The politics of 'corruption'

June 21, 1995

The politics of 'corruption'

By Tim Anderson

Images of brothel owners and small time drug-dealers paying off corrupt police have created excitement at the NSW police royal commission. Some commentators have rather breathlessly suggested that, by exposing such pockets of bribery , Justice James Wood's inquiry is on the verge of a momentous breakthrough.

However, bribery amongst such colourful characters is old, recurring and familiar territory in Australian history. It is also a very limited vision of what constitutes "corruption". In 1882 the royal commission into the "Kelly outbreak" produced a supplementary report which noted that certain Victorian police had been blackmailing sly grog shops, taking bribes from brothel owners and being "the intimate associates of persons of ill repute, to the scandal and demoralisation of the entire force".

Such activities might be called entrepreneurial or common corruption, to emphasise their essentially commercial and individualistic nature. This is what we are seeing in the current royal commission's Kings Cross hearings. If exposed, police hierarchies and governments have few problems in condemning these practices, and expelling those involved. This is the case even when such corruption is exposed at senior levels.

Attempts to tackle other serious abuses of police power have been more strenuously resisted. Significantly, the Kelly outbreak royal commission did not investigate Ned Kelly's complaints that many of his friends had been "lagged innocent" (framed) by the Victorian Police. A century later a Victorian inquiry ventured into this territory, but retreated with a bloody nose.

Multiple and routine criminal acts committed by Victorian Police were heavily criticised at the 1976 Beach inquiry. Beach recommended strengthening suspects' rights in police interrogations and identification parades, as well as calling for an independent complaints procedure. These followed his adverse findings against 55 police for crimes including: conspiring to give false evidence, assault, harassment and intimidation, perjury and fabrication of evidence, failing to investigate complaints, suppression of evidence and unlawful arrest. These activities might be called criminal process corruption, and are significant in that they typically involve police working together to lie to the courts and cover up serious police criminality.

In October 1976, two-thirds of the Victorian Police Force made several demands of the state government and initiated a work-to-rule campaign. None of the 55 police were successfully prosecuted. Further, the state government instituted an inquiry which overturned all of Beach's procedural recommendations.

When Ian Temby was carrying out ICAC's Milloo Inquiry, into "the relationship between police and criminals", I met a well-known criminal lawyer and we spoke of a senior serving police officer. He had shot innocent people, verballed them and loaded them up with drugs, I said. "Oh yes, they all do that; but he's not a quid man, is he?", the lawyer replied.

Temby looked at the ways in which police had "fixed" court cases, but only where police had been paid to prevent a successful prosecution. When community groups and academics asked Temby also to investigate public police admissions over the fixing of court cases through fabricated police evidence, he declined.

Corruption is essentially a liberal concept, in that it portrays police misconduct, or antisocial use of power, as a departure from some perceived ideal or imagined standard. The radical view would be that police serve powerful interests and, so long as they are discreet, a blind eye will be turned to both their enjoying some of the privileges of their delegated power and their "bending the rules" so as to better carry out their routine activities.

Justice Wood's royal commission has now signalled that it will investigate systematic police fabrication: a practice veteran journalist Evan Whitton has called "noble cause corruption". This term reflects the good motives police attach to fabrication and criminal collusion — that framing "villains" is a "noble" activity — but also underlines the difficulty of dealing with the problem. Is a conservative judge capable of attacking the well-motivated activities of a powerful institution?

Will the royal commission widen public perceptions of "corruption"? Will it look beyond the bribes to include other serious and criminal abuses of police power? As always, the suggested solutions will depend on how the questions are framed.

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