CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE
This is an edited extract from Fair Cop by Christine Nixon with Jo Chandler, (MUP $36.99), on sale on Monday.
This is an edited extract from Fair Cop by Christine Nixon with Jo Chandler, (MUP $36.99), on sale on Monday.In this exclusive extract from her memoir, Christine Nixon writes that in a climate where scapegoats were being sought for Black Saturday, she was thrust into the firing line by people who had never supported her as chief commissioner. 'WE HAVE drinks every Friday afternoon." So I was advised on my first day as chief commissioner of Victoria Police. The tour of my new headquarters included a glance at the well-stocked bar in my new office, and another in the meeting room next door where the most senior police in the state gathered most days to make decisions about how to keep Victoria safe.I had a problem with these "drinks", but I let it slide for the moment. There is much to explain about the closed, cloistered, fractured cult of policing.I had told the Victorian government when I applied for the job that the culture of Victoria Police needed to change. I wanted more focus on community needs and engagement I wanted more accountability and less hierarchy I wanted the people in uniform to be more representative of our diverse community, so that when someone needed help, they might find within police ranks people who recognised them, or at least understood them I wanted smarter targeting of crime priorities.My commitment to the notion of a police service, rather than a police force, had been powerfully shaped by my years working under the thoughtful guidance of New South Wales police commissioner John Avery. This philosophy was at the heart of the narrative that would define much of my term, the clash of what detractors liked to call my "soft policing" philosophy against the force's hardcore, as represented by some in the Police Association. I'd characterise it rather differently.My objective was to reinforce Victoria Police as an agency with a focus on community safety, on social harmony, that was responsive to community priorities. The flip side of that is a police force that looks and behaves like an occupying army.Police the world over embrace a strong sense of culture and identity and brotherhood (which might also include women, if not quite reaching to sisterhood). They rightfully claim a special status in society police are the people to whom the rest of the community have ceded their rights to enforce and maintain law and order. It's unsurprising that their powers have created some sense of exclusivity and apartness. But police must not lose connection to community or they lose the bedrock of their authority: trust.Police culture is strong, as it must be to provide unity of purpose and courage in difficult times. But its strength can be its weakness when it misuses its militaristic roots of command-and-control to bully adherence to a particular model of authority to co-opt its honourable traditions of duty and loyalty to become authoritarian, draconian, intolerant and, at its worst, corrupt.I grew up inside police culture, courtesy of my father Ross. I chose it as a dominant influence on my identity from the moment I entered the Redfern Academy in 1972. Why? Because I knew that policing could be the most honourable and important of occupations. Nonetheless, I had been at war with elements of that culture for years.Now, as chief commissioner of Victoria, I believed I could make a difference shift the culture, bring it up to date, help it reflect the community it served. In part this required confronting an exclusive brethren of blokes, entrenched in rituals of bad behaviour that ostracise many good men, as well as most women. When I set out on a long road trip to introduce myself to Victoria Police members across the state I told them I was sick and tired of the us-and-them attitude of the dominant clique, which marginalised members who were not macho enough, not tall enough, who didn't drink enough or swear enough or play enough football or rough up enough crooks. I'd put up with it for 28 years, but no more. "If you're a member of the Victoria Police, and there are nearly 13,000 of you, then you are on the team, we are equals."I told them I expected them to behave ethically and with integrity. I signalled I would have no hesitation sniffing out the whiff of rot. "I didn't bury the bodies," I declared, so I had absolutely no qualms about digging them up.A few weeks into the job, I ordered the cleanout and closure of all the bars and beer fridges in every police station in Victoria, including headquarters. This was about safety, and a signal of broader change. There was outrage "Where will we drink?" "I don't care just not on police property, and not on duty . . . Don't tell me you think it is OK for people carrying guns to be under the influence of alcohol." I knew it might take me years to get alcohol testing up in stations (and it did). But meanwhile I could get booze off the premises.Many police welcomed this and other, more important reforms especially those who had long been discomfited by the attitudes of some of their peers, but who were reluctant, even afraid, to raise their voices. But as I would find, the enclave within police culture which I most despised was similarly disposed to me. And they had long memories.The level of threat I represented might be measured on a sliding scale. My offence might have been merely to challenge someone's view of the world. They bristled, and agreed to disagree. I might have unsettled the way people like to do things. Change brings discomfort.I might inadvertently have offended people's values or achievements. This risks outright hostility. I might have threatened those whose power was tenuous, and who have a tendency to attack. I might have exposed dark secrets, and this could have meant a life-or-death struggle. All of these offences I committed, all of these responses I incited, in eight years service as chief commissioner.THE morning after the 2008 Melbourne Cup I told my senior team what I had already told the government I would finish up as chief commissioner in March 2009. We'd achieved major reforms. We'd taken on the hard issue of corruption. We'd made clear inroads into reducing crime. And we'd had a revolution in the culture within the organisation. We had also been through the wringer in Victoria. It was time for me to go. It had not been an easy time. I hoped the community would judge me and remember me by my record over those years.Then just weeks before my planned retirement, the Black Saturday fires unleashed on the Victorian landscape the equivalent force of 1500 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. The firestorm that ravaged the state that day claimed 173 lives, and tragically and irreparably damaged countless others. The way in which it would redefine my life does not bear comparison to the grief and suffering endured by the survivors. Nonetheless, Black Saturday would change everything for me too. I would be compelled by my conscience and by a royal commission to evaluate my capacity and calibre as a leader, the vocation at the core of my professional life and identity.In the wake of the firestorm I was also asked to undertake a job no one could want and I couldn't refuse. It was to head the mission to help communities rebuild and to recover from the disaster. At the same time as my capacities were being questioned and critiqued, I was being asked to exercise them to the fullest in the interests of people I could not tolerate failing.In late 2009 I was subpoenaed by the royal commission into the bushfires to present a statement explaining the emergency management arrangements and my role in those on the day, and in the post-fire recovery effort.I soon realised that I had failed to comprehend the forces that were at work. A concerted media strategy was taking shape to find scapegoats for Black Saturday, and I was being thrust into the firing line by people who had never supported my philosophy and actions as chief commissioner, and who now saw their moment. Perhaps if I had been paying more attention to police politics, I would have seen the gathering clouds.I went into the hearings in April 2010 assuming I would be asked to give some insight into the emergency management arrangements on Black Saturday, and to report on the progress of the recovery effort in the months since. I was to be questioned by counsel assisting the commission, Rachel Doyle, SC, an up-and-coming barrister with a reputation for hard work, forensic questioning and a quick wit.Under sometimes savage questioning, I tried to explain and defend the philosophy that underwrote my actions on the day. It was not my job, I insisted, "to swoop in and take control. When you have good people who are more skilled in emergency management than I am you let those people do the job". This model would later be forcefully and unequivocally endorsed by expert evidence to the commission. But this testimony was all but ignored by the media. Nonetheless, I conceded, if I had my time again, I would have stayed at headquarters longer.I will not dwell further here on all the messy twists and turns of this period. The newspaper archive will provide rich pickings for management textbooks, for social commentators, for the gender debate, for policy wonks. But this also consumed my life, and threatened to consume my reputation. It compelled me to question and explore much of who I was, what I stood for. I found myself wanting on some fronts, but for all the reasons explored through the pages of this book, I could live with myself, and sleep at night.Yes, there were things I regretted, things I would do differently if given the gift of time back.The questioning of my management capability was particularly confronting, given my decades-long efforts to build and refine my skills, and the success these efforts had achieved. And so I found some reassurance and comfort in evidence presented at the royal commission by two independent and internationally regarded experts that the models and structures that underpinned Victoria's disaster planning and my actions that day were rigorous and appropriate.At the heart of this critical albeit publicly neglected phase in the commission's inquiry was an attempt to evaluate the planning and systems in place to cope with a major disaster in Victoria. In part this turned on the question about whether I, or anyone else in a command position, might have done more on the day.A view strongly argued by the tabloid and talkback commentariat was that the state might have been better served by a military-style command structure. People often have quite a mistaken view of military protocols for emergencies, imagining that they rest on highly centralised command-and-control regimes, and that such a system is superior for dealing with a catastrophic event. This was the rationale often enlisted to criticise my actions on that day, particularly by more reactionary male voices, who like to summon up the image of the heroic commander striding in, instantly appraising the crisis, and seizing control. But, in fact, their imaginings betray how little they actually know of military and emergency management systems.As Professor Herman Leonard, an expert in leadership and crisis management from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government my alma mater informed the commission, effective modern military fighting forces decentralise power, giving authority and discretion to act to forces on the ground, with headquarters providing support, resources and guidance, "but very few direct commands to the field units".It is unavoidable and appropriate that this memoir honestly acknowledges the core issues that emerged from the Bushfires Royal Commission and the debate over the calibre of my leadership on February 7, 2009. In a sense the whole journey of my life and priorities shaped my decisions and actions that day. I hope my whole story, my whole career and contribution to public life, will not forever be defined by this chapter. Perhaps this is a vain hope. There are no shortage of people with powerful opinions on these events. They continue to incite passionate discussion in every forum I visit.Eventually the royal commission would determine that my leadership on the day left much to be desired, criticising me for a "hands off " approach. Of my leaving the emergency headquarters that evening, it said, "it is not satisfactory that at this time when she was aware of the potential for disaster and, in fact, while the magnitude of the disaster was becoming apparent with the confirmation of fatalities Ms Nixon was absent . . . and did not take action to inform herself". While the commissioners were "dismayed" with my evidence, they concluded that I had not deliberately misled them.At the end of it all, my greatest frustration and sadness is the loss of opportunity to explore and learn from the events of Black Saturday in the most meaningful way. Yes, some lessons were drawn, and the pages of the Bushfires Royal Commission findings contain instructive insights. But imagine if the same energy for blame and scapegoating and revisionist history had been applied to evaluating how to prepare for and survive a catastrophic event?I was also disappointed at the process, about the way the media and the royal commission structure were allowed to feed off each other. A royal commission can become the worst kind of kangaroo court if it is not managed properly, and it is all about playing to the audience. It becomes a public flogging. It doesn't say much about us as an evolved community if that sort of method is still considered appropriate.The damage of such a process is not just to the individuals. The key objective of the inquiry was to produce better emergency management systems. Only time will tell whether its recommendations in that regard are allowed to find their mark. Meanwhile, the process has ensured, without doubt, that risk aversion rules supreme in emergency management. Any potential leader looking for lessons from the Bushfires Royal Commission would determine that whatever else, throughout the course of a critical event, they must ensure that they (to use the vernacular) cover their arse.This is dangerous. Such thinking might dissuade leaders, whether in the crisis room, or out at the fire front, from bold and brave decisions in the moment . It may encourage them to second-guess carefully evolved systems. I fear that communities will never be well served by such a culture of leadership.