There has been a certain feeling in the air of deja vu over the past fortnight in Queensland. The jailing of a former Minister, allegations that government was far too close to business, a government sinking rapidly in the polls while making “tough decisions” and, the piece de resistance, the exposure of systemic misconduct in the elite Armed Robbery Squad of the Queensland Police.
The timing of this sequence of supposedly unlikely events was interesting. Much is being made of the 20th anniversary of the release of the Fitzgerald Report. The date falls this Thursday, and Tony Fitzgerald QC himself will be commemorating the occasion with a public lecture at Griffith University.
So is something again rotten in the state of Queensland?
Lurid stories of convicted criminals wining, dining and bonking on dodgy day release jaunts supposedly to gather intelligence for the coppers dominated local press coverage. This a week after revelations of the jailed Gordon Nuttall’s bizarre plans to make himself premier — shades of Russ Hinze perhaps.
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The reality, though, is more prosaic.
Premier Anna Bligh claimed that Nuttall’s sentencing and the CMC report into police misconduct were proof that the system was working. A new Queensland would shed light on the malfeasance of a few. A number of voices were raised to accuse Bligh of dangerous complacency.
There’s merit in that claim.
In truth, as veteran civil libertarian lawyer Terry O’Gorman argued, echoed by a chorus of retired judges, the impetus behind the anti-corruption agenda had begun to dissipate long ago. Landmarks were the amalgamation of the Crime Commission and the CJC into the CMC, and the practice of outsourcing inquiries into misconduct back to the departments concerned. The CMC conducts few investigations, and a huge majority of complaints against police are referred back to the QPS’ Ethical Standards Command. The watchers are watching themselves.
The CJC, and it successor, the CMC, have never been popular with pollies. Signs that the Fitzgerald agenda was being watered down go back to the Goss era. The cavalier practice of using the corruption watchdog as a pawn in the political chess game hasn’t helped matters. Nor has, some would suggest, the secrecy surrounding the CMC itself.
Openness and transparency are key to an ethical political — and police — culture. The Bligh government has taken some steps in this direction, but much could still be done. Fitzgerald pointed to the faults of a supine media in his report. In the two decades since, Brisbane’s print landscape has narrowed to one paper, the Courier-Mail, whose tabloidisation is mirrored by the current affairs coverage on ABC Local Radio. The state based 7.30 Report has long gone, and there’s no new Quentin Dempster to put the pollies and coppers under the microscope. Brisbane media over the last fortnight has concentrated on the sensational aspects of the scandalous revelations at the expense of hard-headed analysis and investigative reporting.
That probably won’t change.
So it’s even more important that Bligh and her government ditch the soundbites which appear to come naturally to a government on the ropes and attend to the culture of complacency that has grown up. We don’t need another Fitzgerald Inquiry — things aren’t that bad. But we do need some serious thought and analysis about opening up the Queensland political and police cultures, and about reform of the CMC itself.