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Warning signs remain: AFP culture change is needed

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Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin will be stepping down from his role next month (Screenshot via YouTube)

A 2016 public apology for AFP culture demonstrated that it was not consistent with their values or community expectations. Since then it’s been slow progress despite many inquiries, writes Simone Anon.

IN 2016, unknown circumstances led the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to commission a report by Elizabeth Broderick and Co titled Cultural Change: Gender Diversity and Inclusion (or the Culture Change Report). This was a significant and concerning development as the AFP needs to provide safety and leadership for Australia. Integrity is an AFP core value ‘displayed through soundness of moral principle, honesty and sincerity’. Other values are excellence, commitment, accountability, fairness and trust.

The AFP is responsible for enforcement of Commonwealth laws, safeguarding Commonwealth interests, State offences with a Federal aspect and assisting with foreign law enforcement as requested. It is important to Australia’s national security. The AFP core values and how the officers treat people is fundamental to their ability to provide safety and leadership.

The AFP and Elizabeth Broderick and Co have protected the Cultural Change Report under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The publication can be viewed in electronic format on the AFP or Elizabeth Broderick and Co website. When the report was finalised, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin made a public apology for the bad behaviours and culture mentioned in the report and committed to change the AFP culture which he said was not consistent with AFP values or community expectations.

Despite the disappointing Culture Change Report in 2016, warning signs have continued to occur within the AFP which cannot be ignored. In July 2019, the fifth AFP officer suicide since early 2017 occurred, this time at a hotel in Canberra. The previous four suicides occurred at or nearby AFP offices in Australia. Two suicides occurred within a six-week period in 2018. There have been no public reports released about why these events occurred and who is responsible.

A gender discrimination court case in 2018 indicated that discrimination is still a cultural issue. It was alleged that two AFP officers in a same-sex relationship had been treated unfairly, including being blocked from career advancement because of a complaint to the Fair Work Commission in 2014. These tragic incidents would have had ongoing reverberating impacts throughout the organisation. Any other workplace incidents which have occurred have been kept secret.

Shortly after the Cultural Change Report was released in 2016, the newly-appointed Turnbull Government, which forced out the elected Abbott Government, initiated significant national security reform in Australia. One of the key reform initiatives was the establishment of a UK-style super-ministry called the Department of Home Affairs. It was considered a large and complex reform, and MP opinions about agreement with the reform were varied. Despite significant concerns raised about the loss of independence of ASIO and the AFP, the reform went ahead in December 2017.

In February 2018, approximately two years after the Cultural Change Report and approximately two months after the Home Affairs consolidation, the Phoenix Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health released a report about mental health at the AFP. The Saturday Paper reported on the outcomes in December 2018. It mentioned that almost a quarter of staff who voluntarily contributed to the report experienced moderate to high levels of psychological distress.

AFP officers told The Saturday Paper that the organisation was disunited and there were distinct cultural divisions (6,500 staff divided into 15 business areas) which were contentious and causing problems. It was also mentioned that the report stated that organisational practices are crucial to improving the culture at the AFP and programs which improve mental health would only help if underlying causes were addressed.

In March 2018, another AFP mental health review was conducted by the National Audit Office. This report concluded that the AFP did not have the appropriate frameworks in place to manage officer mental health and wellbeing and where services were in place, there was no evidence about effectiveness due to a lack of governance and risk management.

Despite these reports, the Home Affairs portfolio consolidation continued, potentially adding stress to officer roles and increasing leadership responsibility during the unsettled period. In 2018, the AFP was also involved with implementing contentious technology change and legislative reform. Australia then experienced further political instability in late 2018 when the elected Turnbull Government was forced out and replaced by the newly-appointed Morrison Government.

In March 2018, the Senate referred an inquiry into the role of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments in addressing the high rates of mental health conditions experienced by first responders, emergency service workers and volunteers to the Education and Employment References Committee for inquiry and report. A report was delivered in February 2019. The report made 14 recommendations which included Government support relating to data collection, training programs, research, oversight, national action plan, mental health services and additional working groups with specific mandates to improve mental health services for the staff members listed above.

Recently, three years after the Culture Change Report in July 2019, another relevant report raises diversity and inclusion issues within the Home Affairs Department portfolio. The Lowy Centre has released a report that confirms the Australian international relations sector, which includes the AFP, remains well behind in gender diversity compared to other organisations in Australia. Only two of 14 of the agency leaders included in the survey are women and 80 per cent of respondents agreed that a lack of transparency and accountability were impeding women’s progress in the sector.

The report states that women in the sector rarely have a role in policy-shaping activities. A woman has never been selected to lead any major foreign affairs related white paper, inquiry or independent review. In a Guardian news report, politicisation has also been raised as an issue by Police Union leaders. These leaders say the AFP must be separated from the Home Affairs Department due to a loss of independence and integrity. One specific example provided in reports is the questioning of the AFP by the Labor Party about potential political motivations for ending Government classified information leak investigations, but continuing those pertaining to journalists.  

The Home Affairs Department has not responded publicly to any of the concerns above. The current AFP Commissioner, Andrew Colvin, has announced he will not be renewing his five-year contract and will leave the organisation in September. An itnews.com report has indicated that he considers AFP technology-related change and new national security, technology legislation powers as his prominent achievement. However, within the Australian legal, technology and human rights communities these changes have been opposed and further review and refinement have been requested to address what they say is Government overreach and human rights violations.

The Home Affairs Department and the AFP have not responded publicly to these continuing concerns. The AFP is moving ahead with further technology reform to develop a database to store sensitive political and social information collected by the AFP. There has been no community debate about this proposal. The Home Affairs Department is moving forward with technology reform to consolidate the portfolio of agencies and departments onto one single communications platform. This is a major change, particularly for the independence of information. No further information has been provided.

The Senate recently requested a report from the Home Affairs Department, for a major strategic review which was undertaken this year and cost $5 million. The report has not been released by the Home Affairs Department and an announcement has been made that the report will not be released in the future.   

A new Commissioner has been appointed. Reece Kershaw, who is the current NT Police Commissioner, will need to retrace the organisation’s steps since the 2016 Cultural Change Report, consider enquiries and initiatives undertaken and understand how to navigate new reform needed. Issues about organisational independence and potential separation from the Home Affairs Department and contentious technology reform which has detrimental human rights implications and serious business sector impacts will also need to be addressed.

The welfare of the AFP officers must be a priority and leadership should be held accountable if further health incidents occur. Cultural change expertise and a focus on health, wellbeing and integrity will be needed to ensure the organisation is connected to the Australian community and to maintain an appropriate distance from the turmoil of politics. Above all, leadership must inspire the AFP workforce to rise above its entrenched culture and demonstrate AFP values, embrace new relationship and accountability frameworks and ensure that officers are not experiencing extreme suffering at work.  

Simone Anon is a management consultant, lecturer and writer. She specialises in strategy, finance, business and innovation. 

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