Queensland crime and misdemeanours, part two?

It was a time of shadowy prostitution and illegal clubs, standover merchants and thugs, crooked police and politicians, and the beginnings of the serious drug trade in south-east Queensland.

It was a time of shadowy prostitution and illegal clubs, standover merchants and thugs, crooked police and politicians, and the beginnings of the serious drug trade in south-east Queensland.

The whiff of corruption had lingered for at least a decade in Queensland before then-acting premier Bill Gunn, a National Party MP, pulled the trigger that launched the Fitzgerald inquiry in May 1987.

By the time Tony Fitzgerald, QC, had tabled his report in State Parliament in July 1989, Queensland was on the brink of major political change. In December that year, Queenslanders ended 32 years of conservative rule, chopping the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era off at the knees.

But Queensland's Crime and Misconduct Commission, a key legacy of the Fitzgerald inquiry, is now under fire from multiple fronts. The CMC's chairman, Ross Martin, has resigned after taking sick leave to focus on his battle with cystic fibrosis; the commission's release or destruction of sensitive Fitzgerald inquiry documents has triggered a parliamentary probe; and its very structure could significantly change.

The question is whether the CMC has strayed too far from the Fitzgerald report's crime-fighting brief or whether, as the critics claim, the Campbell Newman government is undermining a corruption-fighting institute.

A senior legal figure, who was intimately involved in the Fitzgerald inquiry, believes the CMC has exceeded its original design. And a leading academic, who wrote the chapter on the inquiry for a tome on politics, agrees but has concerns about the hardline on "baseless" complaints, concluding it could actually discourage legitimate whistleblowers from coming forward.

The CMC has the powers to investigate official corruption and major crime as well as responsibilities to protect witnesses and review legislation. It is an amalgam of the Criminal Justice Commission - established in 1987 in line with a key recommendation from the Fitzgerald report - and the Queensland Crime Commission, which was formed in 1997.

In 2001, the Beattie Labor government deemed that Queensland needed only one major crime-fighting body so the two were merged to form the Crime and Misconduct Commission.

A decade later, with an eye to the coming state election in March 2012, the Bligh Labor government asked the corruption watchdog to review then opposition leader Newman's pecuniary interest declarations that he had made when he was Brisbane's lord mayor.

Newman pledged to co-operate with any investigation while other Liberal National Party figures complained Labor was using the CMC as a political football.

Days out from the 2012 state election the commission announced there was "currently no evidence of official misconduct on the part of Campbell Newman in relation to the allegations raised while he was lord mayor of Brisbane. On that basis, the CMC will not be conducting any investigation in relation to Mr Newman."

The LNP won the March 24 election in a landslide and after settling into Queensland's top political job, the now Premier Newman declared "enough's enough".

"For 20 years, the CMC or its forerunner the CJC [Criminal Justice Commission] has been used inappropriately as a political weapon, and what the LNP team are talking about now is putting in safeguards so that it can do its job, it can be independent, it can have proper powers to investigate corruption or organised crime, but it shouldn't be being used as a political weapon by people," Newman said in October 2012, announcing the review.

He asked former High Court Judge Ian Callinan (who in 1987 had advised Gunn to set up the Fitzgerald inquiry) and University of Queensland Professor of Law Nicholas Aroney to review the commission. The pair were to focus on "how the CMC could continue to do its job without being drawn into political debates".

On Wednesday, chapter 11 of the Callinan report - a summary of conclusions and recommendations - was publicly released. The recommendations, if adopted by the Newman government, will radically reshape the crime-fighting, anti-corruption body.

The CMC will be restructured and will only undertake research requested by the government or approved by the Attorney-General. With a few caveats, it will be an offence for any person, including a CMC officer, to disclose that a complaint had been made, the nature, substance or subject of the complaint or the fact the CMC is investigating.

The recommendations will raise the threshold on what constitutes official misconduct and provide the basis for meting out financial and criminal penalties to those who make baseless complaints.

The Callinan report found that the "vast majority" of complaints are "trivial, vexatious or misdirected". In one 12-month period, the CMC received about 5000 complaints and only pursued about 100. Premier Newman likened this to a "torrent of nonsense" as he publicly issued the report.

Civil libertarians and the Queensland Opposition have condemned the proposed changes, with Labor accusing the Government of trying to "muzzle ... the independent watchdog" to satisfy its "vendetta against the CMC".

Tony Morris QC has a special insight, having worked with Fitzgerald during the ground-breaking Royal Commission. Morris believes the CMC's "brief" is out of step with what Fitzgerald had in his mind decades ago. "Mr Fitzgerald contemplated a sunset clause in the original legislation because he foresaw the danger of having a standing commission with such wide powers continuing forever," he said.

"The idea was that it would last for a limited period of time - whether that was 10 years or 20 years or whatever - and then it would then disappear."

Morris said this "sunset clause" - proposed by Fitzgerald - had been overlooked until now. He said the CMC's evolution had taken its focus "away from misconduct of the very kind that the Fitzgerald Inquiry was looking into".

He said the commission was now "involved in a range of purely criminal investigations, which really have no connection with graft or corruption or misconduct at an official level".

University of Queensland Emeritus Professor Roger Scott - a former public servant who has written extensively on the Fitzgerald inquiry - agrees in part.

He believes the Callinan report is "putting its finger on" the sense of frustration and has made two "very good recommendations" to reduce its education and research roles, allowing the CMC to hone its focus on tackling official corruption.

But Scott is concerned about the report's hardline approach to complainants. Scott said Queensland public servants are already "very frightened" about the Newman government's attitude to the bureaucracy and are unlikely to "put their head up" even if they have legitimate concerns about official corruption.

Morris also believes the CMC has allowed itself to be drawn into basic police investigation and in doing so it was stepping on the toes of the National Crime Commission at times.

"In a sense it compromises the CMC to be involved in what is essentially police work - investigating crime - and at the same time being the arbiter of ethical standards within the police service," he said.

On that point, however, commissioner Fitzgerald was firm in his original report: "There must be concern that an ICAC, no matter how well-intentioned, may in time become part of the corruption problem, which means that criminals may then have access not only to enormous funds, but also to a powerful body well placed to intimidate people and pervert the process."

Morris however believes the Newman government has a short-term political motive for overhauling the CMC, with the now Premier "clearly affronted" by the way the commission was used in the election campaign and keen to ensure it does not happen again.

Newman is yet to put a timetable on when any changes will be rolled out but he has clearly displayed his appetite for reform. "We need to ensure that the CMC is not used to settle personal or political scores," he said.

"We need reforms to ensure the organisation focuses on the big issues of corruption and official misconduct, but particularly on organised criminal gangs that have unfortunately started infiltrating Queensland. That's where the scarce dollars should be going."

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Join the Conversation...

There are comments posted so far.

If you'd like to join this conversation, please login or sign up here

Related Articles