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Once Upon a Time in the North

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Mick Keelty and Campbell Newman (Images via afp.gov.au & couriermail.com.au)

Gun for hire, former Howard Government police boss Mick Keelty, has ridden into the wild north to hamstring Queensland Police on behalf of the Newman gang. Alex McKean reports.

It is a well-known trope in the Western genre. The disgraced former Sherriff from some far-off place who drifts into town and sets the place to rights. A slightly tarnished badge who allows himself, somewhat reluctantly, to become a gun for hire and drive the baddies out.

Aside from the reluctance, this trope could be used to accurately describe the post-Howard career of former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty. He has wandered the Australian political landscape, pressed into service by a variety of conservative governments to investigate and report on a variety of issues.

Abbott sent him west to look into the missing Senate votes debacle. As a consequence of his report – and with Clive Palmer barracking from the sidelines – Keelty took the scalp of an Australian Electoral Commissioner.

In January 2013, Keelty drifted back east to the wild frontier of Newman’s Queensland, where he was asked to scrutinise the Queensland Police Service (QPS) and then the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC, now the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC)). After an indecently short interval, Keelty was then appointed as a part-time Commissioner of the CMC — the body he had just investigated and reported on.

The Newman Government was spurred into action to implement recommendations from the report Keelty produced into the QPS, which was somewhat puzzlingly titled Sustaining the Unsustainable. The Public Safety Business Agency Bill 2014 (Qld) ('the Bill') was introduced into the Parliament on 10 March 2014 and passed into law on 6 May 2014.

The Public Safety Business Agency Act 2014 (Qld) (‘the Act’) creates a new portfolio, the Public Safety Business Agency (PSBA), whose CEO reports directly to the Minister for Police and who must comply with directions from the Minister.

The explanatory notes of the Bill state that the PSBA would

‘... hold all the infrastructure, fleet and information and communication technology assets and will manage human resourcing, financial management, legal, policy, media and strategic planning functions for the QPS.'

The Act deleted the ‘exhaustive list of functions’ of the Police Commissioner, formerly found in the Police Service Administration Act 1990 (Qld) and allow those responsibilities to be dictated in future by regulations, presumably promulgated by the Police Minister.

The explanatory notes say that

‘... allowing the Police Commissioner’s responsibilities to be prescribed by regulation rather than an Act of Parliament allows greater flexibility and efficiency in meeting the contemporary standards and community expectations of the responsibilities of the Police Commissioner.’

This development is of concern because it will remove from the Parliament the ability to determine and scrutinise the responsibilities of the Police Commissioner. Of more concern is the analysis of the relationship between the Police Minister and Police Commissioner by Keelty in his report.

The responsibilities of the Police Commissioner were set out in section 4.8 of the Police Service Administration and other Legislative Amendment Act 2008 (Qld). The Act now devolves those responsibilities to the CEO of the PSBA.

It is difficult to see what responsibilities the Commissioner will now exercise.

Responsibility for human resourcing, financial management, legal, policy, media and strategic planning functions for the QPS, have been removed from the Commissioner and are the raison d’etre of the new agency.

In his report, Keelty bemoans the fact that, over the period of several Governments in Queensland, there had been a disinclination for directions to be issued by Police Ministers to Police Commissioners.

Keelty characterised the Fitzgerald Report as something which was used by police to excuse inefficient practices. He recommended that ‘common sense prevails’ and a ‘broad direction’ be drafted which would allow that the ‘strategic direction of the Queensland Police Service could then align itself to the Government‘s priorities’[1].

One of the responsibilities formerly belonging to the Police Commissioner was to determine the organisational structure of the QPS. Documents obtained under RTI by the Courier Mail indicate friction between Premier Campbell Newman and Police Commissioner Ian Stewart on this point.

On 19 August 2013, the Premier wrote to the Police Minister, referring to the failure of the Police Commissioner to provide an ‘alternative structure’ for the QPS by the deadline imposed by the Premier. He announced the intention to instruct the implementation committee, in the absence of anything from the Commissioner, to implement a Cabinet decision made earlier that month.

It appears that the Commissioner did provide an alternative structure shortly after this letter.

Keelty reviewed that structure and did not mince his words in his response to the Police Minister, which was also sent to Jon Grayson, Director-General of Premier and Cabinet.

In Keelty’s opinion, the proposal would not address any of the concerns his review had raised nor resolve problems with failed interoperability, government transparency and ill-founded strategic investment decisions. He said the model had ‘no basis in fact’ and was another ‘example of wasting time and money’.

Generally, Keelty appears to have been unimpressed with the way his review was dealt with by the QPS.

He complained in his report that information was ‘drip-fed’ through to him and that a review instigated by the Commissioner at around the same time as his review made it difficult to establish what was happening in the Service.[2] Keelty rather snidely referred to becoming aware of reforms in the QPS through the media.

Keelty pays lip service to the requirement for independence in the ‘office of constable’, but then criticises the ‘separateness’ of the QPS — stating the need for ‘a strong alignment to government objectives’[3].

The Act allows ‘relevant PBSA employees’ to possess firearms and other weapons, and to possess dangerous drugs, in the course of their employment and training.

It is interesting to note, in light of accusations made by the Premier about conduct at polling stations at the Redcliffe by-election, that the Act doubles the fine for impersonating a fire officer from 50 to 100 penalty units.

All of these changes appear to add up to the Government being able to exert more direct control over the QPS. With the passage of the Act, the Police Commissioner appears to have received, in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby,

‘... approbation, elevation and castration, all in one stroke.'

The choice of Keelty to review the CMC and QPS appears odd in light of his track record of demonstrating independence from government.

In 2004, Keelty commented publicly linked terrorism attacks in Madrid to the support of the Spanish Government for the war in Iraq. It has been reported that Alexander Downer was furious and Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s then chief of staff, telephoned Keelty about the comments.

A few days later, Keelty released a statement saying his comments had been ‘taken out of context’ and retracted them. Keelty also presided over the Haneef affair.

In January 2008, Keelty called for a media blackout of terrorism cases. Presumably, this call was to avoid a repeat of the humiliating coverage of the unravelling of the Haneef affair.

Keelty has been described as a

‘... signed-up participant in the Howard Government’s national security hysteria, in which the most basic of rights were overridden in the name of wedge politics, Islamophobia and a power-grab by security and law enforcement agencies that has never been reversed.’

It is of concern that the Newman Government has engaged this gun for hire and appears to continue down the path of reining in the independence of those bodies, including the QPS and CCC, whose independence from government is central to protection of the populace from the excesses of power which triggered the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

It is of more concern that the Newman Government appears to be bent on a course involving rolling back of the measures introduced to ensure accountability and transparency in Queensland since the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

These concerns are heightened when the rollback relates to measures designed to ensure the Government cannot interfere with the Police Service or use it as a political tool.

It is perhaps not surprising that Keelty would not be overly troubled by such concerns. As long as he is a part-time Commissioner of the CCC – a role for which he is remunerated handsomely – it is difficult to see him riding off into the sunset.

[1] Sustaining the Unsustainable at p. 307

[2] ibid at p. 335-336

[3] ibid at p. 336

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