by Melbourne Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle
STEVE Bracks is a good bloke. Decent and likeable. But his account of the Labor government’s response to the gangland killings, particularly of 2003 and 2004, is not my recollection.
Either I was in some parallel universe or one of us has got it wrong.
The so called “gang wars” ran roughly from the killing of Alphonse Gangitano in 1998 to Carl Williams in 2010.
In the terrible years of 2003 and 2004 fourteen people were brutally executed: Nik Radev, Jason Moran, Pasquale Barbero, Willie Thompson, Mark Mallia, Housam Zayat, Steve Gulyas and his girlfriend, and Graham (The Munster) Kinniburgh in 2003; and Andrew Veniamin, Lewis Moran, Lewis Caine and Terence and Christine Hodson in 2004.
In June 2003 Victoria Police set up the Purana Taskforce to combat the underworld killings.
Steve Bracks’ view seems to be that Labor’s actions and political responses to these shocking killings were controlled, measured, considered, planned and effective.
Here’s my view. Melbourne was out of control at that time despite the best efforts of good police.
At that time I was insistently calling for first, a Royal Commission into links between corrupt police and gangland killings, and second, a standing anti corruption crime commission.
During the height of the killings and the Labor government’s political response, I “did media” for more than 20 days in a row on the same topic: the connection between gangland killings and corrupt police.
It was a drum I would beat, in various forms, for three years between 2003 and 2006 as media reports and Parliamentary Hansard show.
Not, as Bracks suggests, only prior to the 2006 election. No significant opposition to Bracks’ plan? Read Hansard of 2004! The Liberal Party opposed the ridiculous Special Investigations Monitor legislation.
The Labor government response to the wars was farcical.
They first announced that the office of Ombudsman would be extended to be the Police Ombudsman – the police watchdog.
It was said that this gave the Ombudsman the powers of a Royal Commission. That was May of 2004.
Just 100 days later they had a second go with two further laws around major crime: Office of Police Integrity and Special Investigations Monitor. There were two further tranches of legislation even after that.
Labor had got itself into terrible problems by promising many “watchdog” provisions for the Ombudsman – including phone tapping powers – only to find, after it was pointed out by Robert Clark, the present Attorney General, that they did not have the power to do so.
It was a federal power. And that their Ombudsman model couldn’t even qualify for these powers under federal law.
So Labor, on the run, brought in layer after layer after layer of legislation and bureaucracy and spin to get around the shortcomings of a hasty, cobbled together policy in response to gangland killings.
That’s why we opposed in the 2004 Parliament the final artificial structure of a “monitor”.
There was no coherent Labor plan.
Further, I got ridiculed by Labor for suggesting a connection between corrupt police and gangland killings.
Senior police of the time, now gone, also insisted there was no such connection.
Reading Steve Bracks’ reports of his discussions with police it seems he was briefed by the same people who briefed me.
But there was a world underneath those briefings which Bracks, the government and then-serving senior police didn’t know.
First. I had two secret, most clandestine meetings with serving police officers.
In one meeting, I was driven from Parliament House to a suburban unit in eastern Melbourne.
My contact, a police officer, asked me to cover my eyes as we left the city.
I was asked to hold a small hand towel to my face to prevent me from being able to identify the street or suburb I was taken to. Melodramatic? Maybe.
But it is difficult now to convey the stress, confusion, and seriousness of what we were facing.
I met with a group of serving officers who confirmed my connection between corrupt police and the gangland.
While they didn’t offer much new information, they had a clear message: Keep pushing. Keep digging.
I had a second, clandestine meeting with different police officers along with a senior shadow Minister who had excellent police contacts. Same message: you are on the right track, but be careful.
Second. I was working closely with Simon Illingworth, a remarkably brave Detective Sergeant whose fight against corruption as an officer in the Ethical Standards Division was documented in Australian Story in May 2004.
Simon provided me with the smoking gun that linked corrupt police with the gangland.
He was having a drink in a Melbourne hotel, The Celtic Club.
The subject of one of Illingworth’s investigations, Detective Sergeant Glenn Saunders, walked through the pub, past Illingworth.
He was accompanied by Nick Ibrahim, a known gangland killer. Ibrahim stared at Illingworth and without uttering a word, left the pub. A chilling and clear message to back off.
The incident was caught on CCTV. It appeared on the front page of the Herald Sun on June 3, 2004.
This was only two weeks after the shocking murder of Terence and Christine Hodson. Hodson was a police informant who was to give evidence about corrupt police.
It was rumoured that a police document identifying Hodson as a police informant had been circulating in the underworld for two weeks before he and wife Christine were killed in their Kew home.
I have seen the document which purports to be a VicPol document and identifies Hodson as police informant 4/390.
I kept pushing. Third. We had a document sent to me anonymously.
One Saturday morning at my Malvern electorate office, along with Rob Clancy, my director of media and Ron Wilson, chief of staff, two close friends and senior confidantes, I met with Simon Illingworth to try to decipher the intelligence of the document.
To confirm the details of today’s article, during this week I have spoken to Ron, Rob and Simon and our memories are the same.
The document was a transcript of a police interview with a young woman, a former prostitute who was in custody.
Simon knew her, and while she could not be regarded as a reliable witness there were allegations of police corruption in her transcript which could be easily checked, cross checked and verified or dismissed.
I began raising these issues in Parliament and outside Parliament. More of this document later.
Two phone calls gave us pause at around this time. The first was to my Director of Media from a senior VicPol employee.
He said “We can’t have the Leader of the Opposition running around town making these accusations”.
It would be generous to call it a warning. It came out as a threat.
The second was more sinister. My chief of staff took a phone call on his direct line in our Parliamentary office.
It was from a public phone. He could hear the trams and the characteristic squeal as they rounded the Bourke/Spring Street corner outside Parliament.
After a preliminary silence a strong voice said “Tell Doyle to back off” and hung up.
It was not the only direct threat I received. I will not add further information or details about those threats. But they were unpleasant, and real.
To the government’s credit and my gratitude, when they learned of these threats senior Ministers responsible asked if I would consider police protection.
I declined. I did take police advice about higher, acute observation skills and advice on behavioural and daily routine changes which was good security common sense.
I found it all pretty unsettling and stressful.
But at least I didn’t have two police bullets with my initials on them put into my letterbox.
Or have my wife and child followed home from kindergarten by a thug.
Or get a threatening phone call at home on a private unlisted number.
Or have to move house five times in six months because my address was constantly leaked to the underworld.
All these things happened to the outstanding police investigating corruption at this time.
Steve Bracks writes that he considered setting up a Royal Commission after the Hodson killings but decided against it because such a Commission may have delayed or even derailed Purana investigations and prosecutions.
I was told the same thing by senior officers whom I respect to this day.
So from about 2005, I stopped the calls for a Royal Commission and tried – not very successfully at times – to move to a call only for a standing anti-crime and anti-corruption commission.
It was a tough call – in politics if you move position you are accused of backflipping or sliding.
And I was. Including by derision from the Labor Party. Interesting, given that Bracks had been through the same thought processes and reached the same conclusion.
I still hope and think I made the right call: Purana did prosecute with success.
A footnote here of congratulation to Ted Baillieu and Andrew McIntosh: they have delivered in government what we advocated way back in 2004: a broad based anti-corruption commission.
Two final incidents to demonstrate the chaos and threat of the times.
After 2004, things went quiet.
In 2006 Christine Nixon was reappointed Chief Commissioner. She virtually claimed, at her press conference, that the gangland wars were over.
She said the police had a “much better response” to gangland crime and that “what we have to do in the longer term is figure out how to make sure it never happens again”.
Eight hours later, the notorious Mario Condello was shot dead in his driveway. It wasn’t out of the blue. Eighteen months earlier police foiled an attempt by four men to kill Condello at the Brighton Cemetery.
All of the Labor Government’s “plan” had been in operation since 2004.
But the gangland war wasn’t over. And a final curious footnote. The Office of Police Integrity paid me a visit.
Remember the document I mentioned earlier which was a transcript from a young woman in custody which made accusations against police?
The OPI obviously wanted to know how I got it and whether they could have it. I was told it was just to be an informal chat in my office.
Two officers arrived. My chief of staff was with me in the office.
Their first question: “Is your full name Robert Keith Bennett Doyle?”.
Their second: “Is your date of birth 20/5/1953?”.
Their third: “Do you live at 14 Henderson Avenue, Malvern 3144?”.
If that’s an informal chat!
But the part we remember to this day is how they placed a document in a plastic folder on the table and asked if it was the document in my possession.
It was. But not a clean original copy.
Their document was stamped with my office’s document/letter recognition and identification stamp. And it had the scribbled annotations of my Director of Media on it.
They had a copy of the document that only existed in my office, known only to three of us.
None of us know to this day how they got it, and they didn’t volunteer the information.
The gangland wars was an awful time in Melbourne. Chilling. We were lucky that unconnected, innocent people weren’t injured or killed.
I hope we never see it again.
But to suggest, as Steve Bracks did last week, that the government was in control, that the Liberal Party and I as Leader were pretty comfortable with the Labor Party response and direction and only made a few noises prior to the 2006 election (when I hadn’t been Leader for six months!) is just wrong.