For years, Victorians watched police corruption being regularly exposed in other states with smug superiority, labouring under the misapprehension that things here were different here. Turns out we were wrong. Instead of being squeaky clean, our police were beginning to believe their own bulldust.
The slick machine that is police PR worked too well. Police developed an internal culture of unaccountability. Their sworn duty is to enforce the law but their attitude has become that it only applies selectively to themselves.
Like Bridget McKenzie and her sports rorts, they have found themselves arguing the unbelievable. They litigated for years all the way to the High Court to try to stop any of this scandal becoming public. The inquest into the Gargasoulas Bourke Street drive-though killings is another example. Vast amounts of police time and public money are being expended defending the indefensible. Victoria Police got it wrong. Command failed at several levels.
Both inquiries – Gobbo and Bourke Street – share the same outstanding vulnerability. They are both trying to find out what went on within the police, but both depend entirely on that same police command revealing their internal workings.
The senior police regularly hide their actions behind the magic cloak of “operational security”. Like Peter Dutton and “on-water matters” we are told we must accept that some details are too sensitive to be revealed.
The Gobbo commission has been frequently punctuated by police reluctance to hand over documents or meet deadlines. Time and time again, relevant material is produced after a witness has finished testifying, frustrating the commissioner and her team. These “coincidences” are not independently investigated, but the “discovery” of Simon Overland’s diaries the very day after he swore on oath that he did not keep diaries is incredible.
But where to from here? There is a risk that the royal commissioner – who is remarkably passive during the hearings, asking few questions of her own of major witnesses and frequently allowing barristers to exhaustively pursue lines of inquiry that are of little apparent relevance – will likely make recommendations that fall into the “bleeding obvious” category.
Similarly, the total absence of comment from the Legal Services Commission is astonishing. The Law Institute and Bar Council have managed to publicly say “lawyers ought not betray their clients” but the organisation charged with the regulation of lawyers has declined every request for comment.
Behind the scenes, the real action now is concentrating on who gets to be next chief commissioner. Graham Ashton, who has repeatedly refused to resign, retires mid-2020, having toughed out the greatest challenge any chief has faced since the Wainer inquiry in the early 1970s. As always, the internal politics of the police is intense. Rivals jockey for media exposure, seeking any opportunity to self-promote. Lectern-sharing time with the minister or the Premier attracts a premium.
Ironically, the bushfire crisis has elevated former top cop Andrew Crisp, whose exemplary performance as Emergency Management Commissioner surely now puts him in the box seat to return to Victoria Police as chief mid-year. His stint away from the force during this crisis will work in his favour, as well as a sceptical approach to internal issues. Exposure to the culture of other public sector agencies during the bushfire crisis will serve him well in seeking the top job, as well as introducing many more overdue changes to the running of our police if he gets it.
The decision is that of the premier and minister alone. Lisa Neville as Police Minister has been outstanding during the summer’s fire crisis, enhancing her authority within the cabinet when they seek her advice about our next top cop. Her role – as always – has been more about being Minister for the Police Association than being Minister for the Police Force.
Keeping the powerful union on side or at least neutral in state politics is the first rule of power in Victoria. And more than anything, the Police Association will argue for the job to go to a local, one of their own, instead of an outsider. So can we look forward to the charade of another global search for our next top cop, even though the obvious candidate has been standing next to the Premier every second day through this summer?
Jon Faine is a former presenter on ABC 774.