Enter Ken Lay. He's the low-key commissioner Ted Baillieu prays will keep policing controversies off the front page, writes John Silvester.

Enter Ken Lay. He's the low-key commissioner Ted Baillieu prays will keep policing controversies off the front page, writes John Silvester.

THERE were 16 candidates for the job of Victoria's 21st police commissioner and Ken Lay was nearly not one of them. Late last year when he was one of predecessor Simon Overland's three deputies, his career appeared to have peaked. In a reshuffle, the 55-year-old lost responsibility for road safety and was given the mundane job of sorting out a new uniform. He flirted with the idea of accepting a senior Indonesian policing position before deciding to stay in Victoria.

Yesterday, the government followed a minimum-risk strategy in appointing him Victoria Police Chief Commissioner for a five-year term.

"This is an organisation that I never, ever dreamt I would be leading," Lay said after the confirmation.

The announcement itself was deliberately pitched as a contrast to the way then premier John Brumby and police minister Bob Cameron had appointed Overland in March 2009.

Back then, the two Labor politicians, scouting for a picture opportunity, produced the shoulder insignia of rank to pin on "their" man. It was an error of judgment that implied Overland was party political rather than independent a suggestion he always denied.

This time the new commissioner was not even present for the low-key announcement from Premier Ted Baillieu and Police Minister Peter Ryan at government offices.

Lay's own press conference was held at police headquarters in Flinders Street without a politician in sight - a move designed to send the message he will be no one's puppet.

When Brumby appointed Overland, he optimistically said: "I am absolutely certain he will serve our state with distinction." Baillieu expressed a similar sentiment of Ken Lay yesterday. "I am very confident he will be an excellent chief commissioner."

In truth, Lay is the first "non-controversial" appointment to the top policing job in nearly 20 years.

The last three, Neil Comrie (a Victorian headhunted from Queensland police) Christine Nixon (NSW) and Overland (former Australian Federal Police) were not universally welcomed.

Lay comes from the rank and file. He is a career Victoria policeman who joined in 1974 and progressed from rural and metropolitan policing to traffic and finally senior management.

And as Victoria has been mired in a series of police controversies, Lay progressed without getting mud on his shiny shoes (apart from one speeding fine, which even in today's judgmental world is hardly a hanging offence).

The key to the Coalition government's thinking is illustrated by Baillieu's description of the new chief as "unpretentious". The government wants a low-key man who will do his best to keep controversial police issues off page one.

The clear message to Lay is to adopt the philosophy taught to doctors: "First, do no harm."

His appointment is also a case of being the right man in the right spot at the right time.

He will inherit a force with the biggest budget in its history, undergoing the biggest recruiting drive on record and at a time when the government will be desperate to ensure it does not intrude on police operations.

In an occupation where personal ambition too often overrides public duty, Lay has never been a head kicker. He did not court the top job and expected to retire while Overland was still chief commissioner.

In June this year all that changed when, after months of controversy, Police Minister Peter Ryan rang Overland to say the government no longer supported him, leaving the chief commissioner no choice but to resign.

A subsequent Office of Police Integrity investigation found that an adviser in Ryan's office, Tristan Weston (a policeman on long-term leave), had been running a personal campaign to destabilise Overland. Ryan maintains he was unaware of Weston's agenda.

The reality is that Lay was appointed acting chief commissioner because there was no one left.

One deputy, Sir Ken Jones, resigned in controversial circumstances and then was forced to leave immediately when Overland suspected him of leaking confidential information an allegation Jones denies.

And the second deputy, Kieran Walshe, made it clear he didn't want the position.

For the past four years, vicious, self-serving and destructive internal bickering at the top level of Victoria Police has been played out in public, humiliating many and tarnishing the whole organisation.

It began in November 2007 when a series of taped phone conversations involving then assistant commissioner Noel Ashby were played during an OPI public hearing.

The calls showed Ashby trying to destabilise Overland, whom he saw as his rival to succeed Christine Nixon as chief commissioner.

Ashby said the conversations were in the context of the "prism of politics". He resigned after the hearings and was charged with perjury, although the charges were later dropped.

The reasons that the OPI chose to bug his phones have never been fully explained.

Much later, Nixon was lambasted for her performance during Black Saturday when she left the command centre to have a pub meal. She was also criticised for her evidence at the subsequent royal commission.

IN the past few years, several senior police were told their contracts would not be renewed and they were encouraged to retire.

There were also growing concerns that politics was encroaching into policing and that law enforcement was battling to remain impartial.

At the same time, there was a virtual breakdown in communications between the powerful Police Association and command, with chief commissioners Nixon and Overland barely on speaking terms with association secretaries Paul Mullett and Greg Davies.

As acting chief, Ken Lay was not in a position to embark on wide-ranging change, which proved to be a blessing as the force in general is suffering from reform fatigue.

Instead, he went around building confidence and rebuilding bridges. He spoke at the retirement function for Police Association president Brian Rix (to a warm round of applause) and conducted a series of non-combative media interviews where he spoke plainly and honestly.

Even when the association was involved in an ugly pay dispute with the government, Lay was able to navigate the middle ground and not take sides.

He was not jockeying for position in fact he was no certainty to apply at one point seriously doubting whether he wanted the job.

Having seen the anguish suffered by Overland's family in the last few months of his term, "I certainly had some misgivings and wondered whether I was risking putting my family through the same thing," he said.

After many discussions with his wife, Chris, she reluctantly agreed that if he wanted the job she would support him. She knows this involves a life of public criticism, private intrusions, long hours, endless functions and bad finger food.

His wife of 30 years is no stranger to policing. She was in the job when they met when both were serving at the Prahran police station. The couple have an adult son and daughter.

Lay then checked with his senior colleagues. Having seen disloyalty at the top level, he decided that if one expressed concern he would not apply. "They were all supportive."

He visited Victoria Police's elder statesman, former chief commissioner Mick Miller, for a chat. "He is an iconic figure and I wanted to talk to him about what the job entailed."

Once he lodged his application, the job was his to lose. So much so that some high-profile potential candidates from interstate did not apply, believing it was a closed shop.

As the Premier said, "It is important the chief commissioner can enlist the support of the maximum number of people, and I think Ken Lay has demonstrated over the years that . . . he has the confidence of the wider force."

This was as much a swipe at Overland as a vote of confidence in Lay. The government liked the former chief commissioner's policing philosophy but found he polarised people to the point where his powerful enemies worked to destroy him.

Lay's leadership will differ markedly from his two successors. He will shun Nixon's committee style designed to bring about major cultural change and will avoid Overland's crash-through tactics.

He has learnt much from both, admiring Nixon's ability to sell her message and Overland's determination to confront the organisation's failings.

He will return much of the decision-making to serving police and rely less on outside advisers. "We have so many talented and experienced people in the organisation, why would I not rely on them?"

Lay is liked by the police who know him. He is calm, friendly and gregarious. He will back his members, but not blindly. If they break the law they are on their own.

He seeks opinions before making up his mind and makes those around him feel valued.

Since he took over, the government has been impressed by the return to so-called "traditional policing", although Lay himself admits this was more to do with some of Overland's reforms taking traction than any major new initiatives.

During the first half of this year the media was filled with negative police stories on issues such as police crime statistics, internal bickering, computer budget blow-outs, parole bungles and the questionable use of telephone intercepts. Overland's resignation created a much-needed break in the cycle and the momentum appears to have shifted.

In recent months police have unveiled plans for a new standard uniform, flagged moves for improved discipline and moved to increase the police presence on the streets.

Police have admitted there is a gang problem that needs addressing, abandoning the previous politically driven and unsustainable argument that it was a purely a media beat-up.

For years Victoria was the only state that maintained there was no issue with outlaw motorcycle gangs. This year police have set up a bike taskforce, code-named Echo, which has conducted more than 50 raids in recent months.

Recently, when members of the Rebels gang arrived in Victoria for their national run, they were met by hundreds of police. You could almost hear the government purr with approval.

When there was a series of drive-by shootings in Melbourne's north-western suburbs, police hit the streets and made arrests.

There will also be more resources devoted to gathering intelligence on organised crime and targeting major gangsters.

Last week The Age asked Police Minister Peter Ryan how he thought Lay was performing. He responded positively, perhaps hinting that he was soon to get the job permanently. "Ken is doing a good job as acting Chief Commissioner. He is very well regarded by the troops . . . so we'll see how he goes."

Certainly the government approved of the way police cleared demonstrators from the city square last month.

"I think what we saw with the police who dealt with the demonstrators from Occupy Melbourne was a wonderful example of effective policing. They were well trained and acted within the law," Ryan said.

Certainly Lay says his sole focus will be on front-line policing. "Sometimes we move away from that, but if we provide the blue shirts with what they need, the rest tends to take care of itself.

"Simon [Overland] started dragging us back to the front line so that we could have a strong presence where it is needed, and I intend to continue that direction."

He says that in the past five months he has developed a strong working relationship with Ryan. "I know that if I stray into his area I can expect a whack, and he knows not to interfere in the operational side of this business."

His priorities are clear with stability and public confidence the foundation stones. This will involve a strong visible police presence, rebuilding the crime department, supporting operational police, utilising the extra 1700 police promised by the government and forging a workable relationship with the Police Association. Early in the new year he will appoint two new deputies and is committed to developing a succession plan.

Most police will applaud the back-to-basics program except those who took advantage of Nixon's relaxed views on appearance.

One of Lay's first orders will be to ban beards and visible tattoos, while any policeman with a ponytail should immediately head to the barber or risk their career taking an immediate and severe haircut.

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