As any otherwise exemplary Victorian driver who has been pinged for driving at 52 kph in a 50 zone can attest, the attention to traffic detail of Victoria Police is nothing if not impressive. As one who, despite a near spotless driving record in other states of the Commonwealth across thirty-odd years, lost his driver’s licence in Victoria in 2012 as the result of twelve months of brutally forensic and effective policing of cumulative and rather minor infractions, I am beyond surprised at the sheer bungling incompetence of Victoria’s police.
Or is there something going on that is darker than mere incompetence? Institutional corruption, perhaps? After all, allegations of corruption have been levelled at Victoria Police since at least 2004 (ex-copper Simon Illingworth on Australian Story) and 2007 (former Supreme Court judge, the late Don Stewart, who, in then calling for a Royal Commission, suggested that the Victorian police force was “riddled with corruption”).
The Victoria Police command is currently very much in the poo, of course, with a drip feed of ghastly though entertaining revelations as the Lawyer X Royal Commission progresses. Well deserved it is, too. Equally well deserved is the not unexpected and oft’ used description of Victorian Police Command as “Ashton’s Circus”.
Of course, the police forces of the colonies have been in the poo pretty much since the time of the Rum Rebellion. The bent origins of Australian police are well known, and their colonial shenanigans well documented. Merely recalling names like Terry Lewis (Joh’s police mate) and Norman Allan and Fred Hanson (Bob Askin’s police mates) suggests that things haven’t improved much since the Macarthur and Governor Bligh hiding under the bed. A state of origin matchup between the corrupt police forces of NSW and Queensland could be quite a contest.
Victoria’s police force has been under the pump for over a decade, spanning the reigns of Christine “I needed to get my hair done while the state burned” Nixon and Australian Federal Police recruits Simon Overland and, now, Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton.
After the early departure of the well-regarded Ken Lay in 2014, then-deputy Lucinda Nolan made the extraordinary statement: “No one wants to take over after Ken, trust me.” Hardly a vote of confidence in the place. Then again, Victoria Police’s achievements have been little short of breathtaking, and not in a good way.
They hover uncomfortably between traffic fascism (as noted), bungling incompetence (take your pick), going missing in action (Christine Nixon and the 2009 deadly fires), cloying political correctness and virtue signalling (electric cars, African gangs), the politicised selective non-pursuit of credibly accused suspects of crime (Julia Gillard, Bruce Wilson, Bill Shorten), accusations that the place is leaking like a sieve (Stuart Bateson), the financial harassment of figures on the right (Dave Pellowe, Lauren Southern, Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos), rampant sexual harassment (unearthed by the Victorian Human Rights Commission), the truly egregious corruption of due legal process (Lawyer X), internet trolling (the sacked senior officer Brett Guerin) and rabid anti-Catholicism (Cardinal Pell).
That is quite a list.
VicPol is now facing the stern scrutiny of a Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants headed by the not-to-be-messed-with Margaret McMurdo AC. The royal commission, of course, merely follows on from some stinging attention from Victoria’s own anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) and from the High Court, which described Victorian police behaviour as “atrocious and reprehensible”. The High Court’s excoriation in late in 2018 was an absolute savaging.
The ongoing pursuit of Victoria Police has focused on the force’s most senior levels, too. As The Age has noted:
Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog is investigating alleged cover-ups, nepotism and internal information leaks involving high ranking police in a probe that is likely to rock force command, policing sources say.
The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission has quizzed police personnel over persistent allegations involving a small cabal of influential officers.
The group includes at least two officers who have played key roles in Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton’s wider leadership team.
The torch that needs to be shone on VicPol can be seen through the lens of four case studies.
Case Study One: The Getting of George Pell
The odious and, at the time of writing, successful campaign to get Cardinal George Pell, has been ably detailed by Quadrant, Keith Windschuttle in particular. The campaign has been the work of many players, at least some of whom have been shown to have been interacting, over a long time. They include participants in two Royal Commissions (seemingly obsessed with the Catholic Church and with Pell), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, its journalist Louise Milligan, the Fairfax (now Nine) press, Julia Gillard and her Emily’s List mate Vivian Waller, anti-Pell forces in Rome, the leading lights in the emerging sex abuse victim industry, their lawyers, long time gay Pell haters in the media like David Marr and last, but by no means least, and appallingly, the Victoria Police.
Consider the following – well-timed leaks, the gullible and counter-intuitive belief in the absolute credibility of the demonstrably weak claims of alleged victims (like, as Louise Milligan dubbed him, “The Kid”), the apparently close connections between police and journalists, the seemingly highly coordinated social media smear campaigns (previously outlined in these pages by Chris Friel), the bizarre fishing expeditions of Operations Sano and Tethering (“an operation looking for a crime”) that involved pleading for “victims” to come forward, and finally, the dogged pursuit of a case against Pell against the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Why were they so determined? The recent British case involving Carl Beech is instructive here. A now-convicted liar who simply made up the idea of a paedophile ring among high level British leading lights (like the late former Prime Minister Ted Heath) came to earn the absolute trust of the now very foolish looking Metropolitan Police, who were suckered completely while wishing to be heroic, anti sex abuse activists.
The following quote — now removed — comes from the LinkedIn site of Doug Smith, who headed up Operation Sano and served in the Victorian Police for 37 years:
I was genuinely privileged to meet with and form relationships with so many survivors of sexual abuse I feel deeply humbled to have witnessed their courage and tenacity through difficult and emotional times.
Smith had 19 years in the sex abuse squad. One gets absolutely his revulsion at what was done to genuine victims and at the sickening attempts to cover up the abuse. One only has to read the book length account of former copper Denis Ryan’s hunt for the paedophile priest John Day – Unholy Trinity – and the (ironic) protection he was given by other Victorian police to understand the commitment of police such as Doug Smith to bringing wrongdoers to justice. But such devotion might lead those involved to try on less than orthodox policing techniques in order to achieve what might end up being very rough justice. Police often form relationships with victims and families of victims. Every police procedural TV show depicts such relationships. But they can be dangerous. Smith’s statement is suggestive of the biases that might creep into policing, especially in the toxic Royal Commission-fed atmospherics of the early 2010s.
The police sure didn’t like Pell. The Age notes:
Meantime, Doug Smith … has told the ABC’s Four Corners program [in 2019] that he found the Catholic church “difficult” to deal with.
Sergeant Smith told the broadcaster that Pell co-operated with the investigation at all times, but that Australia’s most-senior churchman was arrogant.
“There’s a level of arrogance that some people get to where they’re at this position in standing in the community,” the policeman said.
“When you are seen to be someone with some level of importance, I think there is a level of arrogance that goes with that.
“And he’s not going to hide that from the police.”
Having an embittered, devious and bizarre boss like Premier Daniel Andrews probably doesn’t help, but right out of the horse’s mouth we can only conclude that many coppers would have been cheering at the Pell verdict.
Another cause for concern at VicPol’s malevolent role in pursuing Pell derives from the weakness of the case against him. Normally a case so weak – relying on the uncorroborated testimony of a single complainant – would simply not get past the Director of Public Prosecutions. As one former Victorian police officer involved in tracking down underage sex offenders has noted, many far stronger cases than Pell’s simply did not pass muster and were not pursued.
The role of Graham Ashton himself is interesting in the getting of Pell. As Greg Craven, writing in The Australian, pointed out:
This is where the Pell case has gone terribly wrong. … parts of the media — notably the ABC and former Fairfax journalists — have spent years attempting to ensure Pell is the most odious figure in Australia. They seemed to want him in the dock as an ogre, not a defendant.
Worse, elements of Victoria Police, including Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton, co-operated in this. Ashton’s repeated announcements of impending charges and references to “victims” rather than “alleged victims” were matched only by the coincidences in timing between police pronouncements and favoured media exclusives.
The result was that when the trial judge imposed a blanket media order against reporting the trials themselves, it was like a ban on reporting that Vladimir Putin is a rather nasty chap. The damage had already been done in a conscious, timely and thorough way.
The getting of Pell may go back to the emergence of poor relations between the Church in Melbourne and the Victorian Police over the Church’s response to sexual abuse of minors. Frank Brennan notes:
The close working relationship between the church and the police fell apart at the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into The Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations.
A key witness was Graham Ashton who was later to promoted to police commissioner.
Ashton complained about the Church protocol and tried to distance the Victoria Police from it. It’s sufficient to quote the parliamentary committee’s final report:
As far as the Committee is aware, Victoria Police made no complaint about the absence of reports and made no request for a review of the protocol for at least 12 years. It is clear that Victoria Police paid inadequate attention to the fundamental problems of the Melbourne Response arrangements until relatively recently in April 2012 and that, when they did become the subject of public attention, Victoria Police representatives endeavoured quite unfairly to distance the organisation from them.
The ABC’s PM program noted as well in 2012:
The Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton told a State Parliament inquiry the church’s lack of cooperation and its internal system for dealing with abuse claims is hindering police investigations and helping to hide the problem.
He says until the church starts reporting abuse allegations to police he doesn’t have any faith that it’s serious about tackling the problem.
It seems clear that VicPol and the Catholic Church were on a collision course for quite some time. Frank Brennan described the relationship between Pell and Ashton as “poisonous”. Arguments with the Church over its generally well regarded Melbourne Response, introduced by Pell in the 1990s, morphed seamlessly into a police witch hunt against Pell himself. The rest is history.
Brennan in 2016 described VicPol’s use of “media titillation” as part of a strategy for pursuing Church offenders and noted, in relation to leaking against Pell:
“Mr Ashton has still not told us where the leaks came from.”
The Age weighed in on the leaking strategy:
Cardinal Pell today wrote from Rome to the acting minister for police, Robin Scott, demanding an inquiry into the “maliciously timed” leak to the Herald-Sun, which reported Victoria Police’s Taskforce Sano was investigating direct allegations against him.
Cardinal Pell said the leak came from people with “close knowledge of the details and contents of the police investigation.”
“The article published by the Herald Sun leads to the conclusion that this information must have come from Victoria Police or another agency working with it”.
Cardinal Pell said the “purported” allegations had never been put to him by police and were “scandalous and utterly false.” He said he was deeply troubled to learn of the “false allegations” through the media and it was designed to undermine him ahead of his royal commission appearance next week. He said Victoria Police was “under scrutiny” themselves in the royal commission and the leak was “highly suspicious.”
“The leaking of details of police investigations undermines public confidence in the Victoria Police and Operation Sano. It also poses a substantial risk to the administration of justice”.
This, of course, was well and truly before VicPol really took the gloves off against Cardinal Pell and achieved “peak Tethering”.
The picture of Victoria Police emerging from this sorry episode is one of rampant leaking, of capture by the media, of being awestruck by UK-style trawling for “victims”, of gullibility in the face of dodgy claims by “victims” and the emerging me-too culture, blatant anti-Catholic activism, politicisation, progressing agendas, and the general incompetence of it all. Fitting all the jigsaw pieces of Team Get Pell still requires a deal of forensic work, work that has only really just begun, and it may well be that some of the players had no formal ties but rather merely shared a common desire to bring Pell down, and with him the Catholic Church. Whether, how and how much the Victorian police interacted with other nodes of the Team is also the subject of much potential research. But the leaks alone suggest that much malice was involved in the attempt to tether Pell.
Googling “pell” and “witch hunt” is quite productive. Frank “I am no fan of George Pell” Brennan is one such user of the term “witch hunt”. David Marr one can understand. Peter Fitzsimons? Yep. Jumped-up ABC journalists with books to sell, naturally. But an arm of the state? To even contemplate that an Australian police force might be accused of being actively part of a witch hunt is disturbing in the extreme.
But wait, there is much more to the recent story of VicPol …
Case study Two: Police Informant 3838, aka ‘Lawyer X’
The recent excellent Sky News documentary on the truly astonishing goings on related to the police informant 3838 (Nicola Gobbo) had to be seen to be believed. Of course, the Lawyer X matter is the subject of an ongoing Royal Commission. I am not sure what is worse – the diabolical corruption of justice involved in getting a defence lawyer to pass confidential information to police for use in trials, the tainting of numerous trials which may lead to the return of gangland drug criminals to the streets of Melbourne, the ongoing costly ($4.52m) coverups and obfuscations by a police force showing minimal regard for the law, or the force’s brazen resistance in the face of Commission requests for information.
The High Court’s tough words for the Victorian Police at the end of 2018 have been noted above.
Gangland figure Faruk Orman has already walked free as a result of a tainted trial. Many more will surely follow. As many as 600 criminals could have tainted convictions. As reported in The Australian:
Victoria’s Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton says there will be more appeals of gangland-era criminal convictions as a result of the Lawyer X Royal Commission, which he says is costing his organisation $1.5 million a month and compromising the force’s ability to fight crime.
Is this guy serious? Is he for real? Ashton is, with a straight face, blaming the Commission for causing VicPol to be unable to do their jobs. Perhaps the one hundred police assigned to the Commission might have been able to do their jobs now if senior personnel in the force hadn’t signed up a lawyer to pass them what information her clients had every reason and expectation to believe was confidential and privileged.
Royal Commissioner Margaret McMurdo has expressed frustration at the time police have taken to hand over documents to the royal commission and has threatened legal action as a consequence of the delays.
Commentator Michael Smith has called Ashton’s response a “defence of the indefensible”. It beggars belief that Ashton “stood by” those involved in possibly the most appalling case of unethical police behaviour, indeed corruption, in the history of the law. That is saying plenty. Previous commissioners Overland (Commissioner from 2009-2011) and Christine Nixon (Commissioner from 2001 to 2009) were under political pressure over gangland wars. So? Police are always under political pressure. Their senior officers get paid good money to withstand this pressure and do their jobs without fear or favour. Giving in to political pressure on crime figures, clean-up rates, and so on, is forever an issue but not an excuse for this level of corruption.
As Andrew Rule (paywalled) has noted:
The tactic of recruiting a lawyer seemed so preposterous that the police brains trust feared it was going to blow up in their faces — which is why the force spent so much time and money in court trying to keep the scandal suppressed.
And a scandal is has been – one of the biggest in Victoria’s history.
When did Ashton know? Chip le Grand states:
According to a lengthy statement tendered to the Commission by one of Ms Gobbo’s former police handlers, Mr Ashton learned of Ms Gobbo’s double life in April 2006 when he was the deputy director of the now disbanded police watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity.
Mr Ashton was told that Ms Gobbo was a police informant by then Assistant Commissioner Simon Overland, who had personally endorsed her recruitment as a human source seven months earlier.
According to the statement of Sandy White (a VicPol pseudonym), one of Ms Gobbo’s handlers who worked in the highly secretive Source Development Unit, Mr Overland told Mr Ashton to stop Ms Gobbo from being called to a coercive OPI hearing examining allegations of police corruption and potentially, her exposure as a registered informant.
At this time, Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius, the senior officer in charge of Victoria Police internal affairs, also knew that Ms Gobbo was an informant, Mr White says in his statement.
Mr Overland, Mr Ashton and Mr Cornelius were all members of the high powered Briars and Petra steering committees which later sought to use Ms Gobbo as a witness against allegedly corrupt police, a decision which effectively blew her cover as an informant and ended her legal career.
Mr Overland, Mr Ashton and Mr Cornelius rose through the ranks of the Australian Federal Police together before joining Victoria.
So, like the treatment of Cardinal Pell, the scandalous case of Lawyer X reveals another dark side to the Victoria Police. The use of Lawyer X as an informant endangered lives (not least Gobbo’s), stands to ruin myriad convictions, corrupted legal processes, involved senior police and wasted public resources.
Case Study Three: African Gangs and Identity Politics
Everyone in Australia, including even the dripping wet Malcolm Turnbull, knows that Melbourne has a problem with African (Sudanese) gangs. Perhaps only Tim Soutphommasane, writers for The Conversation, Al Jazeera and the ABC demur, retreating to such terms as “so-called” while calling out the alleged “racialising” of the problem.
Yet despite the blindingly obvious, now we are officially inhibited from putting the word “African” before “gangs”. Actually we cannot even say “gangs”. Rita Panahi informs us (paywalled):
After police arrested 14 members of a youth gang last month, in relation to armed carjackings and aggravated robberies, they were at pains to point out that they were not a gang but “a collective group of individuals who know each other”.
So, not only not African gangs – not even gangs!
Victoria Police’s standoff approach is simply heads in the sand. According to Rita:
Victoria Police command is using spin and semantics to avoid facing our gang problems. It’s time it became a force again.
No arrests, merely “containment”. Victorian Police, so tough on marginally speeding drivers and Catholic Cardinals, subscribe to the woke view of community relations and racial sensitivity. They have bought the politically correct line, and so in this case – in contrast to Pell’s – they do not automatically believe the victim(s).
This is the kind of pathetic, mealy mouthed attitude to racially based crime that has, for example, dogged places like Rotherham in England. Equally, the fear of giving offence sits very oddly with Victorian police machismo and the force’s “break all the rules to get a conviction” approach to policing in the other areas described above. Senior police have been seduced by the wokeness of the age in the same way as politicians and company executives. They are running scared.
It is ironic that, some years back, VicPol accused the Catholic Church of putting PR ahead of seeing offenders brought to justice.
Case Study Four: Politicised Policing
There are two elements to the selective pursuit of targets by the Victoria Police based on politics. First, there is giving a pass to senior Labor figures accused of crimes and, second, there is the financial pursuit of right-of-centre figures.
Former ALP leader Bill Shorten has been accused of (historical) rape and has, astonishingly, been largely able to escape public scrutiny over it. Equally astonishing has been the Victoria Police’s non-interest in pursuing the case, and their linking this non-interest to the fact that there was merely a single accuser and to the absence of corroborating evidence or witnesses. These are things that apparently did not bother them in relation to Pell.
Here is Michael Smith:
Shorten has been held to a much lower level of accountability than Craig McLachlan, Geoffrey Rush or Don Burke. And while the convicted prisoner Pell is in gaol on the sole evidence of his accuser, Kathy Sherriff’s strong and unwavering allegation of rape against Shorten has been intercepted and stopped in its tracks; the important question for the community is by whom and why.
The non-pursuit of Julia Gillard despite the suggestion of evidence linking her in the 1990s to union slush funds and bagman activities involving an old partner of hers, Bruce Wilson, and Ralph Blewitt is another example of VicPol’s selective approach to policing.
Bill Shorten? Nothing to see there. Get after those pesky Victorian drivers and cardinals.
Another side of the political policing of VicPol was recently seen sending the bill to international right wing speakers like Milo and Lauren Southern for providing security against leftist street protesters. Sadly for VicPol they won’t be able to charge these speakers for their services after legal advice.
What to make of all of this?
Graham Ashton was forced to take stress leave at the end of 2017. As the Herald Sun‘s Andrew Rule notes (paywalled):
In a force in which 1700 members suffer depression and more than 5000 are judged at risk of “self-medicating” with alcohol, it is no surprise — and no disgrace — that their boss feels the pressure of an extremely tough job.
This is the charitable view. Yes policing is tough, always and everywhere. Another view is that the Victorian police force has been a nest of corruption, bungling incompetence, sharp practice, pathetic and indeed dangerous political correctness, the selective pursuit of the guilty and the harassment of the innocent, leaking like a colander and wasting precious public resources, for almost as long as anyone can remember. They are simply all over the place. This lot would give the worst that New South Wales and Queensland have given us a real run for their money.
Every circus has its clown. Graham Leonard Ashton survives. For now.