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Interview: Christine Nixon calls for gender quotas for police -

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MATT WORDSWORTH, PRESENTER: When Christine Nixon became Victoria's Police Commissioner in 2001, she made history - the first woman to get to the very top of the force.

Fifteen years on, she remains the only woman to have reached those heights anywhere in the country.

Christine Nixon says something is not right in Australia's police services. The percentage of female officer has flat-lined at about 25 per cent and the number of recruit applications is falling.

She'll address the issue in a keynote speech at the Queensland University of Technology tomorrow and joins me now from Brisbane.

Christine Nixon, welcome.


MATT WORDSWORTH: Is that figure of 25 per cent fairly uniform across the nation and how concerning is it for you?

CHRISTINE NIXON: Look, it is and I think the really important part is that it hasn't changed and I was looking at this as part of my presentation for tomorrow and it should be just much higher.

We should, if we were growing in the way that I always hoped we should for women in policing, we should be up in about the 33, 34 per cent, but we're not.

We're still down at 25 per cent on average and even some of the police organisations that had more women have fallen back.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So why has it just hit this wall?

CHRISTINE NIXON: That's a really good question. It was on a trajectory. I joined in '72 and by about '92 there were 11 per cent and by about 2006 we'd got up to 23 per cent.

By 2016, we've got to 25 per cent so I think it's maybe just a lack of focus, a whole sort of series of things I think that the commissioners need to take into account to improve the rate and make policing more attractive for women.

MATT WORDSWORTH: In 2003, two years into your role as Victorian Police Commissioner, you said, "Female officers were seen as on the fringe." Has that changed?

CHRISTINE NIXON: No, I think many of them have, they've achieved really good things, they've been recognised in many sorts of ways but whilst you're still at that percentage of 25 per cent, you're still not a significant number.

I'd love to see the number up at about 35 per cent or 40 (per cent) and I think once you get that kind of a number of women in policing then you can bring about real change in the culture.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Also in 2003, faced with the lowest representation of female officers in the country, you tried to introduce a quota. What happened with that?

CHRISTINE NIXON: It was very interesting. I looked at Victoria Police numbers and at that stage there were only 14 per cent women, which was about 16 per cent below New South Wales so I simply said we'd look for an exemption and we would look to target and focus on women.

The Police Association of Victoria took me to court and they won and I lost.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Under discrimination law?

CHRISTINE NIXON: That's right, under discrimination law, but I said to myself, "I don't really care. We're going to do it. We're going to attract women, we're going to do as much as we possibly can," and at one point in about, I guess, 2006, about 45 per cent of the applicants to join Victoria Police were women.

MATT WORDSWORTH: And what are they now?

CHRISTINE NIXON: Not sure. The figures aren't exactly as available as they should be. I think it's lower simply because you're just not seeing the numbers increase.

So you've got to get to a significant number of people applying and getting through the system before you can start to push up the numbers.

MATT WORDSWORTH: You once said the introduction of capsicum spray was a big development for female police. What effect did it have?

CHRISTINE NIXON: I have listened for a long time to the idea that women can't cope and I started out without a gun and obviously without capsicum spray and worked on the streets in Darlinghurst and I watched, I did the job and I did it competently and eventually, over time, police officers were equipped with a range of that kind of defensive tools, I guess, and I suppose it made a difference to some women but for many others they just got on and did their job and they didn't use the capsicum spray.

I mean vast amount of police officers never use capsicum spray, they use their intellect, their problem solving skills and they solve issues.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So there's no reason why women can't be 50 per cent or more?

CHRISTINE NIXON: That's true and of course more recently that's been the kind of statements from a range of commissioners who've said across Australia that they're looking to have 50 per cent of recruits as females and I think it's the Northern Territory, and I rang up the Northern Territory Commissioner and couldn't get to him but I did give an interview, same with Australian Federal Police, same with Victoria and South Australia so I just hope that they do what they have said they will do and our policing in this country will be much better for it.

MATT WORDSWORTH: What message is it sending when you've got this flat-lining rate of 25 per cent?

CHRISTINE NIXON: Look, I'm not even sure many of the women in policing would even know. This is not a common kind of knowledge.

They recently had a conference in New South Wales for the 100th anniversary last year and recently in Victoria, they had awards for women in policing.

I'm not sure they really even understand.

I mean some women of course, like I know women in the broader sector would say, well, that's okay, I'm fine, I don't need special treatment and I don't need to find ways to attract women and that's fine but all of those women got there because we had anti-discrimination legislation, because many of us pushed boundaries, got maternity leave, got flexible work conditions and then tried to improve the way women were promoted.

So I think it's important we think a bit differently about that issue.

MATT WORDSWORTH: A report in August into the AFP found 46 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men had been sexually harassed, something even Commissioner Andrew Colvin said he found shocking.

What did you think when you heard those figures?

CHRISTINE NIXON: Same as him. I just thought it was terrible and it is such an indication of a culture that is looking to reject what I call the other. Now whether the other was shorter police officers or perhaps was people from different cultural backgrounds or women, and I think that it needs to be tackled by the management of policing and I know in Victoria they had a study a bit less number of women over the five years had said they were harassed but it now needs to be tackled and if people do that they need to be taken before tribunals or courts or whatever's appropriate and gone out of the organisation.

What bothers me when you have that kind of harassment is what are they doing to the citizens? And it's kind of a culture that builds and we need to change that culture.

MATT WORDSWORTH: To change that culture, to get more women into the force, what are the practical measures the commissioners need to take?

CHRISTINE NIXON: You need to advertise. In ads in Victoria in 2001, we had a recruiting campaign but many of the people who featured in that were women, women with kids, people from different cultural backgrounds.

So you need to make it look like it's a job where women would be welcomed.

You need to go out to the schools, you need to go out to the universities, you need to absolutely focus and you have many senior women also involved talking about what a great job it is and certainly for me, I was in the police for a long, long time and it was, for the vast majority of it, a terrific job to be in.

So I think it's about selling it, it's about absolutely holding people accountable for delivering on those targets.

You have to say to the managers in recruiting and in the management command, "We're going to do this and I'm going to hold you accountable for it," and I hope they do.

MATT WORDSWORTH: I want to get a quick reflection on other law and order issues. Now that you have thrown off the cloak of commissioner, I have read you support treating drug addiction as a health issue first rather than a policing issue.

Does that mean you think some drugs should be decriminalised?

CHRISTINE NIXON: I think in many cases it is a health issue. You look at people in jail and many of them have mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction.

I think the figure's 70 per cent so I think we have to really think about is this idea of just putting people in jail or charging them and putting them through the criminal justice system the way to do it?

I think Drug Courts has been a great way to do it. One of the things you do is get the person before a court and get some action taken but I do think we have to think about the police resources that go into minor drug possession.

I'm not talking about ice, I'm not talking about amphetamines, I think perhaps marijuana but I think we need to think about how you treat the person and how you get them off that addiction.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So decriminalising marijuana?

CHRISTINE NIXON: Well, I think personal possession. I mean it's been tried in different places and I know the quality of marijuana is so much higher these days and the potency of it but I think you've got to say where's your best outcomes going to come from and where should you put your resources?

MATT WORDSWORTH: Alright, unfortunately we're out of time, Christine Nixon but thank you so much for your time.