Like many small towns grown large, by the  1980s Brisbane had become corrupt. Small towns do not start out  corrupt, they just grow into it. What starts out as the necessity of  looking out for each other and a rather less attractive distrust of  strangers eventually becomes much more sinister. This corrupt mindset  reached its apogee in Brisbane in the 1980s.

Corruption in high places was exposed by a  royal commission chaired by a shrewd former judge and lawyer by the  name of Tony Fitzgerald QC. The Fitzgerald Inquiry as it came to be  widely known was reluctantly set up in 1987 by the National Party’s  acting Premier Bill Gunn, when Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was out  of town, after some courageous investigative work by journalists,  especially at the ABC and The Courier Mail, had lifted  the lid on some very dodgy, dark goings on in the Sunshine State. The  final straw had been a Four Corners television programme on ABC entitled, with a keen sense of irony, The Moonlight State that went to air on the evening of Monday 11th May 1987. It told of the  involvement of Queensland Police in protecting gambling and  prostitution. However much journalists are derided for wallowing in the  gutter, Queenslanders should be eternally grateful for this small, very  gutsy group of muckrakers, especially Chris Masters, then of the ABC, and Phil Dickie, reporting for The Courier Mail, who worked with policeman-turned-whistleblower Nigel Powell.

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Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen sending a message

Fitzgerald found endemic corruption  existed within public life in the State and set out a template for  reforming the system. Some people claimed, including Fitzgerald himself,  without presenting any corroborating evidence, that he had only  scratched the surface of the murky underworld that so many prominent  people had their fingers in. It is very likely that he missed a lot. He  never produced evidence on the drugs underworld, for instance, and many  people believed there was just as much Police meddling in that business.  In Last Drinks, a fictional account of the period, Andrew  McGahan told of how corruption extended to the government handing big  electrical maintenance contracts to cronies. Nothing of this sort was  reported by the Fitzgerald Inquiry or indeed later surfaced, but it is  an example of the type of illegal activity that many suspected was going  on. There are subtler ways of corrupting the system too. Nudges and  winks about post political board appointments, lobbying for changes to  safety legislation that benefits supplier companies with close political  ties, or union heavyweights tapping companies for ‘slush funds’.

But, despite what crack detectives manage  to do in the movies, most investigators say you can usually only find  out what people tell you. And there was strong suspicion that some of  the bent coppers who turned State’s evidence in the Royal Commission had  said only what they needed to, and perhaps stuck the boot into a few  innocents as well, to settle a few old scores.

The Police bore a heavy burden of guilt  for the existing state of affairs. Evidence showed clearly the disgraced  and eventually jailed Police Commissioner Terry Lewis had a  particularly close relationship with Premier Bjelke-Petersen, and that  he had influenced a whole range of appointments, including some to the  judicial benches, which was well beyond the role of a senior civil  servant in the Westminster system of government nominally in operation  at the time.

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Corrupt police commissioner Terry Lewis (pic courtesy The Courier Mail)

Lewis was friendly too with Queensland  Supreme Court Justice Angelo Vasta, who was removed from office by a  chastened State Parliament in June 1989 because he had made false  allegations and fiddled his income tax returns.

After being squeezed kicking and  screaming out of the premiership by his anxious National Party in late  1987, Bjelke-Petersen himself went to trial in 1991 for two counts of  perjury and one of accepting brown paper bags full of cash from a  businessman. The jury could not reach a decision and so he escaped  conviction. It later emerged that the jury foreman, Luke Shaw, was  instrumental in forcing a hung jury and preventing a guilty verdict. It  turned out that he was a member of Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party. A  subsequent enquiry found that two members of Bjelke-Petersen’s defence  team had contrived to place him on the jury.

One way or another during the last years of the ‘80s decade it was revealed that corruption had spread far and wide.

In some ways Brisbane brought the  corruption that Fitzgerald unearthed on itself. That, of course, does  not excuse the corruption of police and politicians, which was  egregious. But the protection rackets that were exposed involved  sex-for-cash and gambling, activities that people have enjoyed since  time began. It would not have been so easy to corrupt the system if  there had been more enlightened laws that regulated rather than tried to  sweep these matters under the carpet. But Queensland was not a liberal  place. The Government ran a ‘nanny state’ that saw itself better able to  make decisions about how its citizens lived their lives than they  themselves were.

Several policemen (there were no police  women involved) took a lot of money for agreeing not to disrupt  prostitution and gambling operations, particularly but not only in  Fortitude Valley, then the seedy underbelly of Brisbane, not today’s  regenerated trendy district. They in effect regulated the sex industry  by dictating how brothels could operate. They fixed a rotating schedule  of arrests of prostitutes that was agreed with the proprietor pimps so  as to present a semblance of legitimate police activity in the vice  trade. They took protection money from illegal casinos and from  so-called SP [Starting Price] bookmakers.

It was not until the late 1990s that  Brisbane got relatively enlightened prostitution laws as recommended by  Fitzgerald almost a decade earlier, led by then new premier Peter  Beattie. Beattie, who had been closely involved with implementing the  Police reforms as head of the Parliamentary Committee overseeing the  Fitzgerald-inspired Criminal Justice Commission, which was set up to  oversee the Police Service.

The police protection racket – centred in  the temptingly named Licencing Branch – was known internally as ‘The  Joke’. At its core was a group known as the ‘Rat Pack’. According to  evidence at the Inquiry of key member and bagman, Jack Herbert, the only  one who chose to sing to the Inquiry like the crooners they were named  after, they often extorted as much as $56,000 a month from organised  gambling and prostitution between 1979 and 1987 that went into ‘The  Pool’. Then there were extra payments of $344,100 ‘on the side’. On his  figures Commissioner Lewis filched a total of $611,650, while Herbert, a  former London bobby who had joined the Queensland force in 1949,  himself pocketed over $3 million. ‘The Joke’ probably garnered more than  that, and it certainly extended back further into a least the 1960s.

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Millionaire bagman Jack Herbert, a former London Bobby

For several weeks from Monday July 27th,  1987 the whole town was riveted by the proceedings in courtroom 29 of  Brisbane’s Law Courts on George Street where the hearings were convened.  Fitzgerald clearly intended to make an impact by starting at the top.  There were some sensational events. The first witness he called was  Police Commissioner Terry Lewis who said he had had verbal instructions  from five successive Police Ministers and the Premier to turn a blind  eye to brothels that were operating in a ‘tolerable manner’ and that it  had been policy that prostitution should be ‘contained and controlled’.  These claims were unwise and tactically extremely naive because they put  his hitherto greatest defenders, senior government ministers and above  all Bjelke-Petersen himself, offside from day one. Ministers contacted  by the press vehemently denied Lewis’ claims, not surprisingly since so  many of them had spoken out loudly against prostitution and the  Bjelke-Petersen government prided itself, at least in public, for its  moral righteousness. Being soft on ‘law and order’ has never been a  recipe for electoral success.

From the perspective of the coterie of  corrupt police, matters went downhill from the moment Lewis testified  and the hitherto carefully managed ‘Joke’ unravelled under pressure from  anxious police witnesses to whom offers of immunity from prosecution  were made. By the end of the first fortnight’s evidence Fitzgerald felt  able to say the ‘issue is no more whether there was any corruption as  how much and by whom’.

The Inquiry spent some time investigating  the puerile culture in the Police Force in which corruption had  thrived. Sergeant Eric Deveney, for example, told of refusing a bribe  from two senior officers. The next day dog turds were left on his desk  and ‘Dog’ was written on his notepad. Thereafter he was ridiculed by  fellow policemen barking and making dog sounds at him whenever he walked  past.

In time, of course, revelations from the  Inquiry became almost dull as over 400 witnesses traipsed through its  courtroom and the terms of reference and staffing grew. Fitzgerald got a  deputy, Patsy Wolfe QC. The enquiry was enlivened from time to time by  Fitzgerald’s keen sense of humour.

In testimony, brothel owner Hector  Hapeta, dubbed the King of Brisbane’s prostitution in the 1980s, claimed  his annual earnings of $56,000 in the previous year came from leasing a  small van he had bought five years previously for $5,000 to a Mr Ash in  Sydney. Fitzgerald asked: ‘You do not know if Mr Ash is interested in  leasing any other trucks?’ At the height of his empire, Hapeta reputedly  had an annual turnover of $30 million and paid $1 million to corrupt  policeman.

It was never clear from evidence to the  Inquiry how much the government had been involved in corruption. Two  ministers were mentioned and three were later jailed for fiddling their  expenses, including the appropriately named Don ‘Shady’ Lane, a former  policeman himself.

The most disturbing connection was the  close relationship between Lewis and Bjelke-Petersen. The Premier had  appointed Lewis in extraordinary circumstances and contrary to advice,  promoting him from Inspector to Commissioner via a very short stay as  Assistant Commissioner. Inspector in September, Commissioner in  November! Bjelke-Petersen never adequately explained this meteoric rise.  And curiously the minutes of the cabinet meeting that made this  decision were the only set that Fitzgerald was unable to find.

Former Commissioner Whitrod told Dickie  that whenever he tried to talk to Bjelke-Petersen about illegal  gambling, he found the Premier already had the information. He talked of  ‘Joh’s little clique, one of his protective staff’ within the Police  Force.

And we know that Lewis and  Bjelke-Petersen frequently discussed a whole host of issues and  particularly key appointments to powerful positions, many of which were  entirely outside Lewis’ jurisdiction. Suspicion must fall on the  now-closed Police Special Branch which has since been discovered to have  been collecting information on a wide range of people who had done  nothing more than express opinions that did not accord with the status  quo seen through the lens of the Police and Government. It is hard to  imagine that Lewis did not pass some of the scuttlebutt from this source  on to Bjelke-Petersen.

Tony Fitzgerald was not the first or even  second choice of the government to chair the Inquiry that Gunn  announced and that Bjelke-Petersen did not like the sound of at all. The  premier reportedly told Gunn that he ‘had a tiger by the tail and it  will end up biting you’. Initially Gunn, possibly as a result of a  suggestion from Lewis, favoured a judge thought to be sympathetic to the  government, but the Chief Justice, Sir Dormer (Bob) Andrews, let it be  known that he did not fancy a judge heading the Inquiry. Attention  turned to a Queen’s Council and in particular Ian Callinan QC,  subsequently a justice on the High Court of Australia. He effectively  recused himself because he had acted for the Government in several high  profile commercial cases and thought he might lack the perception of  independence. He suggested 46-year-old University of Queensland-trained  barrister Gerald Edward Fitzgerald QC, known as Tony because a nun at  his school had called him that and it had stuck. Thus was the tiger set  loose, at a cost of $300 an hour. Fitzgerald himself thought he might  have got the job because he was notorious for nothing and had no  interest in politics, according to the veteran crime and law reporter,  Evan Whitton.

He handed in his 620-page report on the  morning of 3rd July 1989; two years after the Inquiry had started. It  was warmly received by the media. Whitton described it as ‘not so much  sensational as sensationally brilliant’. He said of Fitzgerald himself  that ‘It was obvious almost from the first words he uttered at his  enquiry two years ago that (he) had a mind like a piranha; now he  appears as supple as a snake, or at any rate the snake charmer’.

As to why he did not keep digging and  digging to root out corruption from all Brisbane’s dark alleys,  Fitzgerald later said that he had a better appreciation of how big the  problem was than the general community. But ‘trying to deal with it is  like trying to empty the Brisbane River with a rusty bucket,’ he said.  He decided, therefore, ‘to proceed to the point where the Parliament and  the people are aware of the need for a new approach, and then to stop  to design it’.

He clearly succeeded. To his largely  unrewarded credit, Mike Ahern, who had taken over the poisoned chalice  of National Party leader and Premier from the discredited  Bjelke-Petersen, agreed to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations ‘lock,  stock and barrel’. These, as it turned out, called for sweeping reform  to government administration, the criminal justice system and electoral  system, as well as in the Police Force itself.

In reality, Ahern probably had little  choice but to do so. Politically his options were severely narrowed once  Fitzgerald had established the credibility of his Inquiry and the  extent of official corruption, but still it took courage, because it  incensed his Party and it doomed his government to defeat at the next  election.

The Queensland Police Force was a major  focus of the Review and Fitzgerald provided great detail in how it  should be restructured. My wife at the time had a media relations job  with the Police at its headquarters in Roma Street. She got it, like so  many get jobs in Brisbane, through a friend, a neighbour.

My wife started with the Police in  mid-1989 just prior to the Fitzgerald Report being handed down and just  before the government appointed a new police commissioner to oversee  reform. Strangely, he turned out to be a ‘Mexican’ from the supposedly  despised Peoples’ Republic of Victoria, where he had been Deputy  Commissioner of Police. Commissioner Noel Newnham was brought in as an  outsider to clean up the Police Force that had been so disgraced by  Fitzgerald.

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clean but naive? Commissioner Noel Newhnam

It goes without saying that Newnham never  had a chance, even though he struggled mightily in the cause. Police  forces the world over are masters at the black arts of incrimination,  reputation rubbishing and verballing, and in recent times the darker  forces in the Queensland Force had had an easy run.

He was initially, at least to the  outsider like me, a breath of fresh air, if somewhat humourless and too  earnest. He had an enlightened view of how a police force should operate  in a modern democracy. In a novel and probably unique position for a  senior Queensland policeman, he believed that society should tell  policemen and woman what they wanted and expected of them. Until that  time, various police spokesmen and Police Union representatives had not  been backward in telling the public how things ought to be.  Symbolically, ‘Force’ was replaced with ‘Service’ in the Police name.

I recall Newnham saying on radio that it  was not realistic to expect policemen to break the law by, for instance,  smoking dope during undercover operations, unless it was specifically  approved by Parliament. This seemed odd initially. How could an  undercover cop do his job if he could not break the law? Is that not  what being undercover is all about? Well, on reflection, no, it is not.  Newnham was laying down an important marker in establishing that there  were no circumstances in which police should break the law. If the  community wants coppers to bend the rules when operating undercover it  should introduce an explicit enabling law. This came as a shock to many  policemen (and it was mostly men, women did not thrive in the matey,  closed police ranks of the time) as my wife would later testify during  pillow talk at home. But Newnham was not just playing to the gallery.  What you saw is what you got. He said the same things in private.

He was also trying to introduce an open  culture in which the public were allowed to see what was going on, warts  and all. This, he reasoned, was important if society was to make  judgements about what it wanted from its police service. While this  open, non-defensive approach was especially refreshing, it was also, of  course, threatening to those on the inside. They had to be doing and  seen to be doing a professional job. The public will forgive its  servants for problems in society if they are clearly doing their best.  That might have been the problem for many Queensland policemen at the  time. They were not doing their best, except in accruing maximum  personal benefit. And of course the bad apples spoiled the whole barrel.

Newnham was often not able to support  individual policemen, perhaps because they were corrupt or they were not  doing their best, or perhaps because they stood idly by while others  took advantage of the system. The old saying that ‘for evil to survive,  good men must do nothing’ seemed to be especially apt at that time.

So, because he was a ‘Mexican’, and  because he was trying to clean things up, he was unpopular with large  swathes of police and with the unseen underworld in league with the  probably few outright corrupt policemen still in the system.

Newnham’s trouble was intensified by his  political naiveté. Unfortunately, he was not appointed by the new Labor  Party government of Premier Wayne Goss, so was viewed with some  suspicion by the Administration, not, I think on grounds that he might  be corrupt himself, but because he was perceived as being from the other  side of politics. He was appointed in the dying days of the previous  conservative government which had promised then opposition leader Goss a  say in the appointment. But in the event, the government announced that  Newnham had got the job while Goss was interviewing one of the other  candidates on the short list.

Newnham’s loose cannon style of appearing  on radio talk shows ‘telling it like it is’ could often cause short  term political problems for a Police Minister who did not necessarily  share the same policy agenda. Newnham’s big blunder was to approach Goss  directly with claims about improper behaviour by the Police Minister  Terry Mackenroth, a key factional ally of Goss and an important man in  the Labor Party caucus.

Newnham alleged Mackenroth had accepted a  cash donation from dismissed Supreme Court Judge Angelo Vasta in return  for a political favour. The claim, vehemently denied by Mackenroth, was  that Vasta had given Mackenroth money while asking that an incoming  Labor government reconsider his dismissal from the judicial bench. The  Australian Federal Police bugged Vasta’s brother-in-law Santo Coco’s  office (he and Vasta were facing bribery charges at the time; Vasta was  later acquitted). They recorded a phone call with Mackenroth that  referred to the donation. A transcript of the taped conversation was  later released and much like the Nixon tapes about Watergate, it verges  on the incoherent and does not clearly implicate anyone. Mackenroth  later produced a receipt to show that money he received from Vasta had  been forwarded to Labor Party coffers.

So the knives were out for Newnham; he  never recovered the government’s confidence, if indeed he ever had it.  And while one or two knives were in political hands, most were in the  clutches of disgruntled policemen.

First to launch an attack was a clearly  furious Mackenroth who raised allegation of misconduct by Newnham with  the Criminal Justice Commission, which investigated and rejected them.

But a later misconduct tribunal  investigation headed by Richard Chesterman QC found Newnham guilty of  failing to refund $2,102 in airfares advanced to attend an Interpol  Police conference in Ottawa, Canada. He had refunded all the many other  airfares advanced on this basis, and from the less-than-fully-informed  sidelines, it looked like Newnham had simply forgotten this one.

But this did not seem to be good enough  and it was recommended Newnham be sacked even though Chesterman QC said  he did not believe he had set out to keep the money.

‘I do not conclude that Mr Newnham  intended never to pay the amount but it is my judgment that he decided  not to pay unless and until he was presented with something in the  nature of an invoice from Q.P.S,’ the judgment said.

As Courier Mail journalist Chris  Griffith commented at the time, ‘This has left many wondering whether  Mr Newnham deserved the harsh penalty of dismissal; indeed no motive or  advantage was established for his decision to hold onto the money’.

After much angst, including a rally  called in support of Newnham, Chesterman QC’s finding was overturned on  appeal to the Supreme Court and Newnham was reinstalled as Police  Commissioner. Although in another unsavoury twist to the tale, the CJC  was accused of running dead on the issue in the Supreme Court. It was  said about town that CJC head Sir Max Bingham, another appointment made  in the dying days of the previous conservative government, and Newnham  were too close and that the CJC was very keen to see Newnham continue.  Indeed, they probably were, because they saw him as an honest cop trying  to reform the system; it doesn’t seem much of a crime.

But it was to prove a temporary lull in  the campaign against him. Towards the end of 1992, the Police Union  sponsored a ‘no confidence’ motion against Newnham that was upheld  despite accusations of irregularities in the ballot’s conduct.  Ironically in the 1970s, the same fate had been meted out to another  reforming Police Commissioner, Ray Whitrod, but never to jailed corrupt  commissioner Terry Lewis. At best the Queensland Police Union has little  sense of strategic public relations.

And it was disturbing in Brisbane at that  time that there was little evidence of widespread outrage at the way we  as a society were treating a palpably honest cop trying to sort out the  legacy of all the bent ones. It was almost as if we preferred the  corruption of the Lewis era. Probably though, it was just apathy amongst  a public that had become sick and tired of the whole sorry mess that  seemed to have been going on for years. And, as I recall, with claim and  counter claim, it was no longer easy to know who to believe.

Not long after the vote of no confidence  Newham did not seek renewal of his contract as Police Commissioner and  Goss did not press him to stay on. He returned to live a relatively  reclusive life in Melbourne.

Curiously the legal profession was mostly  quiet during this time, perhaps reflecting that Brisbane was too small a  town in which to stick your head above the parapet. It was to invite  someone to kick you in the head.

But soon-to-be deputy Premier Tom Burns  said in Parliament in 1989 after members had voted overwhelmingly to  dismiss Angelo Vasta from the Supreme Court: ‘Today this parliament  heard an impressive reply of almost two and half hours by Mr Justice  Vasta to a unique report that identifies him as a liar, perjurer, a tax  cheat and an unreliable witness, but at the same time finds him to be a  good and honest judge. That says something about the judicial system in  the state’.

On the other hand, there is some evidence  – such as the constructive role played by Ian Callinan QC – that the  legal fraternity had played a key role in the earlier Fitzgerald  Inquiry. The ABC’s Chris Masters said he thought the Brisbane  legal community had ‘had corrupt police up to their eye teeth and they  were very keen to get the Fitzgerald Inquiry right’.

So where does this leave the Police  Service in the Sunshine State? Newnham was succeeded by a Queenslander,  Jim O’Sullivan, who had been a chief investigator for Fitzgerald and was  widely seen as clean. Fitzgerald said he was above reproach and urged  that he have a major role in the clean-up. He did not bring the same  open style to his command as Newnham – maybe he knew the Service too  well to lift his public profile too high, tall poppies get knocked off,  and he was not a natural communicator – but he seemed to guide the  Service to a more modern conception of itself.

Fitzgerald and the immediate aftermath  was a pivotal time. A correspondent using the moniker Dragonlady  captured the mood when in 2003 she posted an appreciative note on the ABC website reminiscing about Chris Masters’ The Moonlight State show that started the corruption-busting ball rolling. She said:

‘Those of you who have never been  affected by a police state have no understanding of the impact it can  have on your daily lives. If you had strong convictions about social  justice, civil liberties or were anti-nuclear and tried to speak out you  were harassed and intimidated at every turn. Knowing that your  politicians and big business people were openly corrupt and yet  Queenslanders seemed to accept it was very difficult. I will never  forget the amazement I felt on watching that Four Corners program and  finally seeing the whole sorry mess documented, dramatized and detailed  for all the world to see. Chris Masters helped to bring truth to  Queensland and it is now a very different place because of it.’