Reform body enters limbo land

by Chris Griffith
Published 10 March 1996 in The Sunday Mail


my face


The Borbidge Government has sidelined its plan to review the Criminal Justice Commission.

Attorney-General Denver Beanland said the review was now on hold for three months, at least until after Sir Max Bingham's committee has completed its wide- ranging inquiry into the Police Service.

Mr Beanland, whose portfolio includes the CJC, said a CJC review on top of a police reviews would overlap and possibly conflict. "We don't want unnecessary inquiries," he said.

Instead the government would examine the recommendations of earlier CJC reviews conducted by the Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee and the Bingham report before even deciding whether a further review was necessary.

Mr Beanland's is a methodical approach, but one which leaves the CJC in limbo- land, an organisation uncertain of its future and of the new government's commitment to it.

It is not that Mr Borbidge, Mr Beanland, and Mr Cooper have refrained from stating their total commitment to the CJC, and to its prime role of investigating official misconduct in the police and public sector. They have on innumerable occasions.

It is what they have said and done additionally that has concerned those within the criminal justice system, observers, and Labor leader Peter Beattie.

Beattie, an undisputed supporter of the CJC, said the coalition when in opposition regularly raised the spectre of the CJC as a star chamber, an organisation with too much power, and a law unto itself.

Then there was the scandal of the previously-secret memorandum signed by Mr Borbidge, Mr Cooper, and Police Union secretary Gary Wilkinson just two weeks before the Mundingburra by-election.

Much has been made of its implications for the police, but the document also suggests a far narrower role for the CJC. Out the window would go CJC investigations into official misconduct and disciplinary matters involving police. Now it would investigate only criminal allegations.

On disciplinary matters, police could appeal to a "Board" whose composition looked extraordinary like the much-maligned Police Complaints Tribunal of the corrupt, by- gone days. The Police Commissioner, too, would be given total control of police stationed at the CJC.

With all this negotiated behind the CJC's back in January, it is no wonder the commission is nervous about its future.

During its first three years under Sir Max Bingham, the CJC was regarded as feisty and independent. The clashes between the Goss government and Sir Max somehow managed to reassure the community that the CJC was no political puppet, a view exemplified by its 1991 travel rorts report.

But in 1992, there was a massive changing of the guard at the helm of those charged with implementing Fitzgerald reform in Queensland.

The careers of previous reformist Police Commissioner Noel Newnham, his deputy David Blizzard, Superintendent Jill Bolen ( the Police Service's most senior female office), administrators Bruce Window, and Phil Griffin all came to sticky ends.

Cleared by an appeal following the Chesterman Inquiry, Newnham himself was the victim of a motion of no confidence organised by the Police Union -- a situation which makes a mockery of the belief that only now the Police Union is re-emerging as a force.

Bingham too was constantly in the government's sites. The government accused the CJC of organising a guerilla campaign against it, including carefully crafted leaks.

This first bunch of reformers was characterised by an independent interstate culture, but in retrospect they underestimated the capacity of the forces mounted against them.

In the 1992-1993 period, reform group A gave way to reform group B, and a new reformist culture. In came new commissioner Jim O'Sullivan, and new CJC head Rob O'Regan QC.

The rebellious police administrative group formerly run by Blizzard and Window too was replaced by a new administrative structure formulated by the PSMC and headed by Dick Warry, a trusted former adviser to Police Minister Paul Braddy.

Reform group B was a more home-grown bunch, proudly Queensland and obviously more aware of the wicked ways of the world in the sunshine state.

A better working relationship sprang up between the government and the new administrators of criminal justice.

For the CJC, however, the burr under the saddle became its parliamentary watchdog, the PCJC, under new chairman Mundingburra MLA Ken Davies.

Davies was far less supportive of the CJC's independence than his predecessor, Peter Beattie. Under Davies, the parliamentary committee launched public inquiries regarded by the CJC as blatant attacks.

Rightly or wrongly, the same period of better cooperation was characterised by a perception in parts of the community that the politically street-wise nature of the new guard of reformers had translated to political expediency.

In particular, there was a growing view that the CJC was more reticent to fearlessly investigate sensitive political issues that could rebound against the government of the day -- in particular against the might of the Goss government when it looked destined to rule for years.

This perception, in part, was fuelled by CJC reports on the Foxtail Palms affair, sacked police sergeant Lorelle Saunders, Daniel Yock, and on several whistleblower cases. The reports were branded as whitewashes.

So poor in some eyes was the CJC's track-record for thorough and fearless investigation that a federal Senate committee last year reinvestigated several CJC whistleblower cases.

It was a major indignity for the CJC, to be so openly criticised on the national stage.

at public hearings.

( The CJC, however, extracted some revenge on the same national stage when a CJC- report by Russell Hanson, QC, found that the Australian Federal Police had not thoroughly investigated material the Commission had gathered during Operation Wallah. )

Because of this recent history, the CJC faces a public less sympathetic to some of its activities at a time it needs all the support it can muster. That is if the Fitzgerald reform process is not to stall.

So what is its immediate future?

The coalition has said some CJC roles could return to the police service, for example its witness protection role, and its super-police force role investigating organised crime.

Its whistleblower protection division could be axed. Mr Beanland last month said the CJC's dual roles of voraciously pursuing public servants who leaked documents, while protecting them as whistleblowers were contradictory.

The CJC could assume new roles, for example the capacity to investigate alleged misconduct in the prison system.

But all relevant coalition frontbenchers have stressed there will be no easing of the CJC's role monitoring police and public sector corruption and official misconduct.

In the meantime, the CJC is soldering on investigating the new government's memorandum, including the accusation that the government induced the Police Union's support during the Mundingburra campaign by signing it

Ironically, six weeks ago the CJC investigated the previous government for exactly this offence. Davies alleged he had been offered money, a top public-service job and an all-expenses paid holiday not to stand in Mundingburra.

Mr Beanland, who initiated that complaint, later described the CJC's clearance of the previous government as a whitewash and has signalled a further inquiry.

It will be fascinating to see who, if anyone, in politics will be game to support inducement being an offence when all these investigations are completed.

The CJC will also be involved in some unfinished business. Will Premier Borbidge demand, as he did in opposition, that the CJC release the costs associated with looking after self-confessed bagman Jack Herbert?

And will a fresh inquiry into the smuggling of foxtail palms, or an inquiry into drugs, fauna, and flora smuggling be constituted given the Opposition's outrage at the CJC's report in 1994?

Then there are the whistleblowers.

The government has agreed to re-open the case of Kevin Lindeberg, who accused the Goss Cabinet of attempting to pervert the course of justice by unlawfully agreeing to destroy documents needed in a legal case.

And Office of State Revenue public servant Des O'Neill, who in 1994 received an official reprimand after telephoning Mr Borbidge's office, said he would be writing to the CJC to have his case re-opened.

( It is interesting to note that Jane Mcdonnell, the treasury official who recommended action against Mr O'Neill, was among the top public servants sacked last week by Mr Borbidge. She had become the Director-General of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General after leaving Treasury. )

Finally there is the PCJC -- the parliamentary watchdog responsible for monitoring the CJC.

To its shame, the Goss government last year departed from the Fitzgerald report's prescription when it axed the PCJC. That role is now one of several roles undertaken by another committee covering legal, constitutional, and administrative issues.

The coalition says it will resurrect the PCJC if the current arrangements to monitor the CJC prove inadequate.

It was not in the CJC's and the public's interests for the commission to be without both the PCJC and a chairman for some of 1995, notwithstanding acting CJC chairman Lou Wyvill's best efforts to keep the ship on course.

The problem for the CJC is that it will be several months before it knows which way the compass is pointing.