Take the politics out of top cop appointment

Associate Professor David Baker and Dr Alistair Harkness

Associate Professor David Baker and Dr Alistair Harkness

By Dr Alistair Harkness and Associate Professor David Baker

Following the resignation of Chief Commissioner Simon Overland earlier this year, Premier Ted Baillieu suggested that Victoria Police needed a 'crime fighter’ to lead Victoria Police forward. Others called for a ’safe pair of hands’.

The announcement this week of Ken Lay’s ascension to the leadership of our police force delivers just that. 

A home-grown veteran and candidate with 37 working years experience within the Victoria Police culture, he will deliver the traditional crime fighting desired by the Baillieu Government and will avoid putting a foot wrong after what has been a tumultuous period in Victorian policing history that has tainted the Government’s law and order credentials. The Premier has applauded Lay’s "unpretentiousness", a somewhat different accolade from words used to describe the two previous reforming, anti-corruption Chief Commissioners.

Lay will receive a honeymoon period to put his stamp on the organisation. 

The Police enterprise bargaining negotiations have been completed, much to the delighted satisfaction of the Victorian Police Association and its members. The Government, and particularly Police Minister Peter Ryan, are keen to avoid any conflicts with the police organisation and the police union. 

The Labor opposition, which maintains the rage against Overland’s ’forced’ resignation, and which will continue to pursue the Police Minister in the wake of the Office of Police Integrity report, have welcomed the appointment of Mr Lay.

Media outlets, public commentators and the public in general will watch, wait and see how the new Chief performs before passing judgment.

On one very particular issue there is resounding, overwhelming consensus – policing and politics do not mix. Yet, in reality, this fusion has been a blight on Victoria in 2011.

Following the extraordinary revelations about his senior policing adviser, Peter Ryan has vowed that never again will a serving police officer take up a role in his office.

But to safeguard the operational independence of future Chief Commissioners and to avoid any sense whatsoever of partisanship, the appointment process for this vitally important position must also be reformed. 

It is pleasing to note that Mr Lay and other candidates were required to appear before a panel comprising very senior bureaucrats, a business woman and a former Commissioner of New Zealand Police. Previous appointments have involved similar high level panels.

However, maintaining the status quo simply leaves the possibility in the future of an inappropriate partisan appointment. 

In Victoria, Section 4 of the Police Regulation Act 1958 allows for the Governor in Council to appoint a Chief Commissioner of Police for a term of up to five years., and may ’suspend reduce discharge or dismiss any such Chief Commissioner’.

A recommendation is made to the Governor in Council by the Government of the day, and of the 20 Chief Commissioners previously appointed in Victoria, there has been no example of a recommendation not being accepted.  Nor has there been an example of a Chief Commissioner being stood down by the Governor, and so these powers have not been tested.

Ultimately the decision is made by Cabinet and a recommendation made to the Governor in Counsel.  Politicians have the final say.

So what alternatives might be possible to address this?

Here are some of varying desirability worthy of consideration:

Former Chief Commissioners Christine Nixon and Kel Glare have both suggested that an independent board with bipartisan representation is desirable.

Nixon argues that the opposition has a role to play in the selection process, in addition to a broad range of people from within the community. 

Glare also points to the depoliticised process in both New South Wales and Queensland whereby the Independent Commission against Corruption and the Crime and Misconduct Commission respectively conduct the appointment process and make a recommendation to the Governor.

A variation might be a joint sitting of parliament, akin to the process for filling a casual vacancy to a Senate seat, whereby a shortlisted candidate’s name is offered to a joint sitting, and a statutory majority (three-fifths of members assembled) being sufficient for the appointment to occur.

Or, in line with large multinational corporations, perhaps the Chief Commissioner does not need necessarily to be a serving career police officer – with the role filled with someone of high managerial and corporate ability such as a businessperson or retired judge – able to take advice on operational matters and make decisions above the fray. The quandary remains whether the police institutional head is a leader or a manager.

Alternatively, the Victorian Minister of Police could initiate the establishment of a three-person panel of eminently qualified persons, including perhaps a former Commissioner from another jurisdiction, a retired Supreme or High Court judge; and a well-credentialed business person or community leader. 

The panel would meet, take evidence and report within 12 months recommending a preferred model to the alternative appointment of Chief Commissioners in Victoria. 

A career policeman, Mr Lay is respected and calm: he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Victoria Police. However, there is no better time than now to review the process of appointing the top cop. 

Never again should there be any suggestion that a change of government would lead to a change of Chief Commissioner on account of differences of policing philosophy and direction. 

It’s time to really take the politics out of policing.

Dr Alistair Harkness and Associate Professor David Baker are senior lecturers in criminal justice in the School of Applied Media and Social Sciences, Gippsland Campus, Monash University.