Thursday, June 12, 2008

Who will police the police?

The Australian Federal Police have far more power than any State police force, but are subject to far less scrutiny. The inevitable result is to create tremendous opportunities for corruption and the abuse of power. Really!?! Who'd have thought?

Last week, the NSW Crime Commission found itself in the unusual position of squirming in the public spotlight after its assistant director Mark Standen, a former AFP member, was charged with offences relating to the alleged help he gave an international drug ring trying to import chemicals for making “ice”.

Whether Mr Standen is guilty is now a matter for the courts. If his arrest prompts a wider investigation which ends up curtailing the Crime Commission’s powers, it will be long overdue. The CC exercises draconian powers in great secrecy, without the limited constraints that apply to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. Yet the CC has had about 100 investigators working on a terrorism reference on top of its original job of combating illicit drugs.

Former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr even announced that the then head of ASIO, Dennis Richardson, would join the CC’s board. Mr Carr hadn’t bothered to check with Mr Richardson, who refused. For the NSW Labor Government, the CC has the attraction of generating revenue from Proceeds of Crime laws which allow a person’s assets to be frozen before any charges are laid, then forfeited permanently despite an acquittal.

Unlike the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, the CC is not subject to oversight by a parliamentary committee or any other body. People hauled before the commission’s secret hearings can bring a lawyer but are forbidden by law from telling anyone what happened, no matter how outrageous. However, the Sydney Morning Herald reported two instances which show how it operates.

In one case, the CC froze the assets of NSW farmer Keith Gardiner after his former wife, whom he had divorced 17 years earlier, was convicted for growing 56 marijuana plants. In a reversal of the normal onus of proof, Mr Gardiner then had to demonstrate his innocence. Eventually he did, only to find the CC kept part of his money which it now alleged had been falsely obtained in a dispute over his parents’ estate — not something normally regarded as part of a brief on drugs, organised crime and terrorism.

In another case, Justice Harold Sperlin said the law required him to order a woman to forfeit her assets, including a half share in a $1.4 million house, after she had shoplifted five jumpers worth less than $500. Justice Sperlin recommended that the law be amended because what had had happened to the woman was “wrong”. But nothing has changed.

To its credit, the AFP arrested Mr Standen even though he is a former colleague of AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty. But this hardly removes the need for a well-resourced body to check on corruption and misconduct within the AFP’s own ranks. There is no reason to expect its members are any less susceptible to misconduct than other police forces in the world, especially as it is heavily involved in drug operations which are notorious for fostering corruption. The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity was established two years ago to scrutinise the Australian Crime Commission and the AFP. But its budget is pathetically inadequate.

Despite Labor’s promise in opposition to give “teeth to this tiger”, the Rudd Government gave it a meagre $2.8 million for 2008-09. This compares with the $20-$30 million, or more, available to similar State bodies. Until the ACLEI is properly funded, there is no way it can conduct the resource-hungry surveillance, telephone intercept and “sting” operations essential to containing corruption.

The AFP has also been given new powers, and many more staff, to gather security intelligence — a job previously the preserve of ASIO. But ASIO, unlike the AFP, is scrutinised by an Inspector-General, as well a special parliamentary oversight committee.


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