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Evan Whitton
27 May, 2007  
Six lessons from Madame La Zonga

Evan Whitton reminds us of the lessons that should be learned from the corruption inquiry in Queensland 20 years ago


Your correspondent has lately had occasion (The Oz, Saturday, May 12) to re-ponder the lessons of corruption in Queensland and the inquiry set in motion 20 years ago by the sainted Bill Gunn (1920-2001). Six lessons to go on with.

Lesson 1. Bad laws make bad citizens, worse cops, and even worse politicians

People still living can remember when half Queensland’s citizens were technically criminals, i.e. they regularly broke bad laws, e.g. the one which said it was naughty to bet on a beast outside a race track, and police and politicians profited from the crimes.

imageThe local sergeant extorted bribes from the illegal bookmaker, traditionally in the form of the odds to a nominal £5 – in the 1950s the equivalent of about $150 today – on the winner of the last at Melbourne.

Police also extorted from the bookmakers for the Labor government’s election slush fund prior to 1957. After that, the bribes went into the slush fund of the Country Party government led by Honest (sic) Frank Nicklin (1895-1978, Premier 1957-68, pic).

In the 1980s, according to evidence before the Hon Gerald Fitzgerald QC (b. November 26, 1941) police chief (1976-87) Sir Terry Lewis (b. February 28, 1928) had to make do with a total of a lousy $600,000 from working girls and illegal gaming.

The Premier (1968-87), Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (1911-2005) had access to big ticket extortees, e.g. developers, and I suspect he trousered at least $6 million.

imageSir Robin Askin (1907-81, pic), NSW Premier 1965-75, was even worse. Apart from the big ticket items, he got a cut of the bribes police extorted from aborters and proprietors of illegal casinos, and he went to the headquarters of the leading illegal bookmaker every Saturday and extorted the odds to a nominal $500 on the beast of his choice until he got on a winner. If none won, he got the odds to the nominal $500 on the winner of the last.

Lesson 2. A bad legal system makes bad judges and worse lawyers. Or should that be bad lawyers and worse judges?

Justice is truth. European courts changed to a pro-truth inquiry system after November 1215, but in 1219 the English lawyer-judge cartel decided to persist with the anti-truth accusatorial system.

Why? It may just have been bottomless stupidity. On the other hand, English public life at the time was totally based on trickle-down extortion; the cartel may have decided that corruption is easier if truth is not required.

imageLikewise, it seems that Gibbs J (as he then was) was either a dolt or in the bag. At the 1963 forerunner of the Fitzgerald inquiry, he found that Honest (sic) Frank’s corrupt police chief, Frank Bischof (pic), was not corrupt.

Why would a judge run dead? The leader of the Queensland bar, Arnold Bennett QC, for Nicklin & Co, made it clear that his clients wanted Bischof “cleared”. Harry may have calculated that genuflecting before a government’s wishes would add lustre to the High Court baton in his knapsack. He made the court in 1970 and CJ in 1981.

The upside was that the Gibbs debacle served to make Fitzgerald and the architect of his inquiry, Callinan J (as he now is), who was Gunn’s legal adviser, determined not to repeat it.

Lesson 3. The essential term of reference

Sol Chandler, my old master at The Whore of La Trobe Street, said: “See how it builds?”

The Fitzgerald inquiry started with inferences that a few low-ranking detectives got some walking around money from pimps and criminals involved in illegal gambling, and built to investigate the corrupt Premier of the state.

Fitzgerald was able to follow the corruption trail to the top because Gunn agreed to expand the terms of reference to allow him to inquire into:

“Any other matter or thing appertaining to the aforesaid matters or any of them which to you shall seem meet and proper in the public interest.”

That is the precedent. I wonder if it ever occurred to Mr O.K. Cole that the public interest would be served by a similar expansion of his terms.

Lesson 4. Common lawyers CAN find the truth, but find it hard to recognise it

Fitzgerald’s hearings revealed the truth about scores of miscreants, but only to the 15 or 20 non-lawyers in his hearing room. His assessment may have been accurate, but we’ll never know: his report drew the veil in case he was seen to prejudice later trials.

Many inquiry reports are insipid because recognising the truth is hard for people trained to hide it.

The first Dr Death inquiry (Justinian, September 19, 2005) tried a temporary solution: a barrister to find the truth and two non-lawyers to tell him what it is.

The better solution would be to establish a separate inquisitorial law school to train lawyers to run and report inquiries properly, and to be in place when, as is inevitable, we change to a truth-based justice system with trained judges in charge of the process.

Lesson 5. The importance of the Special Prosecutor

Prosecuting authorities have budgets and priorities that can sometimes cause the untutored to perceive them as some sort of Bermuda Triangle.

Justice Phil Woodward’s 1977-80 drugs inquiry unearthed a vast amount of data on the Griffith ‘Ndrangheta, but only three people – none from the mob – were charged. Fitzgerald’s Special Prosecutor charged some 250.

Lesson 6. The need for standing commissions on corruption

Corruption defeats democracy, and the top-down variety is clearly not unique to Queensland.

The risk is thus too great not to have standing commissions on corruption in Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, and Adelaide as well as in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth.

Perhaps that nice moral person, Mr K. Rudd, will lead the way.