The Rush Report – a missed opportunity

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

Last year, with enormous pressure on former Chief Commission Simon Overland, Jack Rush QC was appointed to inquire into the command, management and functions of the senior structure of Victoria Police. Mr Overland resigned soon after Mr Rush’s inquiry commenced. But the Inquiry continued, and the final report is now available.

Since the report was commissioned, the Police enterprise bargaining negotiations have been successfully completed, to the delighted satisfaction of the Victorian Police Association and its members. Victorians have also had a chance to absorb an Office of Policy Integrity report which brought to attention extraordinary revelations concerning the behaviour of the Minister’s senior policing adviser.

Mr Rush notes that “the appointment of Deputy Commissioners by the Governor in Council creates confusion about where a Deputy Commissioner’s accountability lies” and he recommends that the Chief Commissioner make these appointments directly. He stops short of recommending any change to the provisions concerning the appointment and removal of the Chief Commissioner.

This is a missed opportunity.

One truism exists: policing and politics simply do not mix. This fusion was evident and a blight on Victoria in 2011.

To limit the influence of the Police Association in senior appointments, to remove any sense of partisanship by government, and to safeguard the operational independence of future chief commissioners, the appointment process for this vitally important position must be reformed.

Our current Chief Commissioner (and other candidates) were required to appear before a panel comprising very senior bureaucrats, a businesswoman and a former Commissioner of New Zealand Police. Previous appointments have involved similar high-level panels. Maintaining this status quo simply leaves the possibility of an inappropriate partisan appointment in the future. 

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 stipulates that the Governor in Council 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 process (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) is sufficient for the appointment to occur.

Or, in line with large multinational corporations, perhaps the Chief Commissioner (and other senior officers) do not need necessarily to be a serving career police officer – with the role filled by 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 for 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.

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. When considering any draft legislation, the Government would be well advised to develop a fresh, new approach to the appointment of our top cop, and to assail the insular nature of the police organisation that Jack Rush has alluded to.

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.