Police: government performance

I rise to make a contribution to the grievance debate, and I join with the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in focusing on Victoria Police. I too grieve for Victoria Police. I grieve for the men and women of our force, people who put their lives on the line every day. The men and women of our police force are witnessing their institution — our institution — being deliberately torn down and undermined in a cowardly and disgraceful manner by the government of Victoria, the Baillieu-Ryan government.

There are times when the police minister and I are in agreement. On the subject of the campaign against the Chief Commissioner of Police, Simon Overland, the minister for police was recently quoted as saying:

I’ve not seen the like of the campaign that’s been run against him, never seen the like of it in my 18 years in politics and in my similar time in private life … It is unremitting and it’s remorseless.

‘Unremitting’ and ‘remorseless’ were the words the police minister used when referring to the campaign against the chief commissioner, Simon Overland, and the minister is dead right. The extraordinary problem for the police minister is that it is his government, the Baillieu-Ryan government, that is the source and inspiration for this unremitting and remorseless campaign. This unprecedented and cowardly campaign is being orchestrated by people with whom the minister works every day — that is, his colleagues at the highest level. The police minister is either unwilling or unable to halt the unravelling of the police portfolio. The police minister has suggested that we should all take a deep breath and step back. He has said that the facts before us are ‘very slim’, so we should do as he suggests.

Let us take a step back and look at the facts as we know them. In the same period during which the Premier publicly declared his support for Simon Overland, the Premier’s most trusted adviser, his chief of staff, Michael Kapel, secretly met with the deputy chief commissioner, Sir Ken Jones. This 2-hour meeting at the home of Sir Ken Jones was conducted without the knowledge of the Deputy Premier and police minister and without the knowledge of the chief commissioner; it was conducted behind their backs. It was a meeting considered by the police minister to be ‘inappropriate’. The police minister has said that he was approached to meet with Sir Ken Jones, but we do not know by whom he was approached. Mr Ryan said:

I just don’t think it is the right thing for me to do …

Yet according to the Premier it was not inappropriate. The Premier said:

… when it was explained to me I understood it was done in good faith.

The meeting was explained to the Premier, yet the Premier refuses to divulge to the Victorian community what was discussed by his chief of staff. Was the replacement of Simon Overland discussed? The Premier refuses to say. Why was the police minister not informed? Was Sir Ken offered the position of chief commissioner, or was he offered the position of head of the independent, broadbased anticorruption commission?

Was it an excuse to gather dirt on the chief commissioner? If members look at the comment allegedly made by Sir Ken Jones — that is, that he thinks that members of the government are ‘on to Overland’ — they will find that it would suggest that that is exactly what they discussed. However, we do not get answers from this government or from the Premier; we get just chaos. So much for transparency and accountability.

Depending on whom you believe, the meeting occurred after a ‘private approach from government’, according to Sir Ken Jones, or Sir Ken Jones requested the meeting, according to the Premier and the police minister. The Premier has claimed to have had no knowledge of the meeting. We are asked to suspend belief and buy the line that in the midst of this government’s campaign against Simon Overland — the backgrounding of journalists that has been occurring for six months and the undermining of police command — the Premier’s closest adviser met with Deputy Commissioner Sir Ken Jones without the knowledge of his boss.

We are asked to buy the fanciful line that the Premier’s private mobile number was also provided to Sir Ken Jones without the Premier’s knowledge. For goodness sake! Who in this place — who in Victoria — would believe that the Premier’s private mobile number would be given out to people like Sir Ken Jones and others without the Premier’s knowledge? It is just farcical. The Premier said that he found out about the meeting from the police minister, that the police minister found out about the meeting from the secretary of the Police Association and that the secretary found out about the meeting from Sir Ken Jones. Does anyone believe that?

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MERLINO — We have had the interjection ‘What a circus!’. We can turn our minds back to the Police Association ads of a few months ago in relation to the EBA (enterprise bargaining agreement) and the vaudeville circus.

It was a circus right then in terms of the EBA negotiations, and it is a circus right now in terms of the crisis in police command.

We have a crisis in the police portfolio, because either scenario is extraordinary. Either the Premier knew about the meeting and was complicit in unprecedented political interference in the independence of Victoria Police or he did not know and has been exposed as the most ignorant, detached and dithering Premier we have ever seen. He is the ostrich of Victorian politics. He supposedly has his head in the sand and is blissfully unaware while his chief of staff undermines police command behind the back of the police minister.

This farce has got so bad that in only six months a member of this government — the parliamentary secretary for police, no less — has become so appalled by the behaviour of this government that he has threatened to sit on the crossbenches as an Independent.

Like the police minister, his view is that the behaviour of the government has been inappropriate, and he clearly expressed his concern that the government must at all times act with integrity. The member for Benambra has been reported as having said:

That’s right through from not only those who are publicly elected representatives, but it is also the staff that the government and the executive engages to do those tasks of the government.

That is a pointed and clear reference to Michael Kapel and other staff of this government. The police minister and the parliamentary secretary for police are both concerned about the behaviour of their government in relation to the police portfolio. The parliamentary secretary for police has subsequently been given a talking to and is apparently no longer considering the option of becoming an Independent.

At least for a time we had some truthful comments from those opposite.

The crisis continues. It has been revealed that Tristan Weston, the failed Liberal Party candidate and senior adviser to the minister for police, has resigned from Victoria Police. It has been reported that the allegations of misconduct were considered serious enough that Mr Weston’s secondary employment authority was immediately revoked by Victoria Police. This required Mr Weston to cease working in the minister’s office and to return to police duty and answer some questions. He headed this off by resigning from the force. He is currently on leave, but yesterday the Premier expressed full confidence in this individual.

What was Mr Weston’s role in this grubby episode? What part did he play in undermining police command? Has the Premier sought assurances from Mr Weston that these allegations of misconduct do not compromise his role as a ministerial adviser? Will the Minister for Police and Emergency Services take him back? I do not think he will. What was the Minister for Police and Emergency Services thinking? A Liberal Party stooge was implanted in his office. Was Mr Weston providing frank and fearless political advice to his minister, who trusts him to do so, or was he doing the bidding of Michael Kapel and the Premier? What was Tristan Weston doing in the Minister for Police and Emergency Service’s office? I think the minister is asking himself that very question.

I will predict another thing — it is a shame there are no Nationals ministers in the chamber at the moment — which is that I do not think that Nationals ministers will agree to have any more ambitious Liberal Party players imposed on them by the Premier’s chief of staff anymore.

I think they will be very wary of having anyone associated with the Liberal Party in their Nationals ministerial offices, because we know who their masters are. We know who Tristan Weston was taking directions from.

Who are the losers in all of this? The answer is: the Victorian community as a whole. This crisis in the police portfolio, this unremitting and remorseless campaign conducted by the government against the Chief Commissioner of Police and police command, undermines public confidence in our force. We tried to pursue those questions during the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings — but were shut down by the Liberal Party chair — because there are clear indicators of a lack of public confidence in community safety. When you have a crisis in police command orchestrated by this government you will undermine public confidence in it.

This crisis impacts on police command.

For the next 12 months every decision it makes and everything it does will be conducted with the Rush inquiry hanging over its head. There will be no clear decision and direction from the government and no leadership but rather another long period of destabilisation and crisis. Who can work effectively under those conditions? Who can work effectively when those opposite, those secret cowards, continue to background journalists against the chief commissioner and against police command?

This crisis impacts on police morale. The men and women who make up our force, the people who put their lives on the line to ensure our safety, are witnessing a government-sponsored assault on this most vital of state institutions. This crisis impacts on jobs. How can you possibly deliver on the 1700 additional police and 940 protective services officers funded in Labor’s last budget with this mess going on? Current and potential recruits will be looking at this crisis and respectively saying, ‘How can I stay?’ and ‘Why should I join?’.

Further on the issue of jobs, there is a major EBA (enterprise bargaining agreement) negotiation for police currently before the government. The government has a job to do to negotiate in good faith and produce an outcome as promised by the Premier — that is, wages based on inflation plus productivity improvements. That is the promise of the Premier which he made to the Police Association — a far cry from the breadcrumbs of a 2.5 per cent rise.

It is no surprise that in the six months that this government has fostered the crisis in the police portfolio it has gone missing in the EBA negotiations. The government has been absent from the negotiating table because it has been preoccupied with creating a crisis in police command and is now deeply divided as to how to respond. The Premier is frozen in the spotlight. The Minister for Police and Emergency Services is left in the dark. The Premier’s chief of staff is playing dangerous games and the Police Association secretary is left with no-one in government to talk to.

His members and our police officers who are protecting our local communities are the losers.

It is time the Premier and his government started to talk honestly with the Victorian community. It is time for them to come clean and divulge the role they have played in this mess. It is time for police command to be allowed to do its work in keeping our community safe without the constant and cowardly undermining and backgrounding from this government. It is time for rank and file police to be treated with the respect that they deserve and to receive a fair and just outcome in the EBA negotiations. It is time for the Premier to wake up and show some leadership. We have a crisis in police command. We have an undermining of the Chief Commissioner of Police, which has been orchestrated by those opposite.

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