Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rigorous government inquiry to test Simon Overland and Victoria Police

Not a moment too soon. They are undoubtedly the most corrupt force in Australia

VICTORIA Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland faces a humiliating inquiry into his force with rarely used sweeping powers framed to radically overhaul the senior administration. The Baillieu government yesterday appointed Jack Rush QC to inquire into the structure, operations and administration of police command.

The move follows months of controversy that culminated in Mr Overland forcing his departing deputy Ken Jones to go on leave on Friday without alerting the government.

Mr Rush will have the power to force witnesses to surrender documents and answer questions under rarely used provisions in Victoria's Public Administration Act.

The government wants Mr Rush to uncover the truth behind the public falling-out between Mr Overland and Sir Ken. This means both men could be forced to surrender documents and provide evidence to the Rush inquiry.

The terms of reference under Mr Rush - who was the dogged counsel assisting the bushfire royal commission - include examining the effectiveness of the senior structure of police command, the extent to which the senior command structures work and the extent to which information technology and administrative functions are overseen.

Premier Ted Baillieu announced the inquiry after a marathon cabinet meeting debated Mr Overland's future and tried to find a way to break through the growing crisis over the chief commissioner's command.

While Mr Baillieu pledged support for Mr Overland, former National Crime Authority chairman Peter Faris QC described the inquiry as a two-step process to sack the police chief. "I think that if they had confidence in him, they would not be having an inquiry," Mr Faris said.

"The inquiry demonstrates a lack of confidence," he told The Australian. Under the powers of this inquiry, Mr Rush will be able to enter any office - whether police or government - to uncover evidence, force witnesses to surrender documents or provide evidence, and decide whether a witness receives legal representation. He will also be able to conduct the inquiry without being bound by the rules of evidence.

The announcement came as the Police Association called for a royal commission into the leadership and governance of the force over the past five years. Secretary Greg Davies said the government's decision to opt for an inquiry instead was a "very beige outcome".

"A royal commission could look into the massive failings that have become public knowledge in recent weeks going back for some half a decade," he said. "Not only in relation to the structures and leadership team of the Victorian police force, but the reasons that so many hundreds of millions of Victorian taxpayers dollars have been wasted."

Mr Baillieu said he was concerned by the "apparent difficulties that exist at the command level of Victoria Police". He also questioned why Mr Overland failed to alert the government that he planned to send Sir Ken on early leave, a move that was seen as an effective dismissal.

But legal advice was that Mr Overland had acted within his powers by sending Sir Ken on early leave, after Sir Ken had resigned, effective from August 5.

Just before cabinet debated his future, Mr Overland took a thinly-veiled swipe at Sir Ken, effectively accusing him on radio of having leaked details of a private email that is believed to have related to the row over parolees, where up to six people died because police officers had not been properly informed about who was on parole.

Mr Baillieu said that Mr Overland had provided a version of events of his row with Sir Ken. "The Chief Commissioner assured us that his decisions regarding the events of May 6 had been made on a proper and substantive basis," he said.

"It is critical that Victoria Police command works together closely and effectively in order to protect the Victorian community and ensure proper administration of the Victorian police force."

Mr Overland was appointed more than two years ago by Labor. He has endured months of controversy, including a $100 million overrun in the police crime database project, a row over police statistics handed to Labor last year and the alleged murder of up to six people by parolees who had already breached their parole conditions and could have been back in jail.

The government recently made it clear that it had lost patience with Mr Overland, but yesterday Mr Baillieu said he retained his confidence.

Mr Rush will report to the government within six months and the inquiry recommendations will be tabled within 30 parliamentary sitting days after that.

The Australian sought comment from Mr Overland. A spokeswoman said last night: "Victoria Police will work with the government to achieve the best outcomes for Victoria Police and the Victorian community."


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