By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
The New South Wales Crime Commission is a statutory body established by the state government in 1986 to, as its motto says, ‘Analyse. Investigate. Confiscate’; that is, to analyse and investigate serious criminal activity, and confiscate proceeds of crime.
The Commission has extensive powers to investigate crime and gather intelligence, and is “one of the few law enforcement and intelligence agencies in Australia that can hold hearings and supply evidence obtained in the course of its investigations to courts and various agencies”.
It aims to disrupt organised crime even before alleged offenders are dealt with by the courts, and is even empowered in certain situations to compel the disclosure of evidence.
Given the breadth of the Crime Commission’s powers and complexity of its investigations, the law currently requires it to be headed by a person with equivalent qualifications to a Supreme Court justice, currently Peter Bodor QC.
Indeed, the Commissioner is instrumental in the organisation’s investigations and determinations.
Bureaucrat to head Crime Commission
However, the NSW state government proposes to amend the Crime Commission Act 2012 (NSW) to introduce the head position of chief executive officer which could be held by anyone, regardless of qualifications and experience.
The proposal paves the way for installing a bureaucrat who is a aligned with the government’s interests, thereby removing the independence of the body while limiting its ability to investigate and gather intelligence as it sees fit.
Former NSW Supreme Court justice, Michael Adams QC, was appointed last years as the first Chief Commissioner of the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC).
The LECC merges the oversight and investigative roles of the Police Integrity Commission, the Police Division of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Inspector of the Crime Commission. It’s primary role is to oversee police operations across the state, including the investigation of police misconduct.
Mr Adams has called the government’s proposal to amend the Crime Commission “retrograde”, “dangerous” and a threat to its independence.
He is concerned the new CEO will essentially be a manager or bureaucrat without sufficient investigatory experience, and will hamper the Crime Commission’s ability to meet its objectives and may even lead to abuses of power.
“In light of the extraordinary powers abrogating civil rights which may be exercised by the Crime Commission, this difference is a worrying development,” Mr Adams remarked. “Such an individual is unlikely to be qualified to undertake investigations, let alone exercise highly intrusive compulsory powers.”
Adams expressed particular concerns about the independence of the new appointment.
“The abolition of this arrangement, without replacement by a statutory guarantee of functional independence”, he stated.
He says he was disappointed the LECC “was not consulted in any way” about the proposal.
Opposition attorney-general Paul Lynch mirrored Adams’ criticism, stating that the new appointee is not “likely not to have the necessary skills” or the “necessary independence.”
“Nothing in the government’s plan will improve the capacity of the Crime Commission to fight crime,” he stated. “The government should pay proper attention to Chief Commissioner Adams and his warnings… The head of the Commission should have legal qualifications”.
The current head of the Crime Commission, Peter Bodor QC, said he was only recently informed of the plan to change the leadership of the organisation from a judicial to non-judicial role.
He expressed the view that such a move would weaken the Commission, potentially making investigations less effective in terms of disrupting organised crime.
Indeed, there are concerns the proposal will lead to the appointment of a state crony who will direct the investigations that are most beneficial to the government of the day, rather than focusing on the most serious organised criminal conduct.