Are we there yet? Crime and corruption proofing the Sunshine State

Phil Dickie

Walkley Award winning journalist Phil Dickie played a key role exposing the corruption leading to the 1987-89 Fitzgerald Inquiry and the downfall of the Bjelke-Petersen regime. Thirty-five years later, he casts a gimlet eye over the Sunshine State and finds we have not reached the sweet spot when it comes to crime and corruption proofing Queensland.

It is a sad truth that usually only some sort of cataclysm gives a political jurisdiction the opportunity for wholesale and much needed reforms.

On my reckoning, Queensland had two such opportunities – the collapse of the squattocracy signalled by the election of Thomas Joseph Ryan’s Labor Government in 1915 and the response to the report into police and political corruption by Tony Fitzgerald QC in 1989.

Initially limited terms of reference allowed Fitzgerald to look at media-alleged police favouritism of a few brothel and illegal gambling entrepreneurs. Despite this, Fitzgerald and his inquiry went on to effectively demolish the near 20-year career of Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and 32 years of Country/National party government that had continued the freewheeling corruption of decades of previous Labor governments.

Fitzgerald notably rewrote the script for the conduct of Royal Commissions. Sir Joh narrowly avoided jail, but a few years later, a Royal Commission based on the Fitzgerald model did see a Western Australian Premier put behind bars.

From a justice and news sense, the focus on scalps makes perfect sense.  In this regard, despite setting new records for scalps, Fitzgerald’s report was disappointing to many, because questions of guilt or innocence were hived off to a special prosecutor, while pages upon pages were devoted to administrative reforms.  But even there, Fitzgerald did not so much lay down the law, as suggest processes that might lead to better law.  The road to policy nirvana lay, according to Fitzgerald, through accountable institutions, careful research and wide consultation.

Properly, Fitzgerald deferred to state parliament as the ultimate accountable institution. In the long run, it was parliament influenced by party political machinations and abused by executive government that frustrated many of the reforms.  A media largely lacking the depth to tackle issues of any complexity and far too easily played by vested interests didn’t help. Also, there just were not enough motivated and qualified people available to rebuild a broken police force, remake an electoral system, staff the accountable institutions and do the research and consultation. Queensland was that broken.

It’s complicated

Jumping from journalism to a senior advisory role at the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) was a revelation to me. There was plenty of scope to indulge the “gotcha” motivations of a former investigative journalist. What was new was exposure to the complexities of coming up with good policy proposals for vexed social issues using the tools of careful research and wide consultation.

Crime is a hot-button electoral issue subject to a consensus generally supportive of draconian law and more police with more powers – without any consciousness that therein lies a path towards a police state where most of the crime is committed by the state.  With the best of intentions, police can and frequently do “organise” crime by removing the less competent (or less ruthless) participants from the competition to provide illicit goods and services.

There is a lively classic titled The Honest Politician’s Guide to Crime Control published back in 1969 by two Australian criminologists, one of whom ended up as dean of the University of Chicago law school. It has never been out of print, but I suspect few politicians have ever read it and fewer would have the courage to turn the “more law and more police” paradigm on its head.  The bottom line is there are ways for societies to suffer less crime. The same goes for organised crime, where we would be best off putting aside the Hollywood mafia myths and looking at creative ways to disrupt the markets for illicit or undesirable goods and services.

One CJC initiative I organised was gathering representatives of all participants in the criminal justice system – police, prisoners, probation officers, judges and court officers, researchers, social workers, indigenous and other community members, crime victims, prosecutors, defence lawyers, civil libertarians and more – for a day of structured discussions on how Queensland was functioning on the crime and justice front.  It could have been the start of a continuing dialogue supportive of all manner of improvements, but didn’t go further than participants getting a record of the discussions.

Fast forward to the present. I sometimes get invitations to come back and do it all again. I’ve been requested to deliver up quotes or articles on how Queensland has slipped into a state of corruption worse than before Fitzgerald and I’ve declined, because that would be comparing apples with oranges.

In reality, Joh was a relic – corrupt in a style similar to Premiers Askin, Bolte, Playford and Court, but notable as being among the last of his kind. At the state and local government level, Australia now has impressive machinery for investigating “brown paper bag” or direct favour corruption.  With former Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government highlighting the necessity of such deterrents, the electorate responded appropriately and these deterrents are now in the process of being established at the federal level.

Grey corruption

Coming into greater focus is “grey corruption”, the diffuse exchange of generalised favours by a self-serving elite. Backscratching yes, but usually not in violation of any thresholds of criminality.  And exceedingly difficult to prove, even where it does slip into criminality.

A better designation might be “Game of Mates” corruption, to borrow from the title of an outstanding 2017 book by two economists with Queensland links, Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters.  (Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation has been updated and reissued as Rigged: How networks of powerful mates rip off everyday Australians).

Queensland recently endured a confusion of related allegations around an inquiry into, among other things, corruption in a council, an unsuccessful prosecution, the alleged seizure of a laptop from the ethics commissioner’s office by a senior public servant, and the resignations of both the Ethics Commissioner and the head of the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC).  Tony Fitzgerald QC was given a role inquiring into the CCC.

As the report says:

“While the form and function of the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) have changed over the past three decades, the organisation still has the central role in Queensland’s integrity landscape envisaged in the 1989 Fitzgerald Report and remains fundamental to combating major crime and corruption in the state.”

One recommendation of Fitzgerald’s 2022 report was tightening of rules around lobbyists.

I’m too far away to even begin to pass judgement on the events Fitzgerald inquired into in his second report.  But I will make the observation that the lobbying and development game is one where the benefits of public decisions – rezonings, development approvals and enabling infrastructure – are largely diverted into private pockets.  Many developers are in the business of permit shopping instead of building. The inherent risks of corruption are underlined by Queensland government measures which ban political donations from developers.

A better way

There has got to be a better way and in fact there is.  Some jurisdictions – the ACT for instance – reserve the benefits of public decisions for public purposes and consequently are relatively free of both development disasters and the ever-wafting smell of corruption.

All corruption costs. “Game of Mates” or grey corruption might be less violent and disreputable, but is more pervasive, accepted and invisible. Those who know about it, tend to want to join in rather than agitate against it.

Murray and Frijters say in addition to development rorts and the related virtual hand over of our mineral wealth and water, the Game of Mates is evident in tolerated tax avoidance, the cult of privatisation, diversion of traffic onto toll roads and support of cosy oligopolies and dubious rules in banking, superannuation, pharmaceuticals, education, and aged and childcare provision.  It can’t be escaped and halves the economic wellbeing of ordinary Australians.

Of course, we need to do something about it.

Sending in the wallopers is not the answer.  What is? Rejigging systems so benefits flow to the many, not the few. Keeping public resources in public hands. Rewarding whistle-blowers.  Being absolutely transparent.  Broadening political participation.  Which brings us back to the formula set out by Fitzgerald in 1989: accountable institutions, careful research and wide consultation.  And a modicum of political courage.

Some pattern recognition might help.  Long ago it was realised that the key questions in what used to be called political economics were “Where are we going?” and “Who gets what?”  We might want to return to an earlier ideal of Australia which emphasises a fair go for all and a general desire to build a better society, help our neighbours and be on the right side of history in a complicated world beset by looming climate cataclysms, disappearing biodiversity and increasing conflict.

“Where are we going?” and “Who gets what?” are never comfortable questions for the already comfortable. One current response seems to be to stoke up the culture wars as a distraction.

There’s another option.

The widely misunderstood Fitzgerald formula for Queensland was to put accountable institutions, careful research and wide consultation at the centre of the criminal justice process. At the time, the more perceptive noted this is a formula applicable to policy formulation generally.

With political courage, it’s still possible to fulfil that vision.


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  • Phil Dickie

    Phil Dickie has been honoured with the award of an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for services to journalism. He lives in Geneva.

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