The Australian Federal Police College, in Barton's Brisbane Avenue, is remembered fondly by those who watch the strange antics of Canberra's law-enforcers. It was originally a hostel for single public servants, with monastic cells and refectories. In the late 1970s, it was briefly a bar, an illegal casino and a brothel. Plain-clothes police, on and off duty, congregated there in hordes, particularly ACT detectives, from their boss, Inspector Colin Winchester, down.
There were also quite a few Commonwealth Police in mufti, spying on ACT police figures because they regarded their presence as an indicator of corruption. ACT Police contempt for the "plastics" probably reinforced the fun of staying. They may have thought differently when it became an issue at the inquest into Winchester's death.
Bob Hawke, then with the ACTU, and not a few federal politicians and lawyers were often seen at the tables at Pine Lodge, as were any number of reasonably well-known Sydney criminals and what passed for Canberra's blue-collar underworld. Opinions among other patrons about the promiscuous way in which cops consorted after hours with criminals and other ne'er-do-wells (including politicians) were divided. Some saw it as evidence of blatant disregard for the law and an indicator of bribe-taking, of the type then so common among NSW police. Others - including me, sometimes - saw it as evidence of a certain sophistication among the slightly smarter cops, of hanging around where the criminals and the crime was, and gathering intelligence about who was talking to whom and, sometimes, about what.
In due course, the ACT Police and the Commonwealth Police were involuntarily married to become the AFP in 1979. This union is yet to gel, even if there's hardly a survivor still in uniform. And Pine Lodge became another place of police consort, as the AFP's training academy. A few of Pine's now-promoted old regulars adjusted by transferring their attentions to their recruits. Beds and rooms that once served bank johnnies, teachers and public servants, and later prostitutes and their clients, became the abode of would-be police officers. And even, for two years from 2013, of prime minister Tony Abbott. The prime ministerial Lodge was being refurbished and the college could provide secure, if austere, accommodation for a VIP who enjoyed the company of uniforms. Besides, it was close to St Christopher's Cathedral and the occasional early mass - no longer a service of the cathedral, alas. The college also had its own gym. There was nothing Abbott enjoyed more than exercising in a sweaty room.
Soon after Andrew "A.J." Colvin became AFP commissioner in 2014, he seemed to realise the need to keep fit. He began attending the college gym regularly, no doubt by coincidence at exactly the same time Abbott was seen there. Perhaps he saw it as networking. A more sensible person might have seen the virtue of keeping distance from government, and being aloof from some politicians' constant efforts to harness supposedly independent police to their political causes. Colvin's predecessors didn't hobnob with prime ministers, even if they tried to get prime-ministerial bodyguards to pass on subliminal messages or, occasionally, to act as spies.
Colvin never seemed to learn this discretion. He was perhaps the most obliging commissioner in the AFP's history when it came to indulging the prime minister, in full partisan campaign mode, with visual backgrounds of an ever-increasing number of Australian flags, and grim-faced and rock-jawed police officers nodding sagely at everything Abbott said. Abbott, of course, had no shame about verballing the cops and even ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis, constantly seeking to have them, and flags, around as he promoted hysteria about terrorism, and the dangers of the chickenshit approaches advanced by the opposition or any other critics.
Sometimes, this seemed to work well for Colvin and the AFP. Every budget was likely to contain a welter of fresh announcements about new funds for the AFP, particularly to fight the terrorism fad of the moment. It wasn't so obvious from the budget papers - these days more or less pure propaganda - that the new money to open this office, take on some new function or to save Australia from this or that impending catastrophe was simply removed from another area of AFP operations. Budgets did not increase. Functions and responsibilities did; performance is increasingly ragged as the gap has become obvious. The appetite for harnessing the AFP to the party bandwagon has not diminished, but admiration for its efficiency and effectiveness has not increased. And Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton regards himself as a street-smart "old copper" who hasn't much time for people who lack his outlook on crime and punishment, or his lack of regard for cops with no blood underneath their fingernails.
Work against terrorism, computer and communications surveillance of almost anyone it liked (including pesky journalists), operations and intelligence-gathering about paedophilia, money-laundering, cyber-crime and high-tech crime became the new glamour areas. That added to major deployments abroad, as well as enthusiasm for showing off AFP expertise, including in identifying dead bodies. The AFP may have abandoned its aspiration to be an Australian FBI but it still sees itself as an elite crime and intelligence agency; one, by its own legend of itself (scoffed at by state police forces), of ever-increasing self-importance as crime, such as the drug trade, and the laundering of untaxed money and drug profits, has become more globalised and national, and out of the reach, or competence, of state police.
The AFP is a deeply politicised force, pathetically eager to please the government of the day, and always willing to say whatever the government wants.
Any glance at Colvin's CV seems to suggest he was an expert, by background, in almost all these fields. He had sat on, coordinated, or managed and memoed in umpteen AFP counter-terrorism areas. He was on committees about money-laundering and was in Bali coordinating the police response after the nightclub bombings. He worked on national drug cases and paedophilia, even if - in a manner somewhat similar to Dutton, who was another cop working in the same area at the time - his name doesn't appear on too many 1990s charge sheets or in many court reports.
He had not served long on the beat before he was selected for higher things and identified as a potential senior manager. Perhaps he had not personally faced many angry men. But he had sat at 100 desks organising resources, doing the back-up, arranging the public relations, ticking off internal-affairs exonerations and being on committees everywhere, including in ministers' offices. As a prime police bureaucrat, he was capable but not particularly dominating: his chief patron, Mick Keelty, who made him his chief of staff, was never one to promote people capable of putting him in the shade or with any tendency to disagree.
Even better was that Colvin was good at those boring management functions: budgets, meaningless mission statements and appropriate genuflections before sacred cows. Under his guidance, for example, the AFP came to be rated the joint highest-ranking public-sector employer, along with the Defence Department, in workplace inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people. It's not something to sneer at, but those who see the police frontline, like those who see the military frontline, wonder how much is real cultural change and how much is PR from a middle management of suits, whose numbers increase by the day.
Colvin could talk diversity, flowcharts and mission statements with the devil. He hired all the right people to attack sexual harassment inside the force and, if his service had a worrying level of work-based suicide, one could be sure that his organisation had a plan to do something about it, and that he was its champion.
He's a leader in the modern bureaucratic sense, and never frightened the horses, whether in his own force or in the public administration. He could talk the talk with the experts or the players, but made little public mark from anything surprising he ever said or did. His friends and champions insist he was a civilising influence holding at bay the barbarians - the old-fashioned punitive approach, to the law-'n-order of a Dutton, or the bossy attempts of a Mike Pezzullo to have everyone sing from the same hymn sheet. Assuming this, Colvin was not very successful.
He protested weakly and ineffectually as the AFP was subsumed into the Home Affairs Department, and failed to resist when Pezzullo began immediately to issue the sort of edicts about beards and tattoos that should have been made by the AFP commissioner, if at all.
Unlike Lewis, who complained, if belatedly, when ASIO was tricked into seeming to publicly endorse the fierce and, as it happened, politically convenient view that medivacs would re-open the boat-people floodgates, Colvin sat mum. The AFP had not much resisted Pezzullo's determination that the views of the AFP, ASIO and other "independent agencies" within the portfolio get diluted in committee, then hardened by the adoption of Pezzullo's deeply held convictions and given extra force by seeming to bear the authority of specialist bodies. After The Australian was shown a copy of ASIO's submission, an enraged Pezzullo, who plainly believed Dutton's office had leaked the submission, asked for an AFP investigation. Colvin did nothing with the request for a long time and then, after the election, dropped any idea of an inquiry, claiming, entirely unconvincingly, it would be pointless because there were no obvious suspects. At the same time, his officers were preparing raids on journalists whose disclosures had embarrassed the government.
The AFP is given to sending scores of heavily armed men and women on raids, usually of terrorists, sometimes of alleged fraudsters, some of whom later prove to be innocent. When it sent platoons of police to search the premises of the Australian Workers Union, pursuing a complaint the union "might" be planning to commit a non-criminal offence of destroying documents, cynics criticised Colvin's judgment of priorities. He proclaimed his utter independence of government in such matters, even after it was revealed the cops had called the minister to give his staff a "heads-up" on the planned raids, and a ministerial adviser then tipped off the media. Choreographing "surprise" police raids, as well as providing copious notes of the allegations that will be made, is standard AFP procedure. The triumphs of police detections - when large drug seizures occur, without any apparent impact on the illicit market - or big operations against fraudsters, often poison the well of justice by exciting prejudice against people charged with crime. Colvin could have stopped it but didn't, though perhaps it could be said in his favour that he never used the AFP media unit's enormous resources to create a cult of personality around himself, as some of his predecessors did.
The AFP has long been a deeply politicised force, pathetically eager to please the government of the day, and always seemingly willing to say, if sometimes cautiously, whatever the government wants. I have not known it, in all of its 40 years, to charge anyone with a crime if that had the potential to embarrass its political masters. It sometimes hides behind its supposed independence, or a selective concern for privacy, to stonewall questions about its failure to mount serious investigations (say, into the wheat-for-oil affair), or to pursue answers to questions if the minister chose to ignore them. The insistence of an acting commissioner that "no one" - least of all scum-bag journalists - is above the law does not apply to ministers.
On all such matters, the AFP usually gets a free pass from the opposition. After all, Labor's senior law-and-order folk, such as Mark Dreyfus, know from experience that the same people will be just as helpful with a timely and politically convenient "heads-up" and with interesting gossip from the charge rooms when it's Labor's turn to be in charge. Oppositions know there is no profit in attacking the cops - who can make bitter enemies - when they should be focusing on the other side: the folk whose every wish the AFP leadership seems so anxious to anticipate, preferably before they are asked.
The government exerts its control, and rewards and punishes via close supervision of the AFP budget. Sometimes, ministers forced their will - as Keelty could attest - by simply refusing to deal with paperwork until they got their way over, say, the promotion of a favoured cop. The threat to independence is greater these days, as Home Affairs tries to claim and develop its in-house knowledge and expertise in all matters involving crime or national conspiracy. This cuts back the space in which its "independent" agencies are allowed to have a mind - or access to ministers - of their own.
The AFP badly needs a new broom. It needs new ideas. It has become too settled in its ways. Close observers inside the security screen say it's nothing like as good or professional as it thinks it is. It also lacks a culture of accountability.
It's been led for nearly 20 years by the same good-old boys and girls who became a band of brothers and sisters under Keelty, a leader, like Pezzullo, who preferred yes-men and women. Almost all of its senior ranks, including all of the women with the potential to be commissioner, promise more of the same if they get the job. Perhaps they will have different, homespun philosophies about how crime will stop when judges send people to jail for longer periods, and about the light at the end of the tunnel in the war against drugs. The amazing and appalling thing about such folk - from Dutton down - is what it demonstrates about their contempt for evidence if it conflicts with their pre-determined opinions.
It will be a test of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's secretary, Martin Parkinson, whether the selection process will be at arm's-length from government. Last time, Keelty was one of the panel members who selected Colvin. Pezzullo will probably claim an interest in the panel's make-up and, if he is on it, will no doubt be completely detached.
Who knows? An outsider - male, female or intersex - with guts and imagination might actually serve the interests of the government as well as the public, if only by giving cred in a way that a compromised force can't. It's doubtful that anyone in the existing inner circle can deliver that. If such a person were on offer from within, having survived all the pressure to be bland, boring and inoffensive, it would have been obvious by now. There are characters of character to be found elsewhere.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org