A Conversation with an Australian Living Treasure (Part II)

Anti-corruption fighter John Hatton AO is a former politician, and a National Trust nominated Australian Living Treasure. He was an Independent member of the Legislative Assembly of the New South Wales Parliament from 1973 to 1995 and was instrumental in instigating the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption in New South Wales. When I stood as an Independent candidate at the 2011 NSW election I proudly accepted John’s unsolicited endorsement of my candidature.

John Hatton is an insightful critic of modern society and politics and still a committed social activist. Modern democracy, according to John, “consists of a series of political parties to which the citizenry are not invited”. I caught up with him recently on the NSW South Coast. I didn’t need to ask searching and probing questions: I merely pressed “record”. Here’s what he had to say.


What do you think drives the culture within our police force and how much control of the power to influence do governments really have over the police force?

To try and get inside the mind of a police person, and the power they exercise and how powerful they see themselves and how that affects citizens, has given me a lot of thought.

Bailey, in his book ‘Policing’ says, “Police do not detect crime, they do not solve crime, they do not prevent crime.  The public does it because without the public the police cannot do their job.  That’s where the evidence is.”

I start with that for the simple reason that if you establish an organisation which is not an integral part of understanding and entrusted by the community, then you have an ineffectual police service.  The military model doesn’t allow that sort of closeness, contact, understanding and reasonable discretion in the exercise of power.  That’s the problem.

In the military model, where people are taught to obey orders, where they’re put in a situation that to question authority is a career threatening thing, where the social interaction between members of the police force is one of camaraderie and protection of each other borne of a feeling that we are at war, in large measure, with society, and it’s society versus us rather than we are an integral part of society, working with society, to make society work better.

This is the basic problem with the police services around the world.  This is what leads to police officers feeling that they have to lie for each other because of this culture of needing to protect each other and working together.

That is based, in one way, on the fact in that in a society where violence is reasonably common, although not pervasive as the media would argue, you do need to have someone with you who you can rely on.  But that word “rely” has now come to be lie on your behalf, if necessary, cover up on your behalf, if necessary.

The nature of the police service is that they’ve got the obligation under law and they’ve got a wide discretion.  The exercise of that discretion opens the door to corruption.  But the exercise of that discretion should be seen as opening the doors to cooperation because if the teachings of the police are that you use that discretion for the benefit of society and to ensure that there’s a better understanding between the police and the general public in the public interest, and that that discretion allows you to take into account community policing and all of its aspects, then you’re behaving as a police officer who is part of society.

If, however, you use that discretion, as is often the case, as that “because I have this discretion I have power over you and I can do certain things and you can’t prevent me and can’t discover what I’m doing and in fact that gives me more clout within the community in terms of my profile within the community, in terms of my profile and within the force in terms of my effectiveness”, then that’s a failure of the model.  And that is one of the failures of the military model.

There’s a lot of aspects to this, the multiplicity of police regulations/legislation mean that a constable at the coalface may have five metres of regulations any one of which can be used to get at that police officer and to shed the responsibility of the person in charge of the precinct.

If the police officer in charge of the precinct is personally responsible for everything that happens in the precinct it’s like ministerial responsibility was supposed to work and you would get more effective policing.

If the person in charge of the precinct was also personally responsible for developing good, open, community friendly relationships in a cooperative community police model, and that was one of the criteria for them being recognised for further promotion, then you’d get a far better police service.

So the bottom line is the military model tends in the way that it works, despite the literature on community policing, in the opposite way to what is necessary to ensure that power is used responsibly, that it is shared with the community, that the community is part of the crime prevention and detection processes and that discretion is used for community purposes rather than personal purposes.

I don’t see that working under a military model.

Going back to the 1930s, police behaved often in a brutal manner, particularly in positions of power against the unemployed, at demonstrations where people were actually starving, people were feared, police would not hesitate to lock people up, use brutality: it has always been there.

In fact in recent times there’s been far more enlightenment in the police service as to the importance of community policing.  That has been complicated considerably by the criminalisation of drugs, the enormous amount of money that can be made through exploiting the morality, the perceived morality, of society, ie gambling, liquor, illegal cigarettes, drug trafficking, prostitution. It has highlighted the importance of community policing.  It’s complicated because the temptations are very great.  It’s complicated because the forces that police have to confront can be very intimidating: some people who will not hesitate to kill a police officer, for example.

The fact that the media plays up what are relatively isolated incidents develops the culture within the police service which adds to the problem of the military model: it’s them or us.

The shock jocks and the media portrayal, the hype, has to be reacted to by politicians.  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, to lock people up – which is a school for criminals to make them more effective – doesn’t solve the problem, doesn’t get to the causes.

Why is this so? Why are police so powerful at the political level?

We’ve got about the second or third highest number of police of any police force in the world per head of population in NSW. So you have the police officers, their families, relatives, all former police officers and their contacts.

You take on the police and they’re a formidable voting force.  That’s how it is perceived by politicians.

Then it’s what the police know about politicians or the cabinet, or how they could embarrass the government if the police are taken on with full force.

The police union is a very powerful political force as well as a social force.

I’m quite confident that there have been police commissioners in the past who’ve let it be surreptitiously known to government that they know certain things about cabinet ministers and members of political parties which were agreed not to be known.

The other powerful force they have in the exercise of force is on individual members of parliament. Say members of parliament know that the police, through their union, can be a very powerful force against them and they will feed the opposition to you information which will enable them to make an issue out of a non-issue (ie “police sources have told me”).

There’s an important element at local, state and national level which is the symbiotic relationship between the police and the press. This makes them very powerful.  There’s a police media branch whose sole job is media.  They get the evidence first, they can tailor the reporting of that evidence and in fact they get first bite of the cherry when anything happens. It comes down to “You look after us and I’ll give you a headline for the 6pm news.” It’s no coincidence that cameras happen to be there when the riot squad is bashing down a door and arresting a suspect. They are told to be there.  It’s good for the police and it’s good for the media.

They hold captive the instant reporters in television and radio in many instances.  They hold captive politicians in terms of the amount of influence they can have in the personal electorate of that politician.

They can hold captive a government because of their perceived electoral power in numbers, their knowledge and what may be a dirt file, known or unknown, on the political party and its members or parties in power and the ability to feed information to the Opposition.

And the ability to contain information because the police have more power against the Freedom of Information laws than a normal department does in that they can argue that somehow it’s going to affect their investigations or their ability to prevent a crime or prosecute.  Consequently they can selectively withhold evidence and selectively present the evidence.

The Director of Public Prosecutions is an area of control that the police resent because it is outside police control and in some instances seen as an enemy, as is the judiciary.

The other complexity is the fluidness of society.  Trying to keep track of people, domestic violence and alcohol abuse in the street is a major issue for the police. Their safety is at risk.  They’ve got to sort out impossible situations at times.

The police model does engender, together with perceptions fuelled by shock jocks, a reaction of parliamentarians that “If we don’t stick together and look after each other, no one else is going to” is completely ineffectual in the prevention of crime.

If the police officer is a known and respected member of the community, as an honest officer who knows when to put the boot in and when not to, the cooperation and respect that comes to that police officer will enable that officer to be an effective preventer of crime and the social glue for that community rather than a divisive force within that community.

Do you think that the AFP is becoming a paramilitary force and if so, what are the tell tale signs of that happening and what do you think of that development?

I think it is .  We’re in danger of that developing and there are a number of legitimate and questionable reasons for that.

Because of the international drug trade, because of the international immigration problems and the perceived threat to the populace which is engendered by political rhetoric in Australia, the police at the Federal level have received astonishing resources in terms of budget allocation but they’ve assumed an importance that is far beyond that which reflects their responsibilities because they’re able to say we’ve busted so many hundreds of millions of drugs.

It’s only when you get a retired Federal Police Commissioner who then turns around and says well it isn’t working, it’s never worked. But the current Police Commissioner will not say that because it’s one of the sources of power.

They are there to protect the Australian population from the threat of what are perceived to be a possibility of millions of people coming to Australia as illegal immigrants.  It’s in their interests to be seen to be in the front line, in that regard, and in fact, they’ve got to be in the front line in that regard, but nevertheless their role is vastly exaggerated.  Again, assisted by the political rhetoric because we all know the vast majority of illegal immigrants come by air or other means, not by leaky boats.

Their role in terms of customs in general also exaggerates their importance.  I don’t in any way want to give the impression that protecting your borders against contraband, illegal immigrants and of course the drug trade is not important, of course it is, but the allocation of resources and therefore the increasing power of the Australian Federal Police has been vastly out of proportion to their responsibilities.  The danger is that they will get to the stage – they’re coming to that stage now – where they are beyond reproach.  Beyond attack from the government of the day.  They seem to be an ally of the government of the day, they seem to be an ally of the opposition of the day.

Now whether you’re talking about domestic police at the NSW level or whether it’s at the Australian Federal level, this is a very dangerous path indeed because the role of parliament is to be that of a civil libertarian to protect the rights of the citizen against misuse of police power.  Where in fact the use of police powers is a political tool to boost the profile of the Opposition and the Government and that is a dangerous path towards police becoming an instrument of government.

If you’re not trained to handle provocation, if you’re not of sufficient strength and character to do your job in a lawful and proper way, and if your job is to lock up people who have broken the law and you’re prepared to break the law and expect the judiciary to uphold your right to break the law, when in fact your job is to lock up law breakers, you really have to wonder about the whole thing.

The central question is the inability of the Australian population to know what the values of a civil society are and what they should be and how to protect them, rather than being swept along by a tide of popularism, misinformation, shock jocks, distortion and exaggeration.

Until we get this substratum, which used to be there, particularly in English society, that “hey, this is not right, this is not fair, this is not in the interests of a civil society, this doesn’t protect my freedoms”.  The law must apply equally to everybody.  Police must have some mechanism of accountability:  all of those in positions of power, whether they be in the security forces or the immigration department.

Sir Richard Kirby, President of the Arbitration Court, said to me one day, “You know John, I never thought I’d see the day when a private company is responsible for a gaol which deprives someone of their liberty.”

There’s a failure of the people to look at the causes.

This article follows on from Part I, which you can find here.

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