Essay

Enduring change

Detoxifying Queensland's political system

PUBLIC INQUIRIES AND their subsequent reports suffer chequered histories in Australia.

Some disappear with nary a trace, while others go on to effect real and lasting change. Why some inquiries succeed and others fail largely depends on the political context and public mood at an inquiry’s calling, the breadth of that inquiry’s terms of reference, the comprehensiveness of its recommendations and the political will of governments to act on those recommendations. There’s little doubt, for example, that Australians today hope the recommendations of the Hayne Royal Commission into the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, released in February this year, will not just curtail sharp practice, but force financial institutions to treat clients as people first and customers second.

This July marked exactly thirty years since one of Australia’s most far-reaching reports was handed down. Officially titled the Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct, the Fitzgerald report brought lasting, monumental change to Queensland public life. That 402-page document was, of course, drawn from an inquiry chaired by Tony Fitzgerald QC and established in May 1987 to investigate explosive allegations of police corruption made during an ABC Four Corners episode aired earlier that month.

Even before the inquiry’s submission, a newly installed Queensland premier had committed his government to reform and, within just a few short years, a state notorious for its dark and dusty corners of authoritarian corruption had opened itself to the antiseptic sunlight of transparency. That’s why, in the thirty years since its release, the Fitzgerald report has generated countless news media mentions detailing how a trail of crooked money was allowed to grow beneath the surface of an ostensibly virtuous Queensland.

Those three decades have also seen a plethora of scholarly journal articles and books – usually written by law, criminology and political science academics – measuring the successes and shortcomings of Fitzgerald’s original report. In assessing where successive Queensland governments of both political stripes have attempted to skirt Fitzgerald’s reforms, scholarly analysis has divided blame for any backsliding between the political pragmatism of a public relations state on the one hand, and gaps in Fitzgerald’s own initial recommendations on the other.

Perhaps most notable are the very occasional public statements made by the deeply private and now-retired Fitzgerald who, after almost twenty years’ silence, has since scolded both Queensland’s major parties for what he sees as a betrayal of the Fitzgerald spirit. In 2009, Fitzgerald lambasted former Labor Premier Peter Beattie – who happily accepted the ‘media tart’ label – for an alleged predilection to ‘obfuscate, spin, evade [and] deny’.

But Fitzgerald levelled even more caustic criticism at Liberal National Party (LNP) Premier Campbell Newman. Rebuking Newman in 2014 for the contentious appointment of Tim Carmody as Supreme Court Chief Justice, for potentially weakening the then Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), for substantially raising the threshold on political donation declaration laws and for sacking the entire Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (the only committee without an LNP majority), Fitzgerald said the Newman government had ‘flaunted its disdain for democracy and good governance’.

There’s little doubt a huge proportion of Queensland voters shared Fitzgerald’s view when they dispatched the Newman government in 2015 after a single term despite the largest parliamentary majority in Australian history. A ReachTEL poll in May 2014, for example, found just 15.1 per cent of Queenslanders supported the Newman government’s changes to the CMC – including cabinet’s ability to ‘handpick’ the commission’s chair without bipartisan support, and narrowing the definition of ‘official misconduct’ – with 46.2 per cent opposing, 24.7 per cent undecided and 13.3 per cent with no opinion. That same poll found just 22 per cent of Queenslanders supported the Newman government’s raising of political donation declaration thresholds to $12,800 (up from $1,500), with 59.9 per cent opposed and 18.1 per cent undecided.

By June, another ReachTEL poll found just 16.7 per cent of Queens-landers supported the manner in which the Newman government selected Chief Justice Carmody, with 40.4 per cent opposed and 42.7 per cent undecided. A subsequent ReachTEL poll in August 2014 found just 12.1 per cent of Queenslanders believed Carmody’s appointment was a ‘positive change’ for the Queensland judicial system, with 36.4 per cent citing it as a ‘negative change’ and 51.4 per cent holding no opinion.

In sum, these data strongly suggest significant numbers of voters believed the Newman government breached Fitzgerald’s spirit of transparency and accountability. We can therefore only conclude that everyday Queenslanders still regard the institutions established or reformed by Fitzgerald’s original recommendations – including a robustly independent judiciary, electoral commission, criminal justice commission and parliamentary committee system – not as lifeless, arcane or irrelevant curiosities but as organic elements of a body politic constrained by a unicameral parliament. In short, Queenslanders now intuitively know that even modest partisan tinkering with key checks and balances could see Queensland slide back into a pit of corrupt authoritarianism.

How the Fitzgerald Inquiry and its subsequent report effected such sweeping change in what has been described as Australia’s most conservative state – and why most Queenslanders still regard the Fitzgerald report as a document as relevant today as it was thirty years ago – is therefore of enormous scholarly and popular interest. This article offers some explanations for this phenomenon.

 

THE ORIGINS OF Queensland’s long operation outside Westminster conventions of accountability are many and varied. It’s likely, for example, that Queensland’s predilection towards authoritarianism has its roots in the colony’s birth as a penal settlement in 1824. In a bid to control Moreton Bay’s worst recidivist criminals, commandants quickly fell into the pragmatism of stern authority and cruel punishment. Because Queensland was also the only colony to enjoy full bicameral responsible government at the moment of its separation from New South Wales in 1859, an immature unreadiness for Westminster responsibilities saw authority necessarily coalesce around a powerful governor and colonial secretary. Add the fact the impoverished colony demanded rapid development – the clearing of land and the building of roads, rail and dams – and it’s easy to see how a pragmatic materialism quickly overtook any pretensions to liberal ideals of accountability or consensus politics.

The Theodore Labor government’s abolition of the Legislative Council in 1922 therefore merely deepened an already well-ingrained authoritarian culture. Critically, few among Queensland’s largely under-educated and regionally based agrarian workforce protested its abolition, with many undoubtedly pleased by the emasculation of an elitist political class. Governments for much of the twentieth century were thereafter re-elected, for decades on end, with the support of a poorly informed electorate, a too-compliant news media and, after 1949, a cruel zonal electoral system benefiting Labor (at the expense of the country and Liberal parties) and, after 1957, the Country (National) Party (at the expense of the Labor and Liberal parties). All governments, insulated from electoral rebuke, could then rely on a parochial political culture that turned an expediently blind eye when accountability corners were cut.

Rumours of longstanding police and government corruption had been rife in Queensland for decades. Tales of how some police took bribes from illegal brothels and casinos, and how some politicians were ‘on the take’ throughout public tender processes, were part of Queensland folklore. But various investigations, most famously the relatively short-lived National Hotel Inquiry of 1963, found no evidence. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, a brazen vice industry flourishing in broad daylight and without police prosecution in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley confirmed the suspicions of many, despite repeated government denials. Who can forget Courier-Mail cartoonist Alan Moir’s cutting depiction of ‘Minister for Everything’ Russ Hinze – perpetually denying the existence of Brisbane vice – darkly bespectacled and tapping a white cane outside a well-lit casino?

One key question therefore remains: why did so many Queenslanders tolerate police and political corruption for so long? It’s a critical question: understanding how Queenslanders thought about corruption before the Fitzgerald watershed aids our understanding of how they thought about it after. The answer is as simple as it is disturbing: many Queenslanders, via a compliant news media, remained ignorant of corruption; many of those who suspected simply didn’t mind. ‘Who cares if a few ministers are shady? At least Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] keeps the lights on’ was a popular refrain.

The fact Bjelke-Petersen was enormously popular among a significant minority – but never a majority – of Queenslanders is evidenced in the results of the Nationals’ most successful election, in 1986. Having dumped his Liberal coalition partners in 1983 because they had the temerity to demand a public accounts committee (a standard feature of all Westminster parliaments), Joh thereafter ruled the state as though it was a banana republic. Following populist attacks on Bob Hawke’s ‘socialist’ government in Canberra – ‘There’s never been a greater need for Joh and the Nationals’, 1986 state election advertisements warned – and the crushing of the Electrical Trades Union via yet another state of emergency during the 1985 power strikes, a large minority of Queenslanders felt Bjelke-Petersen, regardless of the rumours, would at least stand up to ‘southerners’.

Even warnings from National Party Director Sir Roderick Proctor late in the 1986 election campaign that Bjelke-Petersen’s government was riddled with cronyism had little effect: the Nationals were returned for a second term in their own right with forty-nine of the Legislative Assembly’s eighty-nine seats, and with a primary vote a shade under 40 per cent. Of course, the notorious zonal electoral system – a malapportionment often wrongly described as a gerrymander – was a powerful weapon in the government’s arsenal. Where the Nationals’ 39.64 per cent vote yielded 55 per cent of the lower house’s seats, Labor’s 41.35 per cent vote produced just 34 per cent of its representation.

The mystique of Bjelke-Petersen, long buttressed by a rigged voting system, made the Nationals appear impregnable. Moreover, Bjelke-Petersen appeared to believe his own mythology when, in early 1987 and against the advice of master strategist and National Party President Robert Sparkes, Joh sought to enter national politics, dismantle the federal coalition and install himself as prime minister of an Australia closer to Chile than Westminster.

But the fact Bjelke-Petersen’s federal folly found few supporters in Queensland, and even fewer among coalitionists in southern states, broke the spell. It also created fertile ground for new accusations of corruption to take root. Some of those seeds were planted in late 1986 and early 1987 when Courier-Mail journalist Phil Dickie, with the blessing of the paper’s then
Editor Greg Chamberlin and Chief of Staff Bob Gordon, sought out evidence of police protection of vice in the Fortitude Valley. Years later, Chamberlin would be awarded the Clarion Award for Outstanding Contribution to Journalism for ‘build[ing] the resilient culture that has seen Queenslanders better served than voters in most other states by a vigilant media’.

It was an award richly deserved – one matched when the ABC’s Chris Masters won the 2001 Centenary Medal for ‘services to Australian society in journalism’. Masters, of course, picked up where the Courier-Mail left off when he compiled arguably the most powerful piece of investigative journalism in Australian history: Four Corners’ ‘The Moonlight State’, which aired on 11 May 1987. But few in Queensland could have been genuinely surprised when the report by Masters aired. As above, the whispers of corruption – what academics Colleen Lewis, Janet Ransley and Ross Homel call ‘open secrets’ – had existed for years. And while many were heartened that old allegations were receiving a national audience, just as many were pessimistic. After all, this was Queensland. Nothing changed here without the ruling party’s permission.

But the Fitzgerald Inquiry and its report did change things. Not only did a ramshackle thirty-two-year-old government collapse, but so too did those elements of a political culture that cultivated systemic corruption.

 

THE FIRST REASON Fitzgerald’s report has long maintained its currency lies in the comprehensiveness of the inquiry it spawned, and the trauma of the shocking evidence it revealed. Initially expected to run for six weeks to investigate claims of police corruption made in ‘The Moonlight State’, the Fitzgerald Inquiry saw its terms of reference twice expanded before running for two full years between 1987 and 1989. The effort was immense: more than 212,000 pages of evidence were recorded from more than 300 witnesses during 238 sitting days. So startling were the revelations of corruption among senior police and cabinet members – and so convulsive were its effects on Queenslanders everywhere – the Fitzgerald Inquiry and its report have since divided the state’s history as profoundly as the Berlin Wall once divided European politics. Before the late 1980s, governance in the Sunshine State stumbled along in a dark and authoritarian haze. Blind to the light of public accountability and deaf to the criticisms of dissenters, successive Queensland governments championed ‘law and order’ and ‘state development’ as they ran roughshod over Westminster conventions with the support of a large minority of voters.

But the Fitzgerald Inquiry changed all that. Evidence of police corruption revealed not mere isolated pockets of wrongdoing – the proverbial ‘few bad apples’ – but instead a cleverly designed and meticulously administered system of corruption involving the most senior officers up to and including the police commissioner. Colloquially known as ‘The Joke’, this system of organising corrupt payments from illegal brothel and casino owners ensured corrupt junior officers, notably in the notorious Licensing Branch, knew of only one or two other corrupt officers, thereby insulating senior organisers should corruption be unveiled. The inquiry’s evidence from self-confessed ‘bagman’ Jack Herbert – who testified he had personally collected more than $3 million in protection money – confirmed police corruption had existed in Queensland at least since the 1950s under Commissioner Frank Bischof.

More disturbingly, Fitzgerald found a ‘police culture’ of cops protecting cops, and of corrupt cops vilifying – perhaps ‘setting up’ and ‘verballing’ – honest police who refused to participate in the ‘The Joke’. This was a key factor behind the corruption’s ability to prosper. But perhaps more menacingly still, Queenslanders heard how Bjelke-Petersen used police as a political weapon in the draconian silencing of dissent. Indeed, former police commissioner (and predecessor to the corrupt Terry Lewis) Ray Whitrod hinted, when he resigned in disgust in 1976, that Bjelke-Petersen’s political interference in day-to-day policing increasingly resembled a ‘police state’. Queenslanders later heard allegations of political corruption leading all the way to the premier’s office, with evidence that Bjelke-Petersen regularly failed to declare cash and other benefits received from construction firms and other corporate interests.

Evidence of the trauma Queensland voters suffered on hearing this evidence is found in the results of the 1989 state election. Here, despite the zonal system, Labor’s Goss government swept to office with fifty-four seats in a 9 per cent swing. Conversely, the Nationals lost twenty-two seats in a 24 per cent primary vote swing, with some of the largest swings against the government occurring in safe National Party seats. It’s clear even Bjelke-Petersen’s most loyal supporters could not endorse corruption.

A second reason behind the report’s longevity is found in its more than one hundred recommendations. By identifying a well-entrenched system of malfeasance supported by an enabling culture of police secrecy and the manipulation of political institutions, Fitzgerald concluded that change to organisational culture can occur only when police and the political executive operate openly under the gaze of fiercely independent watchdogs. It’s therefore likely that, had Fitzgerald not comprehensively detailed the functions of an Electoral and Administrative Review Commission and an independent Criminal Justice Commission (today the Crime and Corruption Commission) – or outlined how cabinet, parliamentary, police and electoral processes should be reformed – then systemic corruption in Queensland could again have taken root. Indeed, it’s the interconnected relationship between Fitzgerald’s recommendations and the hard evidence in the eleven chapters of his report – meshing a descriptive analysis of what had been with a normative analysis of how democratic institutions should be – that has produced a reinforced body of work sufficiently robust to endure the ages.

A third reason for longevity is found in the fact Mike Ahern, a man universally regarded as one of great integrity, succeeded Bjelke-Petersen as premier in December 1987 and, therefore, was positioned to accept the report in 1989. Had a less visionary minister succeeded Bjelke-Petersen, the report’s recommendations may have been dismissed entirely as administrative nonsense from a judicial ‘egg-head’. But Ahern had long been an internal critic of Bjelke-Petersen’s more egregious behaviour, and his enthusiasm for the report saw him utter the words that would define his premiership: his government would adopt Fitzgerald’s recommendations ‘lock, stock and barrel’. Indeed, it’s often forgotten it was Ahern, and not Labor’s Wayne Goss, who established the first major Fitzgerald parliamentary reforms in 1988: a Public Accounts Committee and a Public Works Committee.

But Ahern was spilled by his National Party colleagues just seventy-three days before the watershed 1989 election. Panicked by Ahern’s alleged lack of popular appeal in contrast to a more charismatic Goss, MPs elected Russell Cooper as a man closer to the ‘strong leader’ model so preferred by the Nationals’ ‘old guard’. But the administrative momentum and public acceptance of anti-corruption reform was so strong that, even if Cooper had wanted to, unwinding what was now a tri-partisan commitment to reform among Labor, Liberal and National MPs – popularly supported by media and voters – would have been impossible. The Fitzgerald juggernaut was now unstoppable.

It’s paradoxical that the news media, so long a silent witness to Queensland Government corruption, also played a key role in transforming the state’s political and popular culture during and after the Fitzgerald Inquiry. This occurred in two ways. The first was in the news media’s liberal use of the news values of ‘conflict’, ‘prominence’ and ‘novelty’ to engage readers, listeners and especially television viewers. In offering extensive coverage of an inquiry that, for two years, revealed – often as the first story on each night’s news bulletin – salacious details of sex, drugs and corruption, the media allowed the Fitzgerald Inquiry to unfold in Queenslanders’ living rooms like a nightly soap opera. In July 1989, its blanket coverage of the report’s submission was therefore anticipated as eagerly as a series finale. After more than 200 episodes of political intrigue, Queenslanders everywhere were hooked.

But the commercial news media has also kept the Fitzgerald Report fresh – even if inadvertently – through a ‘gotcha’-style tabloid journalism that places a premium on ‘catching out’ politicians committing even minor transgressions. The commercial news media – especially in a digital environment where profit margins are slim – is motivated to exploit Australians’ antipathy towards political elites. Given this ready market for anti-politician narratives, the news media – even if motivated by profit and not ‘fourth estate’ altruism – is unlikely to ever again turn its back on corrupt politics.

A fifth reason lies buried in the above. Despite social commentators frequently lamenting the sharp rise in Australians’ mistrust of political institutions, it’s clear our growing cynicism towards the political class has sensitised the news media, voters and other stakeholders to political malfeasance. The most recent Australian Election Study (2016), for example, found 40 per cent of Australians are ‘dissatisfied’ with democracy, a sharp increase from the
23 per cent ‘dissatisfied’ in 1969. Similarly, 74 per cent of Australians believed in 2016 that ‘people in government look after themselves’, far more than the 49 per cent in 1969. In this climate, it’s easy to see how media and voters might salivate at the prospect of catching a politician doing the wrong thing.

The last reason why Queensland political culture has changed so profoundly is because Queensland’s demographic composition has also changed. Not only is Queensland numerically larger in 2019 (five million) than in 1989 (fewer than three million), but so many new settlers north of the Tweed River have come from southern states where Westminster accountabilities are not mere abstractions, but happily accepted norms of political life. While Queensland’s interstate migration fell below 20,000 each year between 1983 and 1987, the 1990s – the potentially volatile decade in which Fitzgerald’s institutions were ‘bedded down’ – saw net annual interstate migration peak at almost 45,000. Put simply, mass interstate migration diluted a pungently parochial Queensland political culture that, once steeped in a pragmatic tolerance of corruption and authoritarianism, is today far more intolerant of breaches of Westminster conventions.

 

THE YEAR 1989 saw Tony Fitzgerald QC hand down what is arguably Australia’s most widely cited judicial report. That year also marked the tri-centenary of the birth of Baron de Montesquieu who, in 1748, published The Spirit of the Laws – a key treatise of governance that established the doctrine of the separation of powers that would forever distinguish democratic political systems from undemocratic ones. Queensland’s long abrogation of its own democratic obligations (under both Labor and conservative governments) throughout the twentieth century is therefore no better illustrated than in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s shaky response to Fitzgerald Inquiry counsel Michael Forde’s memorable question: ‘What do you understand by the doctrine of the separation of powers under the Westminster system?’ After struggling to define a concept apparently unknown to him, the former premier gave a response summarising decades of arrogant authoritarianism in Queensland: ‘Well you tell me. And I’ll tell you whether you’re right or not.’

The fact the Fitzgerald Inquiry exposed systemic police and political corruption is remarkable; the fact Fitzgerald’s subsequent report wholly reformed Queensland’s police, judicial, parliamentary, cabinet, public service and electoral systems is of enormous historical significance. But what is truly extraordinary is how the spirit of Fitzgerald – from the value of the separation of powers to the importance of institutional checks and balances – has penetrated the public consciousness of everyday Queenslanders. Few public inquiries in Australia can boast that achievement.

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