Minister for Police and Emergency Services: conduct

After that extraordinary performance it is clear that the only person who thinks this report is about us is the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security. Today I grieve for Victoria Police. I grieve that its members have had to endure a most shameful and disgraceful period of political interference in the independent office of the Chief Commissioner of Police. I grieve that Victoria Police has been subject to gross misconduct and abuse of power, as graphically detailed in the Office of Police Integrity’s (OPI’s) Crossing the Line report. I grieve for Victoria Police that it continues at this stage to endure a minister who was either complicit in the campaign to remove the independent Chief Commissioner of Police or who displayed an extraordinary level of incompetence in that he knows absolute nothing. He is the Minister for I Know Nothing.

 

The minister feebly likened his senior adviser, Tristan Weston, to the fantasy character Walter Mitty. The only fantasy in this whole sorry saga is the fantasy that the minister knew nothing. His entire political future, tarnished as it will be from now on, is predicated entirely on this fantasy. It beggars belief that the Deputy Premier of Victoria, the Leader of The Nationals, the self-proclaimed co-Premier knew nothing. Give me a break!

 

The OPI report confirms what the opposition has been saying all year. There was a disgraceful, cowardly and inappropriate and relentless campaign to interfere in the independence of Victoria Police and remove Simon Overland as Chief Commissioner of Police. We have said all year that the campaign has been organised from within the highest levels of the Baillieu government.

Members of the government, both elected and employed, were actively and enthusiastically involved — backgrounding journalists, holding secret meetings, leaking information, doing deals and making critical comments attributed to gutless government sources.

The campaign headquarters of this scandalous endeavour was none other than the office of the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. All of this was confirmed by the OPI. Have a look at the public record, both in this place and in the media. What is detailed in the OPI report is what the opposition has been warning about for more than six months. Our claims of this government’s smear campaign were put to the minister back in April. His response: ‘It is absolute rubbish’. On 10 May following reports in the
Australian of leaked emails the Minister for Police and Emergency Services said
on Channel 10:

There is a lot of innuendo, commentary swirling around at the moment.

 

If I listened to all of it and acted on it, I would never leave home.

 

The minister is damned by his own words. He did not act on our repeated warnings because he did not want to. The minister was waiting for the right opportunity. As described on page 30 of the OPI report, the minister’s view was that Mr Overland would retain his position ‘unless and until circumstances intervened’. That was always the limited extent of the minister’s so-called support for Simon Overland. The minister was complicit in the campaign. He did not want it stopped and he did not want to act. He did not want
to intervene in what Weston, his parliamentary secretary and possibly others were up to, because the situation had not been reached in which he felt that he could say to the Chief Commissioner of Police, ‘If you tender your resignation, I will accept it’.

He had to wait just over another month for that.

All it took was another month of gross misconduct and potentially illegal behaviour, and the Baillieu government got its scalp.

It is simply not conceivable that the minister did not know what was going on. At the height of the crisis on 6 June the minister said on ABC radio:

… whatever anybody else may think I can assure you the minister for police
is in command of this situation on behalf of the government …

Indeed he was. Ten days later the minister in command got his scalp for the government. And did government members not enjoyed the day, Deputy Speaker? You would recall it. I will not quickly forget the unashamed joy of government members, the smug smiles, the pats on the back — ‘A job well done, boys and girls’. The minister had said to the chief commissioner the night before:

 

If you were to tender your resignation, I would accept.

 

Simon Overland did the only honourable thing: he duly gave his resignation. He had no other choice. Simon Overland said on the day he was forced to resign:

It’s pretty clear that there’s been a lot of distractions over the last
little while. It seems to me they aren’t likely to abate.

Those distractions — the Baillieu government — would not have abated until he was gone. The Minister for Police and Emergency Services, in denial of the crisis he and his colleagues had created, was reported on 28 October as saying:

The government has at all times done the right thing …

… I don’t believe there was any circumstance … where I could conceivably
have known that this man was doing what he did …

That is simply not a believable statement.

As a minister, if you find yourself in a position where a particular issue in your portfolio is dominating in the media, if a red-hot crisis is brewing, if there are government sources leaking to the media that you know nothing about and if those leaks are contrary to your view, you do something about it. If you as a minister find yourself in that position, you move heaven and earth to find out what is going on and who is responsible for it, and you put to a stop to it. You do not let it fester. You do not say to the media, as the minister did on 10 May, that you are not going to bother to act on innuendo and rumour. The only reason a minister would allow this type of crisis to build and explode would be if that were what the minister fully intended to occur.

I put to you, Speaker, that not only was the Minister for Police and Emergency Services warned by the opposition for more than six months but he knew about it and was complicit. It is a matter of record that the minister knew the views about Simon Overland held by Tristan Weston and the member for Benambra.

The minister knew that Michael Kapel had met with Sir Jones; the minister knew, through Allan Myers, QC, that Sir Ken Jones wanted to meet with him; the minister knew that Tristan Weston had contacted the media; and the minister knew that the member for Benambra and Tristan Weston were absolutely in regular contact. He knew all of this, yet when confronted with the actions of Tristan Weston the minister was ‘dumbfounded’. The minister claimed he knew nothing. It is not plausible. As Tristan Weston testified to the OPI:

… a minister’s ability to comment publicly is not compromised by what he
is told by an adviser — what is explicitly denied can at the same time be
implicitly permitted.

And permitted it was.

 

You do not see government members with those smug and smiling faces anymore — not since the OPI report was released, confirming how low into the gutter the government was prepared to sink in order to remove the chief commissioner. Perhaps some of them are even ashamed. There were no smiles after the OPI described the government’s behaviour in terms that included manifest excesses and impropriety, serious misconduct, improper conduct and criminal charges.

 

The OPI report investigated the behaviour of Detective Leading Senior Constable Tristan Weston. The OPI did not and cannot investigate the behaviour of the minister or his chief of staff. Yet what the report details is so damning, and the abuse of power so blatant, that the Minister for Police and Emergency Services must be held accountable. The Minister for Police and Emergency Services must resign.

The OPI report details a meeting held between the member for Benambra, Tristan Weston and Sir Ken Jones. The meeting occurred on 14 May at Sir Ken’s home. According to the evidence given under oath by the member for Benambra — and we know how much the member for Benambra values his oath — the purpose of the meeting was to urge Sir Ken to withdraw his letter of resignation. Page 47 of the report says:

… he —

that is, the member for Benambra —

did not inform Minister Ryan in advance of the visit, but subsequently told
him what had occurred.

That is the member’s sworn testimony to the OPI, yet on page 53 of the report the minister clearly and emphatically contradicts the evidence of the parliamentary secretary. The report says:

Minister Ryan told OPI investigators he was unaware of Mr Tilley’s visit to
Sir Ken Jones’s home. Minister Ryan said he received no approach from Mr Tilley in relation to Sir Ken Jones after Sir Ken Jones was directed by Chief
Commissioner Overland to take leave on 6 May.

Someone, either the minister or the former Parliamentary Secretary for Police and Emergency Services, lied to the OPI. That is the stark reality. It is a grave accusation.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MERLINO — Giving false evidence, I say to the member for Benambra, is a criminal offence. That is why both the opposition and the media have pursued this important issue. It goes to the heart of whether the minister is a fit and proper person to continue in his role. Somebody lied.

Responding to questioning about the evidence of the member for Benambra the minister said on 3AW on 28 October:

I don’t believe that that was the case — that’s not my memory of events …

I do not recall his having told me that, and I don’t believe that he did.

The minister effectively called his Liberal Party colleague a liar. In the Sunday Herald Sun of 30 October the member for Benambra was reported to be ‘furious, gutted and disappointed’ and to have told the Sunday Herald Sun, ‘I stand by everything I said under oath’. The Sunday Herald Sun editorial said:

In claiming he knew nothing of the plotting, Mr Ryan has publicly questioned
the honesty and integrity of Liberal MP Bill Tilley …

… in his desperate attempts to save his own skin.

The desperation to hold onto his job reached juvenile and ridiculous levels yesterday.

The member and the minister issued a joint statement, best described by Herald Sun journalist Ashley Gardiner, who, dare I say it, tweeted at the time that the joint statement by the Minister for Police and Emergency Services and the member for Benambra seemed to have been written by George Orwell. Apparently they are both right. As we see in the latest reports today, the member for Benambra was not happy about being forced to resign. He resisted it, and I am certain he is unhappy and embarrassed about the farcical joint statement he was forced to sign yesterday. I was outside the opposition offices
at 8.00 p.m. on 26 October, and I saw the very grim face of the member for Benambra as he was being directed to the Premier’s office, where he resisted attempts — —

An honourable member interjected.

 

Mr MERLINO — Yes, good on you for resisting it! Unfortunately they got him in the end. This grievance debate is an opportunity for the member for Benambra to clear the air. We will give up one of our speaking spots if the member for Benambra wants to get up and explain his version of events. The member’s political career is permanently damaged. His preselection is possibly under threat, and we know how interested The Nationals are in that seat. His credibility is shot because it remains uncertain as to who lied. How many more Liberal bodies are going to be thrown under the bus to save the hide of the discredited Leader of The Nationals?

I conclude on this point: Simon Overland deserves an apology. The Office of Police Integrity (OPI) report found that the campaign against Simon Overland was run from the minister’s private office. It stated that it:

 

…almost certainly contributed to the course of events that led to the chief
commissioner’s resignation. In the process, management of Victoria Police was
undermined and public confidence in it diminished.

The Acting Chief Commissioner of Police, Ken Lay, was quoted as having said this:

‘If I go back to that time, I know Simon said publicly on a number of occasions that we were staying focused but my recollection was, it was an enormously difficult time as a member of police command’ …

‘I felt under siege, I thought Simon was under siege.

‘It was as hard a time as I can ever remember for a chief commissioner.

 

‘This was a very big part of Simon’s decision to resign, I believe.’

 

Those are the words of the Acting Chief Commissioner of Police commenting once the OPI report had been received. The minister should at least do one decent thing — that is, apologise to Simon Overland, the real victim in all of this — yet he refuses to do so.

I conclude with this commentary on the performance of the minister which appeared in the Age of 3 November:

He was supposed to be one of the government’s strongest performers.

All the more surprising, then, that Ryan has been linked to almost every
cock-up and controversy to strike the Baillieu government’s first year.

And that article did not even mention the shambles of the protective services officers policy. The Premier promised before the election to put an end to the cover-ups, secrecy and dishonesty, yet he has made it an art form in this most disgraceful chapter in Victoria’s political and policing history.

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