This article first appeared in The Age.
This week’s jaw-dropping revelations that the most senior members of Victoria Police allowed conduct described by the highest court in Australia as "reprehensible" and involving the most "fundamental and appalling breaches of duty" should alarm us all. It’s a dizzying scandal - police recruiting a barrister to inform on her own clients.
While this is undoubtedly one of the most extreme cases of police misconduct in recent history, it would be a mistake to see it as the only one.
Our justice system is supposed to represent the best of us: principled, fair, equal and incorruptible. Underpinned by centuries-old common values that bind and protect us all.
But 2018 has exposed a chasm between what is officially said, and what is officially done. Both our politicians and police have shown that they’re willing to adopt an ends justify the means mentality, even when it results in throwing our shared values under a bus.
This should concern us all for the simple fact that when justice is tainted – when the rule of law is compromised – the very soil from which our democratic institutions grow becomes contaminated.
Police are granted extraordinary powers that can interfere in profound ways with personal freedoms that all of us take for granted – they have the power to carry a gun, to remove a person’s liberty, to stop and search someone, to question someone, to prosecute someone, to enter a person’s home. When these powers are abused, there should be proper accountability. But that’s not currently the case in Victoria.
Although this week’s conversations are focused on the underworld, it is important to remember that abuse of police power is most often meted out on the innocent and vulnerable – people with cognitive impairments, young people, people struggling with substance misuse, migrants and refugees and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. People whose mistreatment by police will likely never be the subject of a royal commission, but who are equally deserving of rights.
As it stands, when someone complains of misconduct, it is more often than not Victoria Police who investigate Victoria Police. Colleagues investigating colleagues. Even in the most extreme example where a person dies in police custody, it is police who will investigate.
The problem of misconduct within Victoria Police is well known. Just three months ago, following a two-year inquiry into the investigation and oversight of police misconduct and corruption, a joint parliamentary report made 69 reform recommendations.
A key recommendation was to create a Police Corruption and Misconduct Division within IBAC – Victoria’s anti-corruption commission. This would end the practice of police investigating themselves and instead introduce a robust and independent body to investigate complaints against police.
But to date, Premier Daniel Andrews has refused to implement this rather obvious reform. Our politicians know exactly how to address the issue of corruption and misconduct within Victoria Police. It’s just a question of political will.
Our politicians are the people we entrust with executive power to protect our justice system. If history were to judge 2018 and our politicians’ commitment to the principles of fairness and justice, I fear we would fare poorly.
The past 12 months have seen an ugly law and order political cage fight like no other. This resulted in the passing of senseless mandatory sentencing laws, draconian bail laws that have seen the number of people held on remand skyrocket, the announcement of another dead-end 1000 bed prison, and an attempt to pass off xenophobia and racism as legitimate political strategy.
The wash-up of all of this is that Victoria is now locking up vulnerable people at record rates. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are being separated from their families and forced into prisons, people with a disability are being criminalised rather than supported in the community, people of colour are being racially profiled and children as young as 10 are being prosecuted, hauled before the courts and imprisoned, when they should be in primary school.
All of this while those responsible for some of Victoria’s most savage crimes might soon walk freebecause of police misconduct.
Clearly, we need more than a royal commission. We need a police force we can trust and we need our politicians to stand up for justice – even when it is unpopular to do so. Because once there’s a hole in the dam it’s hard to stop the flood. When justice is perverted, we all lose.
In declaring electoral victory 10 days ago, Premier Andrews said that Victorians had rejected "the low road of fear and division". Of course we all want a justice system that treats people fairly and equally, irrespective of where we’re from, how much money we have, or the colour of our skin.
The test is whether our elected politicians will remain true to their victory speech. Whether they abandon corrosive policies that see more people sent to prisons and instead embrace a principled justice system that actually makes our community better.
As we look to 2019 – a year that will now see two royal commissions and a newly-appointed Victorian cabinet – we have an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and imagine a Victoria that reflects the best of us: compassionate, inclusive, brave and with a steadfast commitment to justice.
Ruth Barson is a director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.