If investigative journalists in Australia ever needed a patron Saint, Francis Xavier Costigan would probably be their man.
Frank Costigan’s Royal Commission reports were written in a racy style, laced with a sense of outrage against the bad guys and a strong social justice theme in sympathy for the victims of organised crime. He seemed much more like a journalist than a jurist. And he was a tabloid Royal Commissioner, in the most complimentary sense of the word.
Like journalists, he was prepared to take risks. Like journalists, he made mistakes. He made enemies in high places.
Unlike many of his colleagues, he believed passionately that one of the best weapons against organised crime was public exposure. And expose he did. Journalists loved him for it.
His Royal Commission leaked. Journalists liked that too. Costigan never leaked himself, but amongst his 100 staff he clearly had some like-minded investigators who feared that their work would be buried forever as the Hawke Government moved to close down the Commission under heavy pressure from political and business interests.
One of the reasons so much material leaked was that under his counsel assisting Doug Meagher, the Costigan Royal Commission pioneered the use of computer-assisted investigation to analyse close to three million pieces of paper gathered by the commission over four years. More than 5000 files were created as the commission data-matched records and documents in a mosaic that eventually provided the most complete and frightening picture of organised crime in Australian history.
But the existence of the records on computer files made them easier to transmit and spread and therefore leak in the days before sophisticated security programmes would be able to trace every keystroke from anyone who opened such a file.
The data matching and checking techniques — and the links they revealed in Australia’s Underbelly — inspired a group of investigative journalists in the know. In the 1980s, Australian journalists were shackled by some of the western world’s most difficult defamation laws and worked in a judicial system which took a much more literal view of sub judice than it does now. Costigan’s computer techniques and the data he collected provided some fresh new tools to navigate the difficult course of investigative journalism.
Frank Costigan was also partly responsible for the demise of Royal Commissions. His work gave sustenance to the political maxim that you should never appoint a Royal Commission unless you know the outcome first.
In the 15 years since Costigan’s final report in 1984, there have been only 13 federal Royal Commissions appointed, the lowest rate in Australia’s history apart from the wartime and immediate post-War period. In the 10 years BC (Before Costigan) there were 18 Royal Commissions.
The Costigan Royal Commission was the classic reverse neutron bomb. It wreaked havoc amongst unintended victims and left the original target relatively unscathed.
It began as a politically-inspired inquiry into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, which was causing criminal and industrial mayhem on the waterfront. Between 1970 and 1979 there were 15 murders involving union members and Costigan identified another 23 incidents where “death may have resulted, and in which death would appear to have been the intended result”.
The turning point in the Royal Commission is described in Big Shots by David Wilson and Lindsay Murdoch (Sun Books 1985). Johnny Johanson, a Painter and Docker better known for his physique and limited vocabulary than his business acumen, was found to be a director of an inactive company called Camper Timber and Trading Pty Ltd. The company was involved in an attempted offshore loan-raising of $4.5 million. Johanson and other Painters and Dockers turned out to be one of the thousands of dummy directors used for companies involved in Australia’s biggest tax avoidance rackets, the Bottom of the Harbor Scheme, which eventually exposed hundreds of silvertail businessmen, accountants and lawyers.
Costigan’s men also exposed banks for allowing Painters and Dockers and others to open hundreds of bank accounts in false names to hide illegal SP bookmaking and other money laundering schemes.
From a pursuit of blue collar thuggery, Costigan unraveled some of the great white collar rackets of our times. And he exposed how petty jealousies amongst Australia’s police forces and law enforcement agencies had hampered the fight against crime. In many cases, Costigan merely combined the knowledge of separate agencies and drew a picture that was always there to be drawn if Australian police had trusted each other.
Costigan never lived down the Goanna episode. Kerry Packer was never named by Costigan and the secret report’s musings and speculations were never officially made public or intended for public consumption. But the affair will be a permanent and convenient reminder for Governments to keep a brake on the unrestricted power to Royal Commissioners.
Yet it should not detract too much from Costigan’s achievements which led to the prosecution of more than 600 people, the exposure of the true nature of organised crime in Australia and how the people traditionally thought to be the criminal class are merely amongst the pawns in a much bigger game played by the true Mr Bigs.
Frank Costigan was also a very influential figure in ALP history in Victoria. He was one of the group of the so-called Participants who instigated the Whitlam intervention in the Victorian Branch in 1970, paving the way for the election of the Whitlam Government and later the Cain Government in Victoria.
He made enemies in the party then, and he infuriated some in the ALP with his work on the Royal Commission. After Costigan finished as Royal Commissioner on October 26, 1984, he spent several months resting oversea. In Paris. On the Left Bank.