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Thursday, 30 September 1993
Page: 1500

Senator SPINDLER (12.58 p.m.) —I wish to address the report entitled Report of Investigations into Complaints arising from Demonstrations held at Aidex, November 1991, issued by the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. I welcome the Ombudsman's report of these investigations as a careful, thorough and constructive assessment. I seek leave to table the report.

  Leave granted.

Senator SPINDLER —The arms exhibition, which touted Australia as a weapons dealer and armaments manufacturer to this region and to the world at large, attracted some 1,200 demonstrators from peace, disarmament, church, political and union groups. Some 400 officers were deployed during the demonstrations. Honourable senators may recall that I and some other Democrat senators spent as much time as parliamentary duties would allow at the AIDEX demonstrations and that I reported then to the Senate my observation that police were using excessive force.

  I vividly recall one occasion when some teenagers lined up behind me saying, `They will not hit us if you are standing in front of us'. The Commonwealth ombudsman, Philippa Smith, describes `the painful and potentially injurious holds' members of the Australian Federal Police employed, even on compliant protesters, including wrist locks, angle of the jaw pressure, hair pulling, ear pulling, kneeing and so on. She describes it in dispassionate language, which is nonetheless chilling. It is confirmation of my own observation that in many instances police officers went beyond their proper professional role and adopted the attitude of combatants in a battle, often exacerbated by lack of planning and supervision and a clear chain of command, as well as inadequate training and inadequate arrest procedures and lack of identification.

  In a response which goes a long way towards the code of conduct I called for at the time, the ombudsman says in a letter to me that the AFP has received her report constructively and that discussions are under way to take action to improve these aspects. The ombudsmen also acknowledges that in many cases police officers were provoked by some protesters and that some 40 officers sustained injuries in the subsequent scuffles. The point remains that police officers must have the capacity to respond in a professional manner, and that people exercising their democratic right of political protest should not be intimidated or injured.

  In all, 169 people lodged complaints against police behaviour. There were 410 separate allegations, and I quote from the report:

Of these, 78 have been found to be unsubstantiated, 157 to be incapable of determination, 6 have been found to be substantiated and 1 reconciled. Discretion has been exercised under section 24 of the Complaints Act not to investigate 84 complaints involving 168 allegations, mostly because the complainant could not be contacted or a person more directly involved in the incident had complained. Six people have withdrawn their complaints. Action has still to be completed in 8 cases.

The large number of unresolved complaints is due, in large measure, to the high standard of proof—namely, beyond reasonable doubt—now employed in the assessment of complaints against police. Given the importance of maintaining community confidence in the integrity of our police force, the civil balance of probability standard would seem more appropriate, and I understand that this is now under consideration.

  The large number of complaints directed through my office—that is, 114—points to one other large area of concern highlighted in the ombudsman's report, namely the investigation of complaints against police by the AFP's own internal investigation unit and the reluctance of potential complainants to make complaints against Caesar and have them investigated by Caesar. In real terms, channelling the complaints really only made sure that the complaints went to the right address and also made it possible for me to receive progress reports from the ombudsman's office. It is, however, important to appreciate that the motivation for people to channel their complaints through my office was the desire to avoid harassment by police who may have become aware of the identity of the complainants. Indeed, I have received reports of two occasions where local protesters were subsequently accosted by police but significantly, they did not wish to pursue the matter for fear of further harassment.

  The other motivation was the wish to ensure, as far as possible, that proper investigation is undertaken—something that I could not influence, of course, to any great degree. Again, the community's perception is important. Ombudsman Philippa Smith devotes a substantial part of her report to this aspect. She details the lack of objectivity of some investigatory reports which were disregarding and distorting evidence and slanting it in favour of police colleagues. She also adverts to the delays caused by the lack of investigatory staff, the lack of the management control system for the investigating process and last, but not least, the lack of staff in her own office.

  I have already mentioned that the burden of proof for complaints is likely to receive early attention. It is pleasing to note also that a joint ombudsman-AFP working party will examine the training and case management procedures of the internal investigation unit. It remains for me to urge strongly that the ombudsman must have the capacity to act on her own initiative in cases of complaints against police, as the ombudsman has in all other areas. This applies in particular to the investigation of complaints which the ombudsman might wish to pursue when a parallel complaint has been lodged by another person. At the moment this choice is not open to the ombudsman.

  The other necessary and urgent action is to increase the staff resources of the office to ensure that as much of the investigation as possible is carried out by the ombudsman's office. These measures are essential if the community is to maintain—or, in many cases, regain—respect and confidence in our police forces and in the safeguards of our democratic system to ensure that the democratic right to political protest is not eroded.

  May I say, Mr Acting Deputy President, that it is refreshing in this instance to see that an agency such as the ombudsman's office is not content simply to provide a report, but has become actively engaged in follow-up work to ensure that some of the deficiencies that have been identified are in fact addressed. In large measure this satisfies my own requirement, which I suggested at the time, of a code of conduct for such occasions. In conclusion, I wish to state that the thoroughness and objectivity of this report, and the constructive improvement already under way as a result, have done a lot to bolster my own confidence in the safeguards of our democratic system, and have given me new motivation to build on this and to improve current arrangements.