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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: For Queenslanders, Tony Fitzgerald is a household name – the man who headed the famous Fitzgerald corruption inquiry that brought down the Bjelke-Petersen Government after 32 years in power and ended in prison terms for three former government ministers and the state’s Police Commissioner.
He regularly gives speeches and writes articles, but in the 25 years since the Fitzgerald Inquiry, has given very view interviews.
Mr Fitzgerald has recently leant his name to a campaign asking the major political parties in Queensland to sign up to four principles of good governance and he’s so concerned by the direction of politics in this country that he agreed to sit down for an interview with 7.30.
Mr Fitzgerald, welcome to the program
TONY FITZGERALD, CORRUPTION INQUIRY COMMISSIONER: Thank you very much.
LEIGH SALES: In the lead-up to the Queensland election, you’ve spearheaded a campaign asking all political parties to commit to four principles of accountability and good governance. Firstly, what are those four principles?
TONY FITZGERALD: Well they’re really simply asking people to behave democratically. The first one is to govern for the peace, order and – peace, welfare and good government of Queensland, which is required by the Constitution. The second is to – not in order – treat all people equally with no privileged access; to make decisions only in the best interests of the state and not by reference to personal considerations or considerations favouring contacts and so forth. The fourth one is to keep the people properly informed, accurately informed and as promptly as possible in relation to all matters of public interest or potential controversy.
LEIGH SALES: And why did you feel the need to remind politicians what good governance is and what public expectations are?
TONY FITZGERALD: Well, I think, really, public expectations have dropped off those requirements because politicians have ignored them for so long. They’re really requirements of what we call representative democracy, which is a system in which a parliament is elected to represent the people and to govern on behalf of the people. Whereas the political parties of today see it rather as a contest in which whichever one wins does pretty much what it likes. And so I suppose if we’re ever going to get back to the proper representative democracy, it will have to come through pressure from the public to force the parties to acknowledge these requirements and it seemed appropriate in the present circumstances to start that pressure going forward.
LEIGH SALES: So, taking Queensland, how would you say that the major parties have lived up to what you consider to be the best practices of government over recent years?
TONY FITZGERALD: I thought that the period immediately after the corruption inquiry, so, Wayne Goss’ period in office, was the high point. People were enthused, Wayne Goss himself was an outstanding personality, a great leader, a man of great integrity. We then had the strange business in 1995 where Goss went to the polls. There was – won the seat of Mundingburra, was one of the seats, appeared to have a majority. An appeal to the Court of Disputed Returns, a new election ordered. Cooper and Borbidge, who was by then the leader – Cooper had been the leader at the time of 1989 election – did a secret deal with the Police Union and won the Mundingburra by-election. They only lasted one term. It was a disaster. And then Beattie came in, and I’d say that throughout that period, from Borbidge, Beattie and then Anna Bligh, although I didn’t watch a lot of it very closely, there’s been a constant movement away, bit by bit, to the old-style politics where the winner takes all.
LEIGH SALES: How about the recent Newman Government?
TONY FITZGERALD: Well I thought that as Goss had set a new high standard, they probably set a new low standard. And that was really what got me interested and it got Gary Crooke interested. Gary Crooke, some of your listeners might know, is a – was senior counsel assisting me when I did the corruption inquiry. But he was similarly concerned about what we were observing, having regard to what we’d seen 25 years earlier.
LEIGH SALES: Can you give me a specific example of something that you’ve seen that has made you think back to those earlier days?
TONY FITZGERALD: Their initial – one of the initial matters was of course the attack on the CCC, as it’s now called, the Criminal Justice Commission, as I would refer to it – that’s what it started out as. I don’t think people are generally aware that the CCC under its first name was actually a continuation of the corruption inquiry. The corruption inquiry wasn’t so much disbanded as folded over into that permanent commission. In about mid-1989, I started to write the report, Gary Crooke took over as acting commissioner, he’d been counsel assisting, kept it going until the new legislation was brought in and all the files, etc. were handed on. And it was – been seen by some former conservative people as something that had to be destroyed. That was what Borbidge and Cooper tried to do. And this time it popped up again in mid-2013.
LEIGH SALES: So do you think that that body was sufficient powers now to uncover potential corruption or misuse of power in Queensland?
TONY FITZGERALD: I’m sure it’s been weakened. And of course, there was a move to allow the government of the day to appoint the chair rather than have it as a bipartisan appointment. There was a, if you mind, a faux inquiry that went into all these things and then a faux parliamentary committee. And that first parliamentary committee was going to say some mean things about the Government, even though it had its own members there in numeric superiority, so they sacked it. And then they restacked it so it would say the right thing and it did.
LEIGH SALES: We had a story on this program last week about both the LNP and the Labor Party in Queensland accepting cash for access to senior figures.
TONY FITZGERALD: Yes.
LEIGH SALES: What do you make of that practice?
TONY FITZGERALD: The main thing I make of it in relation to that recent – those recent events is that neither of the major parties seems to understand the meaning of the commitments they gave. That was – I think the third commitment was that people were not to get special access, etc. and I suppose if you pay money and are allowed a visit, you got special access. So I think it’s extraordinary.
LEIGH SALES: But the parties – the major parties all did agree and sign up to those four principles that we’ve talked about. But how are they actually enforced or how are parties to be held accountable for that?
TONY FITZGERALD: Two different questions. I think to be enforced, they can’t be legally enforced. To be held accountable, they can be held politically accountable. And that’s what I’ve really been urging people to think about in this forthcoming election. I don’t care how people vote; it’s not up to me. But I think it’s terribly important that people take into account not just specific issues – who’s going to get a bridge? Who’s going to get a tunnel and so on and so forth, but who’s going to behave properly? I’d like to see it happen this time, but if not this time, the next time, and if not the next time, the time after, so that we finally get to a situation where we’ve got a parliament that that’s acting on behalf of the people and not on behalf of their own constituents and supporters and rent seekers and chancers of all sorts who tie themselves onto them – the camp followers, if you like.
LEIGH SALES: Well, let me put to you since basically with that answer you’re encouraging people to vote out the Newman Government that critics might say, “Well, here’s a bloke who helped bring down the Bjelke-Petersen Government. He’s been highly critical of the Newman Government. Well he must be a Labor stooge, he must have a political barrow to push.”
TONY FITZGERALD: Plenty of people have said that – not to my face, although I occasionally get emails, generally written in vulgar language, making those sorts of accusations. I don’t know that I’m – just a slight correction: I don’t know that I’m actually inviting people to punish the Newman Government. What I’d like to see people do is take into account not merely what they’re being bribed with – the Ashgrove, “You can win – you can have this and a set of steak knives” sort of thing – as take into account there are those overarching issues. As to whether I’m a Labor stooge, no. I’ve never been a member of any political party and I find it impossible to see how people have that relationship, to be frank with you, because I believe that we’re all answerable to our own consciences. That sounds a bit precious, but it’s how I think. And I don’t understand how people can vote against conscience, just because they’re told to do so by the whips or the powers that be in the parties. So I would be a very brief member of a party if I ever was one. They’d throw me out within 24 hours.
LEIGH SALES: Let me ask you: the former head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales, David Ipp, said last year there that there needs to be a federal anti-corruption agency established with the powers of a standing Royal commission so that people can have confidence restored in government and know that abuse and misuse of power can be uncovered. Is that something that you support?
TONY FITZGERALD: I think it’s self-evident. The people who go into State Parliament, who go into the major political parties are the same people who go into those parties and go into Federal Parliament. I don’t think they’re any different in one group or the other. They’re people who, for one reason or other, are prepared to buckle down and do what the party wants, to advance the interests of the party, to advance the ideologies of the party and to advance their own interests. I can’t understand why they’d be corrupt at one level – or be corruptible at one level and not at the other. So, that’s not to say I know of any corruption in the federal system at the moment, but I’m pretty sure you’d find that if the digging started, there’d be bones at the bottom of the hole, you know.
But I’m concerned on a wide range of things about government in Australia, but in particular, the idea that the people who are now running politics are professional politicians, learning all the bad habits in political office. Nearly all members of Parliament now will have done a stint in the party office, a minister’s offers or an associated entity’s office. We need to get people who are independent, who’ve taken – who’ve learned and exercised values outside the political system. So that’s my broad concern. My more specific concern is that Queensland is particularly vulnerable because of its single-house status and because of its history. And I think I can say that both Gary Crooke and I independently saw the – by no means I’m not suggesting corruption of the sort we saw 25 years ago. But the same sort of practices starting to take hold. That – not necessarily with the people presently in office, but in 20 years’ time, 15 years’ time, maybe 10 years’ time, we’d have all the bad, old habits entrenched again.
LEIGH SALES: The foundations are being laid?
TONY FITZGERALD: The foundations were being inadvertently laid, I think, and probably the last thing was the Chief Justice. Now, even in the heyday of Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies, there was very little interference with the judiciary. Although it’s quite right to say that governments often prefer for officers like that someone who’s sympathetic to them, there’s always a group of people from whom you can take one of, say – let’s say 20 or 30 or 40 people, and any of them could be the Chief Justice and the fact that the Government picks the one that they think is most amenable to their ideology, no-one can complain about. It’s still an appointment on merit. What they did this time was take someone who wouldn’t have been anybody’s first division, second division, but possibly in their third division. So it was a great departure. And it upset the whole legal system to an extraordinary extent, to the point where the judges, the most conservative group of people I’ve ever known, cut him and wouldn’t go to his swearing-in. That tells you a lot about what was happening.
LEIGH SALES: You’ve never done an in-depth interview looking back and talking about the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the major players of the day and the impact it had on you and the aftermath and the Joh trial and all of the rest of it. It was an extraordinary moment in Australian history. Will you ever do that? Will you ever set down your recollections in a memoir?
TONY FITZGERALD: No, no, no.
LEIGH SALES: Really? Why?
TONY FITZGERALD: Oh, I think people are more interested in the third volume of some rugby league or cricketing, quote, “hero”, in quotes, memoirs.
LEIGH SALES: People would be interested, I’m sure.
TONY FITZGERALD: No, no. Life’s too short. I’m 73 now. I haven’t got time to sit down and look back. I’ve got grandkids to play with.
LEIGH SALES: Tony Fitzgerald, thank you so much for agreeing to sit down after all these years. I really appreciate it.
TONY FITZGERALD: Thank you. And thank you for your kindness in the interview.
LEIGH SALES: And 7.30 has repeatedly invited the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to join us during the election campaign. He’s been unable to make it so far.