the law without fear or favour, and that journalists, or others, were not exempt. Cops like that are still around, living contradictions.

In due course, the ACT Police and the Commonwealth Police were forcibly and involuntarily married to become the AFP in 1979. It was a union which has yet to gel even if there is hardly a survivor still in uniform. And Pine Lodge became another place of police consort, as the AFP  training academy. A few of the now-promoted old regulars of Pine Lodge adjusted by transferring their attentions to the police recruits.  Beds and rooms that had once served bank johnnies, teachers, and public servants, later prostitutes and their clients, now became  the abode of would be-be police officers. And even,  for two years from 2013, of prime minister Tony Abbott. The prime minister’s lodge was being refurbished, and the police college could provide secure, if austere, accommodation for a VIP who enjoyed the company of uniforms. Besides it was close to St Christopher’s cathedral and the occasional early mass – no longer a service of the cathedral alas. And the college had its own gymnasium. There was nothing Tony enjoyed more than committing exercise in a sweaty room.

Soon after Andrew (“AJ”) Colvin became AFP commissioner in 2014, he seems to have realised the need to keep fit. He began going regularly to the AFP College gym, no doubt by coincidence at exactly the same time Abbott was to be seen there.  Perhaps he saw it as networking. A more sensible person might have seen the virtue of keeping distance from government, and being aloof from the constant efforts of some politicians, to harness supposedly independent police to their political causes.  Colvin’s predecessors did not hobnob with prime ministers, even if they tried to get prime ministerial bodyguards to pass on subliminal messages, or, occasionally, to act as spies.

This was a discretion AJ has never seemed to learn. Colvin was to prove perhaps the most obliging AFP commissioner in its 40-year history when it came to indulging the prime minister, in full partisan campaign mode,  with visual backgrounds of an ever increasing number of Australian flags, grim-faced and rock-jawed police officers nodding sagely at everything that Abbott said. Abbott, of course, had no shame about verballing the cops, and even ASIO Director Duncan Lewis, constantly seeking to have them, and uniforms and flags around as he promoted hysteria about the threat of terrorism, and the dangers of the dangerous and chickenshit approaches being advanced by the opposition or any other critics.

It has sometimes seemed to work well for Colvin and the AFP. Every fresh budget would seem to contain a welter of fresh announcements about new funds for the AFP, particularly to fight the terrorism fad of the moment.  It was not so obvious from the Budget papers – these days more or less pure propaganda – that the new money to open this new office, take on some new function or to save Australia from this or that impending catastrophe was simply removed from some other area of AFP operations. Budgets did not increase. Functions and responsibilities did – and performance is increasingly ragged as the gap has become obvious.  The appetite for harnessing the AFP to the party bandwagon has not diminished, but admiration for its efficiency and effectiveness has not  increased. And the minister Peter Dutton regards himself as a street smart “old copper,” and has not much time for people without his outlook on crime and punishment, or lack of regard for cops with no blood underneath their fingernails.

Increasingly the AFP has been taking on unaccountable roles far removed from conventional policing – just as well because it has never been very good at crime. The most absurd function had to have been the deployment of hundreds of armed AFP officers to the Ukraine to pick up scraps of aircraft, luggage and human bodies after the Russians shot down a Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 passengers including 27 Australians. (It was better, perhaps, than the military invasion Abbott contemplated, but many times more expensive, for little use to Australian interests, than the Trump’s July 4 Red Square parade in Washington recently ).

Work against terrorism, computer and communications surveillance of almost anyone it liked, including pesky journalists, operations and intelligence gathering about paedophilia, money-laundering, cyber-crime, high tech crime became  the new glamour areas. That added to major deployments abroad, as well as enthusiasm for showing off AFP expertise, including in the identification of dead bodies. The AFP may have abandoned its aspiration to be an Australian FBI, but still sees itself, at least at national operational level, as an elite crime and intelligence agency. One, by its own legend of itself (scoffed at by state police forces)  of ever-increasing self-importance as crime, such as the drug trade, and the laundering of untaxed money and drug profits, has become more globalised and national, and out of the reach, or competence of state police.

Any glance at the CV of Andrew Colvin seems to suggest that he was an expert by background in almost all of these fields. He had sat on, co-ordinated, or managed and memoed in umpteen AFP counter-terrorism areas. He was on committees about money laundering, and was physically in Bali coordinating the police response after the nightclub bombings. He had worked on national drug cases and paedophilia, even if, in a manner somewhat similar to Dutton, another cop working in the same area at the time, one cannot find his name on many 1990s charge sheets, or in any court reports.

He had hardly served a moment on the beat before being selected for higher things and identified for senior management potential. Perhaps he had not personally faced many angry men or solved  much actual crime.  But he had sat at a hundred desks organising resources, doing the backup, arranging the public relations, ticking off internal affairs exonerations, and giving good committee everywhere, including in minister’s offices. As a prime police bureaucrat he was capable, but not particularly forceful or dominating: his chief patron, Mick Keelty, who made him his chief of staff, was never one to promote people capable of putting him in the shade  or with any tendency to disagree.

Even better was that Colvin was good at those boring management functions, budgets, meaningless mission statements, and appropriate genuflection before sacred cows. Under his guidance, for example, the AFP came to be rated the joint highest ranking public sector employer, along with the Department of Defence( !) in relation to workplace inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people. It’s not something to sneer about, but those who see the police frontline, like those who see the military frontline, wonder how much is real culture change, and how much is PR from a middle management of suits whose numbers increase by the day.

Colvin could talk diversity, flow charts and mission statements  with the devil. He hired all of the right people to attack sexual harassment inside the force, and, if his service had a worrying level of work-based suicide, one could be sure that his organisation had a plan to do something about it, and that he is its champion.

He’s a leader in the modern bureaucratic sense, and has never frightened the horses whether in his own force or in the public administration. He can talk the talk with the experts or the players, but he has made little public mark from anything surprising he has ever said or done. His friends and champions insist that he has been a civilising influence holding at bay the barbarians – the old-fashioned punitive approach to law-n-order of a Dutton, or the bossy attempts of a Pezzullo to have everyone singing from the same hymn-sheet.  Assuming this, he has not been very successful.

He can give a presentation on almost any type of crime, but has never given a speech cited for its common sense, humour or challenge. Like most modern departmental secretaries, he is not the inspirational or exhortatory type; he has never  said anything about the functions of police in society that was not humdrum. No one can ever remember him standing on some principle at any cost to himself, or taking a big risk. Sometimes when he has – in showing compassion for a senior colleague whose gambling addiction had led to fraud on the Commonwealth – he ran a million miles once someone asked whether there was one rule for the insiders and another for the other ranks. He is self-effacing, but no one has known what he stands for.

He protested weakly and ineffectually as the AFP was subsumed into home affairs, and failed to resist when Pezzullo began, immediately, issuing the sort of edicts about beards and tattoos that should have been made by the commissioner, if at all.

Unlike Duncan Lewis, who complained, if too belatedly, when ASIO was tricked into seeming to publicly endorse the fierce, and, as it happened, politically convenient view that medivacs would re-open the boatpeople floodgates, Colvin sat mum. The AFP had not much resisted Pezzullo’s determination that the views of the AFP, ASIO and other “independent agencies” within the portfolio, get diluted in committee, then hardened by adoption of mostly with Pezzullo’s deeply held convictions, given extra force by seeming to bear the authority of specialist bodies.  After The Australian  was shown a copy of the submission, an enraged Pezzullo,  who plainly believed that the submission was leaked by Peter Dutton’s office, asked for an AFP investigation.  Colvin did nothing with the request for a long time, then, after the election, dropped any idea of an inquiry, claiming, entirely unconvincingly, that it would be pointless because there were no obvious suspects. At just the same time, his officers were preparing raids on journalists whose disclosures had actually embarrassed the government, if not the national security.

The AFP is oft given to sending scores of heavily armed men and women on raids, usually of terrorists, sometimes of alleged fraudsters, some of whom later prove to be innocent. When it sent platoons of police to search the premises of the AWU, in pursuit of a complaint that they “might be” planning to commit a (non-criminal)  offence of destroying documents, cynics criticised his judgment of priorities. He proclaimed his utter independence of government in such matters, even after it proved that coips had called the minister to give his staff a “heads up” on the planned raids, and ministerial staffers then tipped off the cops. Choreographing “surprise” police raids, as well as providing copious notes of the allegations which will be made, is standard AFP MO. The triumphs of police detections – when large drug seizures occur, without any apparent impact on the illicit market  — or big operations, with partners against fraudsters often poisons the well of justice by exciting prejudice against  people charged with crime.  He could stop it, but hasn’t, though perhaps it could be said in his favour that he has never used the enormous resources of the media unit to create a cult of personality around himself, as some of his predecessors have.

The AFP has long been a deeply politicised force, pathetically  eager to please the government of the day, and always seemingly willing to say, if sometimes cautiously, whatever it is the government wants. I have not known it, in all its 40 years, to charge anyone with a crime if that has had the potential to embarrass its political masters. It sometimes hides behind its supposed independence, or a selective concern for privacy, to stonewall questions about its failure to mount serious investigations (say into the wheat for oil affair), or to pursue answers to questions if minister choose to ignore them. The insistence of an acting commissioner that “no-one” – least of all scum-bag journalists – is above the law does not apply to ministers.

On all such matters, the AFP usually gets a free pass from the opposition. After all, its senior law and order folk – such as Mark Dreyfus – know from experience that the same people will be just as helpful with a timely and politically convenient “heads up” and with interesting gossip from the charge rooms when it is their turn to be in charge. Oppositions know there is no profit in attacking the cops – who can be bitter enemies – when they should be focusing on the other side – the folk whose every wish the AFP leadership seems so anxious to anticipate, preferably before they are asked.

The government exerts its control, and rewards and punishes,  by close supervision of the AFP budget. Sometimes ministers have forced their will – as Mick Keelty could attest – by simply refusing to deal with paperwork until they get their way over, say, the promotion of a favoured cop. The threat to independence is these days the greater as home affairs attempts to claim and develop its in-house knowledge and expertise in all matters involving crime or national conspiracy. This cuts back the space in which its “independent” agenciess are allowed to have a mind – or access to ministers – of their own.

Mercifully home affairs cannot much monster the AFP about its chronic overruns and poor budget controls over its budget; its own sins, irregularities and sheer waste of hundreds of millions on computers and concentration camps services  dwarf  anything coming out of the AFP. But much as Peter Dutton likes to bang the police drum, he has shown almost no compassion if there is AFP or DHA over-expenditure. Nor is he  for regular budget overruns. Nor much empathy when the commissioner’s lot is not a happy one.

The AFP badly needs a new broom. It needs new ideas. It has become too settled in its ways. It’s not, close observers inside the security screen say, anything like as good or professional  as it thinks it is. And it lacks a culture of accountability .

It has been led for nearly 20 years by the same old good old boys and girls who became a band of brothers and sisters under the leadership of Mick Keelty, a leader, like Pezzullo, who preferred yes-men and women. Almost all of the senior ranks, including all of the women with the potential to be commissioner promise more of the same if they get the job. Perhaps there will be different homespun philosophies about how crime will stop when judges send people to jail for longer periods, and about the light at the end of the tunnel in the war against drugs. The amazing and appalling thing about such folk – from Dutton down – is what it demonstrates about their contempt for evidence if it conflicts with their pre-determined opinions.

Others will be keen to display – though this will not impress the minister, or, probably Pezzullo, their credentials in political correctness. Most have impressive academic and professional qualifications – which will not necessarily impress Dutton, who had departed the police before taking his Bachelor of Business at QUT.

It will be a test of the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson,  whether the selection process will be at arms length from government. Last time about, Mick Keelty was one of the panel that selected Colvin. Pezzullo will probably claim an interest in the panel’s make-up, and, if he is on it, no doubt be completely detached.

Who knows? An outsider – male or female or intersex — with guts and imagination might actually serve the interests of the government as well as the public if only by giving cred in a way that a compromised force cannot. It is doubtful that anyone in the existing inner circle can deliver that.  If such a person were on offer from within, having survived all the pressure to be bland, boring and inoffensive,  it would have been obvious by now. There are characters of character to be found elsewhere.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times


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