Raising Hell: Issue 50: Loose Lips Sink Ships
"We are not immune to the fact that one day we have a scoundrel among us. If I knew that now, he would no longer be alive tomorrow. Short process. Because I'm a humanist." - Erich Mielke, Stasi Chief
Last week the Australian Financial Review published an explosive investigative report unpacking how South Australia’s entire political leadership neutered the state’s ICAC based almost entirely on misinformation. Though significant, the story was overshadowed by the federal election and was locked behind a paywall limiting its reach on social media. As a result it barely generated a peep.
Anyone who reads it — and people should read it — will be left with a less than flattering view about this state’s commitment to basic accountability and transparency. By dismantling ICAC and turning an allegedly crooked cop into a martyr, parliament effectively removed one of the last, imperfect, oversights for institutions like the police. The significance of this was not something I understood until I dug into it on a recent — and failed — project I previously teased through Raising Hell and which taught me a lot about how things work when it comes to police accountability.
Unfortunately, however, I cannot explain who what this research involved or how it came about any specific terms as it is against the law in South Australia for me to do so. As the incident involved an complaint against a serving officer, and that complaint has been finalised, I cannot describe the circumstances surrounding the arrest, name anyone involved or describe how the initial report was made. I cannot even properly describe why this became a news story relevant to the public interest. Were I to do so, I would likely be committing a criminal office under section 46 of Police Complaints and Discipline Act 2016 and, if prosecuted, could be slapped with a $30,000 fine for the crime of journalism.
In fact, it’s so against the law, I can’t even publish copies of the Freedom of Information (FOI) applications I made — as I would normally do to prove I actually followed through — without risking prosecution thanks to sections 44, 45 and 46 of the Act. These provisions work together to set up what is essentially a black box for police complaints.
What I can say is that my work on this story began when a lawyer suggested I took into a case involving a client. The person was vulnerable, as they were living with physical and mental disabilities, and had been arrested by police following a false report. The matter had concluded so it seemed there was no risk when I contacted this person on my own initiative and obtained with video footage of the event.
The general idea was to use FOI laws to understand what happened — and the going was tough as South Australian Police has the ignoble status of being one of the least transparent law enforcement bodies in the country. Their media department appears under orders to kick any inquiry that asks for anything above the thinnest of detail to FOI — a process that takes more months than the 24 hour news cycle allows and incurs a charge. Better yet, when you actually go to apply for documents from SAPOL under FOI, the website directs you to fill out a form and take it into your local police station with a valid form of ID to make the payment.
None of these are required under FOI law and no other agency I’m aware of makes similar demands. All that a person needs to do to make an application is send an email to SAPOL.firstname.lastname@example.org clearly explaining they wish to apply for documents under the state’s FOI Act and then specify which documents. What these requirements actually do is set up the first of several psychological hurdles by creating the illusion an applicant has to present themselves at a police station and provide valid ID.
But it gets better. If you do just email through your request, you will be asked to make a payment by cheque or money order because, well…
These demands are very effective at wearing down applicants. It is worth mentioning that after having spent months working on this, the person involved in the matter abandoned the project because it was taking too long. As a result, I also can’t ethically identify them or use material they provided.
What I can do, however, is talk about what I found: the police complaints black-box that functions as a memory hole for any evidence fed into it. Sections 44, 45 and 46 create this nifty legal shredder by overriding the operation of the FOI Act and making it illegal to identify anyone involved in an inquiry and making it illegal to publish information about the complaint process without express permission.
How this works is straight forward. Someone gets arrested unfairly or assaulted by officers. Upon their release their righteous anger compels them to file a complaint as soon as possible and without speaking to a lawyer. A senior detective or other high official within the agency is then appointed to investigate the matter. Over a few weeks or maybe a month, the investigator hoovers up any CCTV, mobile phone footage, text messages, photos of injuries, witness statements and other information. All this is fed into a complaints process where police investigate police and the very structure is weighted towards clearing the officers involved. Afterwards, the secrecy provisions under the Act mean anything fed into the process that may identify the parties involved can’t be made public without the express written permission of authorities such as ICAC Commission, the Police Commissioner, the Office of Public Integrity or a court.
Out in the real world, what this means is chilling. If, for example, video footage exists proving an officer lied on an affidavit, that film can never be made public to challenge the finding of an internal investigation once the officer has been cleared. Thanks to the operation of these provisions, it’s as if the incident never happened — and all documents proving it have been put through a shredder.
The justification for this is that keeping things secret protects bureaucrats or other public officials who might blow the whistle on crooked cops and honourable police officers from attempts to stitch them up. This was the reasoning in a 1997 Supreme Court decision where the Act was read in a very friendly way to law enforcement:
There are no doubt a number of reasons for this. First, there may be a need to protect complainants. Confidentiality may also be required to encourage complainants to come forward, in the knowledge that their complaint will be treated as confidential. In some cases there will be a need for the fact of investigation, and its scope, to be kept confidential. If it is not, the persons under investigation might have the opportunity to destroy or to conceal relevant material, or to put their heads together. An investigation under the CDP Act will usually involve the scrutiny of the internal operations of the police force, and there may be aspects of this that should be treated as confidential. There may also be a need to keep confidential the investigation methods used by the internal investigation branch. It is also possible that disclosure of information acquired in the course of an investigation might prejudice the investigation of crimes by the police force.
What’s absurd about this, of course, is that police in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria all publish copies of their procedures for the public to access (though in Victoria you have to go get the physical copy from the library) without compromising their ability to investigate crimes. This is because sunshine tends to be the best medicine.
Theoretically the only check on abuses of power is the ability for anyone concerned to write to various bodies, in some cases the Chief of Police, to ask permission to reveal information or make an application to court. To the lawyers and policy advisors who draft these sorts provisions, this makes perfect sense, but to an average member of the public it is absurd — how exactly do you go about writing the ICAC Commissioner, a body that thanks to reforms by the South Australian parliament has limited authority over police complaints processes now anyway? How long will it take? What’s to stop them saying no.
The answer to that last question is “nothing” which is what makes the assumptions underpinning this process and the commentary on it deeply romantic. The officials who are supposed to provide an avenue on revenue to stop internal investigations being carried out in such a way as to exonerate the guilty have total discretion and no obligation to grant permission once an internal inquiry raps up. Courts, meanwhile, have set the threshold so high it’s not worth the trouble. It also ignores how most people making these sorts of complaints against police are not bureaucrats but random members of the public with varying levels of education, resources, time and no legal training or acumen.
By setting up a process that generates so much friction by default, the best thing you could say about this is that it works to manage complaints by silencing complainants — worse yet it has been this way forever. These same provisions have been in place, virtually untouched, since the original Police (Complaints and Disciplinary Proceedings) Act 1985 (SA) was still in force.
This quality is, in other words, a feature, not a bug.
For the Fortnight: April 13 to April 26
Where I recap what I’ve been doing this last fortnight so you know I’m not just using your money to stimulate the local economy …
Note: My original plan had been to make Issue 50 of Raising Hell the revamp but the loose ends meant this took longer than expected. Now I’ve picked up another short contract covering shifts at The Guardian for the next three. This means I’ve had to delay everything slightly, again, until this latest stint wraps on 13 May.
‘‘Sinking feeling: cruise ships chart return to Australia amid emissions concerns” (The Guardian Australia, 17 April 2022).
“Google doodle marks Earth Day 2022 with stark images of climate crisis” (The Guardian Australia, 22 April 2022).
I again covered Deni Varnhagen’s challenge to South Australian vaccine mandates for the AAP which were, again, syndicated to papers across the country. I won’t be listing the stories here, however as it was “just the facts” reporting.
Cracking COVIDSafe - An examination of the machine that made the COVIDSafe app, a piece of software made by people who wanted to hack the pandemic (complete).
Laramba’s Water - Laramba is a remote Indigenous Community in the Northern Territory which has been drinking uranium-contaminated water since 2008. We tried to find out what why (on-going).
‘High levels of uranium in drinking water of NT community’ (NITV, 31 July 2020).
‘Company remains shtum on plans to filter Laramba's contaminated water supply’ (NITV, 21 October 2020).
‘‘It makes us sick’: remote NT community wants answers about uranium in its water supply’ (The Guardian, 18 October 2021).
You Hate To See It
A dyspeptic, snark-ridden and highly ironic round-up of the news from our shared hellscape…
So you’re a 56-year-old former CIA analyst who was involved in the US torture program. You were the inspiration for a character in the film Zero Dark Thirty and your husband, also a former spook, is a rapid QAnon conspiracy theorist. You have no regrets about your time in the service and you brush off being called the “Queen of Torture” by your former colleagues as a sexist slur from jealous male colleagues. What do you with your life? Well, if you’re Alfreda Scheuer you of course start a life coaching business called “YBeU Beautify” to help women “look good, fell good and do good”. “I know what it’s like to leave your comfort zone to try something new,” her website says. “I had finished a three decades + career as a senior government executive leading teams, mostly females, tasked with no-fail missions, taking smart risks, and even making life-and-death decisions. I loved every minute of it.”
Fingering On The Global Stage
But before we Australians get cocky about our moral purity, it is worth remembering that we too have been running our own system for extraordinary rendition of sorts — and now it’s going global. After years of taken people who have committed no crime and corralling them into fetid camps on Pacific Islands where they’re out of sight and out of mind of the Australian public, the UK has looked to Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker program and said: we’ll have some of that. But whereas Australia at least detained arrivals within the same regional neighbourhood, the UK has decided to innovate and send its refugees to Rwanda — and specifically Hope House Hostel where victims of the 1994 genocide reside. Those orphans have been told to fuck off to make way for Britain’s asylum seekers under its $150m plan. Straya!
Finally, Some Bipartisanship
Following years of calling on the major parties to stop bickering and show some bipartisanship on solving the problems facing the country, the federal Labor opposition has managed to do so on least one issue during the 2022 campaign: letting the poor starve. Terrified about being clubbed by the Coalition over the size of the national debt, Anthony Albanese — a man who really wants you to know he had a mum — announced on day three of the campaign that the party was abandoned its tepid promise for a “review” into raising the social security rate, essentially throwing roughly 700,000
votersunemployed people to the wolves along with their families. At a press conference Albo confirmed there would be no raise to the rate during his first term of government — effectively locking everyone on social security into poverty for another four years — and instead spoke a little more about his mum.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Humanity may be well on the way to broiling oceans and biosphere collapsed by Wollongong Coal wants to get its Wongawilli coal mine back up and running. To do this they have sought, and received, government approval to build a seven kilometre long access road beneath Sydney’s largest water storage dam to pave the extend the life of the mine for another 30 years. The New South Wales government said the work would secure 150 new jobs and generate $3.7m in new royalties.
“Glad You Came”
At a time when the Australian security establishment is freaking out after years of neglect, austerity and conservative indifference to issues like climate change resulted in Solomon Islands cutting Australia out of lucrative security contracts, the Japanese are showing how it’s done. To woo New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on her first visit to Tokyo, the Japanese government staged a performance of two kiwi fruit dancing to classical music and then challenged their guest to a calligraphy contest — which is s flex. If the video depicting plushy versions of the Duolingo icons fucking is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time before those kiwi fruit costumes are recycled in the profitable world of plushy porn.
Where we recognise and celebrate the true stupidity of the rich, powerful and influential…
This one goes out to the entire South Australian political establishing which is currently settling into their new seats in parliament. We here at Raising Hell were shocked, shocked, to learn — as per The Financial Review — that the gutting of the state’s ICAC was justified based on misinformation and enabled by a pseudo code of silence. The only thing better was that a story about transparency, accountability and public interest that should be shaking the foundations of a state’s parliamentary apparatus was published after a recent state election and is itself locked up behind a paywall meaning the majority of 1.6 million South Australian’s can’t immediately read it without a subscription or a physical print copy. Gotta sell those papers, I guess.
Good Reads, Good Times
To share the love, here are some of the best or more interesting reads from the last fortnight…
J Oliver Conroy writing in The Guardian have this longread about a retired lawyer who set himself on fire to protest inaction on climate change — and how no one cared.
This longread by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker profiling the CeCe Moore, who has helped pioneer the use of genetic genealogy in law enforcement, is worth a read for the way it highlights tensions.
There was a minor controversy in the US this last fortnight about a reporter who knocked on the door of a woman suspected of running an anonymous social media account attacking transpeople to confirm their investigative work. Once the story was published it was immediately attacked as an invasion of privacy from the right, which makes this by Alex Pareene worth reading for a refreshing reminder of why bad faith actors are going to act in bad faith.
Before You Go (Go)…
Are you a public sector bureaucrat whose tyrannical boss is behaving badly? Have you recently come into possession of documents showing some rich guy is trying to move their ill-gotten-gains to Curacao? Did you take a low-paying job with an evil corporation registered in Delaware that is burying toxic waste under playgrounds? If your conscience is keeping you up at night, or you’d just plain like to see some wrong-doers cast into the sea, we here at Raising Hell can suggest a course of action: leak! You can securely make contact through Signal or through encrypted message Wickr Me on my account: rorok1990. Alternatively you can send us your hard copies to: PO Box 134, Welland SA 5007
And if you’ve come this far, consider supporting me further by picking up one of my books, leaving a review or by just telling a friend about Raising Hell!