National Press Club of Australia Address

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Good afternoon,

It is a privilege to be invited to address the National Press Club and this honour comes at a timely juncture, two-and-a-half years into my commissionership. It has provided me with the opportunity to pause and examine where we have come from as an organisation and indeed, where we are going.

And this will be the essence of my address today – the transformation of the Australian Federal Police into the future-capable organisation that reflects the critical position the AFP holds both within our community, and within the government’s national interests.

There is so much uncertainty and instability in the world. While violence, anger and global tensions dominate the daily news cycle, our communities seek strong and effective leadership. And the Australian Federal Police is aware of the important role we must play. 

The AFP’s history has been one of evolution to meet changing demands.  We have proven ourselves many times, regardless of the challenges.  But with the pace of change now so rapid, simple evolution is not enough.  We need to embrace change, accept – and shape – the future and ready ourselves for a new set of challenges.

And in realigning our business and the way we undertake it, I felt that it was also time to create a new vision for the organisation.

A vision that encapsulates what we DO.

A vision that reassures our communities why we matter.

A vision that places in the forefront of the public mind the reason that every one of my dedicated members continue to do what they do, every single day, often risking their own safety to do so.

And that Vision is – Policing For A Safer Australia

As Australia’s national policing agency we protect Australians and Australia’s interests.

And we will deliver Policing for A Safer Australia.

But, I will come back to that, because there is something else I want to discuss with you today.

As the AFP heads towards its 40th anniversary in 2019, we are honoured to be part of a much larger milestone later this year – the Centenary of Commonwealth Policing in Australia.

November marks 100 years since the then-Prime Minister Billy Hughes identified the need for a policing agency with a broader remit than the established state police forces.

And the story of its inception is quite charming actually, because unlike the AFP, which started in the wake of the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney, Commonwealth policing in this country was born with what, in hindsight, was a far less dramatic event.

On 29 November 1917, with Australia caught up in the so-called ‘war to end all wars’, Prime Minister Billy Hughes was in the town of Warwick in rural Queensland as part of his campaign for the Plebiscite on Conscription later that year.

Pressure from England was on the Prime Minister to increase Australia’s participation in the war effort and he was facing fierce and vocal opposition to the Plebiscite from the Queensland Premier T.J. Ryan, who was staunchly anti-conscription.

It was for this reason that Prime Minister Hughes was in Warwick, drumming up support for his proposal.

He was attempting to give a speech to a crowd gathered at Warwick Railway Station when an egg was thrown at him, knocking off his hat.

And with that, the Prime Minister launched into the crowd towards the offender, reaching into his coat for his revolver which, in a fortunate turn of events for both the offender Patrick Brosnan, and the eventual Australian Federal Police, he had left in the railway carriage.

Prime Minister Hughes then ordered the local police officer, Sergeant Kenny, to arrest Brosnan. Interestingly – and probably quite appropriately – the Sergeant refused, stating that it was not in his jurisdiction to do so.

Enraged, the Prime Minister vowed to create his own police force, and he didn’t muck around.

Within hours, he had fired off a telegram to the Commissioner for Police in the state of Queensland demanding that Sergeant Kenny be suspended and immediately prosecuted under the laws of the Commonwealth, or the Commonwealth Government would ‘take steps to enforce its own laws’.

I am not sure what eventually happened to Sergeant Kenny – but a mere 13 days later, in less time than it takes modern bureaucracies to plan an IDC or draft a brief, Prime Minister Hughes had a Commissioner sworn in (WJ Anderson), and a plain clothed police force commencing operations. The Commonwealth Police Force was born.

The officers were given full police powers to investigate Commonwealth offences, although the primary remit for the new force was to provide reporting on those opposed to the war – or the government – with current day themes of National Security and Surveillance key mandates for the new force.

Luckily, transformation is not new in Commonwealth law enforcement. The AFP itself is merely the most current iteration of Commonwealth Law Enforcement in this country – effectively the fifth version.

Interestingly, we probably wouldn’t exist if a Labor Government plan to merge the federally-funded Commonwealth Police with the Australian Capital Territory Police and the Northern Territory Police in 1975 had not been a casualty of the eventual dissolution of parliament with the dramatic end of Gough Whitlam’s term in office.

The modern AFP has a rich history of adaptation. Whether we have grown incrementally, been cut to fit, amalgamated with partners or swelled to meet a sudden need, we are used to change, and that change continues to this day.

So who is today’s AFP and what do we do?

  • We are relatively small in number – we currently operate with just over 6000 employees – but we have a comparatively large remit.
  • We combat complex, transnational and organised crime and terrorism.
  • We disrupt crime offshore and support regional security as Australia’s principal international law enforcement representative.
  • At the moment, we have just over 250 officers posted in over 30 countries.  These numbers change often.
  • We protect Australian high office holders, foreign dignitaries, Australian government infrastructure and designated international airports.
  • We provide policing services here in the Australian Capital Territory, Jervis Bay and Australia’s external territories.
  • We are not just part of Australia’s National Security architecture, we often lead Australian National Security efforts – both onshore and offshore.
  • We are the Government’s primary source of advice on law enforcement,
  • And of course – much of what we do today is protracted, complex and often controversial.  Our work pushes us to the front of the public and political consciousness in a way that was not evident even 10 or 15 years ago.  We give the members of this institution plenty to talk about!

The last 15 to 20 years has seen a marked shift in Australia’s crime environment.  As crime has increasingly become national and trans-national, as it has come to rely on technology, and as it has come to cross jurisdictions with ease, the role of the Commonwealth in Australia’s policing framework has come to the fore.

And although Policing is the What we do, the How part of the equation for the AFP has rarely been traditional or even predictable.

The new normal I want for policing is no longer focused solely on policing numbers, or crime statistics, but more and more a focus on our ability to prevent and disrupt crime before it occurs, and the skills and capabilities we have to fight crime.

In the most recent budget, the AFP received funding to help support our transformation and start the process of building an AFP with a 10-year plan. It was a leap of faith by the government in the vision we have for the future AFP, and reinforced the support they have provided us both operationally, but also in our efforts to protect our own members.  And while this recent funding was invariably linked to the number of officers it will enable us to employ, it is the important capabilities that they will enhance, and the vision for the future, that is the real story.

Our world today is complex. Criminals are getting smarter. Rapid changes in technology test our expertise and our ability to counter new crime types every day.

For example, the challenges presented to us by the Cyber environment are often examined and discussed. The remote and borderless nature of the internet, its global reach, its rapidly changing technological advancements make it amongst our most pressing issues – and one that sets us apart from many of our colleagues.

Yes, the internet is overwhelmingly a power for good.  It has revolutionised the way we live, work and interact, and on any balance it has transformed our notions of freedoms and facilitated global connectivity. But it has a dark side.

When I started my policing career 27 years ago, internet crime involving hacking, malicious viruses, money laundering, scams, online trafficking in goods or people, cyber stalking, and cyber terrorism simply didn’t exist.

It is truly one of the biggest asymmetric threats we face today.  Not only can it be accomplished by a lone actor anywhere in the world, the blurred lines of attribution between criminal, commercial, and state make this a genuinely wicked problem.

The issues are pervasive and affect all levels of our society.

If you are a parent, you are likely to experience some level of anxiety about your children and their exposure to this wild west of social interaction. Cyber-bullying, online child exploitation and privacy issues are real.

And as adults, we find ourselves in an environment where we are trusting the internet with our personal information, our social networks and – incredibly, when you think about it – our money.

Cyber crimes don’t take place on our streets, in full view.  They don’t involve guns and physical threats. A simple computer is the cyber criminal’s weapon of choice and these crimes can be committed anywhere – in a café, in a park – from a bedroom.

And to some degree we will always be playing catch-up to the rapid developments in Cyber. But the reality is that without changing up our own methodology and accepting the risk that comes with that change, we will never even get close.

In recent years we have seen an exponential increase in data collected through investigations and this has placed heavier demands on our specialist and support capabilities than ever before.  One recent counter terrorism investigation saw the seizure of 8.6 terabytes of data on suspect devices – that’s over 122 million files or 2.3 billion pages of paper if we had hit print (thankfully we didn’t). The data analysis and digital forensics requirements are enormous, and that is just one investigation.  The task is immense but so is the risk – that is why we need to embrace technology as our friend and as an enabler, not just as a barrier or challenge.

Prolific growth in the use of encryption technology is an everyday reality for investigators and we cannot afford for this to remain an obstacle. As such, we need integration of our traditional and non-traditional technical capabilities, in order to make sure that criminals cannot confidently hide beyond the reach of law enforcement.

Technology presents challenges to governments like almost never before.  It is a realm that we cannot simply legislate or regulate to control – we must work with the industry who have their hands on the levers, and invariably, they are in the private sector.

But cyber is just part of the challenge.

We are experiencing increased and diversifying demand for our services and a more sophisticated remit than ever before.

We find ourselves in a position where we are selecting operations where we know we can have the greatest impact – and based on this, our aim is often disruption of organised criminal syndicates, and terrorist networks, not always solely prosecution. And although this is proving to be a very effective strategy in mitigating the risk of criminal intent to our communities, it is an action which can be hard to measure in terms of reporting, and a difficult space in which to share the news of our success.

What’s more, due to the ever-increasing complexity of some offences, we are experiencing increased investigation run-times. For example, the average international tenure of a single foreign bribery investigation is currently seven-and-a-half years. Seven-and-a-half years, which is just an average – it would not surprise some of you to know that this can take up to and over 10 years. It presents a significant challenge to our resourcing, our people and our reputation. And as at the end of April this year, the AFP held 37 foreign bribery matters. That’s potentially 259 investigation years committed to this particular crime type.

Further afield, the AFP’s work offshore is growing and can be linked to Australia’s prosperity and security. Australia enjoys a reputation as a safe, free and wealthy country, but it is these very values that the criminal element also view as lucrative and attractive.

Crime in Australia is increasingly emanating from, being directed by, or having a significant overseas element. We estimate that about 70 percent of Australia’s serious criminal threats have an international dimension. That’s right, nearly three quarters of serious crime impacting Australia has overseas aspects.

The AFP has built an extensive international liaison network and it is a cornerstone of our organisation, and put simply, our efforts to cripple organised crime would be futile without it. Our work with partner agencies in these locations is crucial in disrupting crime before it can even reach our shores.

An example of this type of impact can be seen with the seizing of over eight tonnes of drugs and precursors in a joint operation with the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission. The majority was seized in mainland China and so never even made it to its intended destination – Australia. This type of disruption is becoming a commonplace strategy for us and is just not possible without the very strong relationships that we build and maintain internationally.

And at this point, let me say this. On the surface this is just another seizure – we know that illicit drugs are prevalent on our streets – but these criminals are not simply drug traffickers (as insidious as that is). They are money launderers, they are identity thieves, they undermine our borders, our health networks, and they fuel volume crimes affecting each and every Australian. They are organised crime, and frankly, they present problems for all aspects of society.

And our relationships are not just important in a law enforcement context, but more broadly in terms of contributing to diplomatic harmony.  Our relationship with the Indonesian National Police has for many years delivered outcomes that benefit both Australia and Indonesia’s interests. This has been a resilient and continuous relationship despite the sometimes rocky diplomatic tensions between the Governments.  Even more importantly, it has often been the catalyst for the broader bi-lateral relationship to come back on track.

So, with this in mind, I would like to touch on Police-led Diplomacy a little more, because it is important to understand our involvement in this space, and because I think it’s currently a bit of an unknown as to just how broadly we are operating overseas, and more importantly, why.

The AFP’s adaptable and resourceful nature has seen us emerge in the international diplomacy space, previously reserved for foreign affairs and aid agencies, or even Defence. Police-led diplomacy is something I have been quite vocal about and I see this as an important pillar of our broader government strategy.

So what is it?

The concept is simple and utilises law enforcement links to build upon and find common bilateral and diplomatic ground.  Put more simply – there are very few countries that don’t share common objectives to defeat terrorism, defeat the abuse of their children, curb the flow of drugs, money or guns, even end corruption.  We need to use these obvious commonalities to our advantage.

Our involvement in the MH17 investigation is a great example of our leadership in this field.

In 2014, the AFP found itself in a position where we were suddenly deploying teams of unarmed men and women to the heart of an active conflict zone in eastern Ukraine – with no notice, no area familiarity, no established links or local partnerships – to identify and bring home the remains of Australian victims and to investigate the shooting down of a passenger plane. It is quite incredible when you consider it, and not something that we had previously contemplated.

But not only did we do it, I believe we did it in a way that should make all Australians proud. We did it in a way that respected the enormous grief and tragedy imposed upon the victims and their families. We did it in a way that saw us being a key plank in ensuring that a genuinely international approach was taken, and we did it in a way that ensured the integrity and independence of the joint investigation – despite enormous geopolitical posturing.

What’s more – nearly three years later we are still in the Netherlands and the Ukraine ensuring that justice can be served for those victims.  It is a response I am enormously proud of, and while I know we did not do it alone – I will be bold and say that the totality of Australia’s response would not have occurred without us, and could not have been done by any other Australian government agency or department.

And we should not discount the enormous goodwill that Australia’s (and particularly the AFP’s) approach provided in terms of our relationships with Malaysia, the Ukraine and The Netherlands – not to mention the many other countries who have trusted justice for their victims to a very small group of agencies.  It is difficult for me to put into words the enduring impact of this investigation – but it gives me a clarity about the international power of policing that was not as evident before.

Our role off-shore will always be principally security and investigation-focussed – we are a police force, after all – but the concept of police-led diplomacy, taking advantage of what we have in common rather than what divides us, is an important bi-product of our work.

Now, I have come this far in this address and hardly touched upon counter terrorism and our broader national security role.  That is not because it is not important, but because I sometimes feel that the other many, many important aspects of the AFP’s work do not receive the same visibility.

But let me be clear.  Protecting Australians, both at home and abroad, from the current threat of terrorism is, and will be for the foreseeable future, the AFP’s number one priority.  And we have witnessed exponential growth of this crime recently.

In the 13 years between 2001 and 2014, the AFP was involved in a number of high profile and important terrorism investigations – in that time we charged 37 people for terrorism-related matters and put them before the court as a result of 13 operations.  We believe we disrupted at least two, but possibly more, terrorist acts.

In the two-and-a-half years since September 2014, the AFP and our partners have arrested 62 people for terrorism matters, and disrupted at least 12 planned terrorist acts. In that same time of course, there have been four incidents, three innocent Australians have lost their lives due to terrorist acts, and a number of other people seriously injured (including two police officers). On any level, the last two-and-a-half years has seen an exponential rise in terrorist activity in Australia, and the AFP – and our state and territory partners – have had to react and respond like never before.

In fact, if we simply look at the rise in operations conducted by the AFP and our partners over the past three years, the figure is alarming – in 2014 we had approximately 19 terrorism investigations and by 2016 that number had risen to 72 investigations.

And while we know that ISIS is losing ground and influence in the Middle East, it gives law enforcement little room for comfort as we contemplate the shifting nature of the conflict away from a land battle towards an ongoing and enduring insurgency, most likely fought across all nations.

The domestic and international work of the AFP in this space is crucial to Australia’s national interest and our national security.  I said earlier, the AFP is not just a part of the National Security community – the scope and nature of our work often make us leaders.

We straddle the international and domestic environment, often becoming the bridge between events in other parts of the world, and the impacts they have locally.  We translate the highly-sensitive, and fundamental role played by our intelligence and military partners worldwide, and bring it into the public domain.  We traverse the top secret and public worlds and are often the public face of Australia’s national efforts to keep our community safe from terrorism. 

We cannot do this without our State and Territory policing partners, nor our partners at the borders, and I am pleased to say that the current partnerships between police in Australia is as strong as I have ever seen it.  The Joint Counter Terrorism team concept commenced in 2003 and is now the foundation upon which Australia’s domestic counter terrorism efforts are built.   

And with that in mind, I also want to acknowledge the good work of ASIO in this space.  Policing in Australia is stronger for the cooperation with have with our security partners – and especially with ASIO.

At the end of the day, we are all equal partners in this challenge to keep Australians safe, and like almost no other crime type, countering terrorism is a joined-up effort.

Last week’s terrible events in Manchester have had a deeper impact on mums and dads everywhere – myself included – than almost any event prior. It was almost unimaginable and unspeakable that our youth could be targeted in that way – but that is the nature of the problem we are dealing with.

It is also why, when I visit my teams in Melbourne or Sydney, or internationally, or anywhere else, I see dedicated, committed, but tired officers.

In 2002, on the first day after I was promoted to Superintendent in the newly created role of AFP National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, I was told by a wise former UK Intelligence analyst who was working for the AFP – he said ‘be careful son, counter terrorism can consume your life.’ Well, that was two weeks before the first Bali bombing and I know he was not just speaking to me, but to the hundreds, if not thousands, of AFP officers who have had their lives consumed by this task ever since.  It is rewarding, but it is unforgiving.

We are also fortunate that the AFP has enjoyed bi-partisan parliamentary support in the counter terrorism space. The work of the Government to keep legislation contemporary, practical and operationally-focussed has added a great deal to the relative success we have had to date, and directly benefited the safety of the community. 

We can never be complacent, and never will be, but I must acknowledge the hard work of the Attorney General’s Department, and the government, who have been very responsive to our needs.

So let me change track. If these are our challenges, how are we going to address them?

How do we capitalise on our unique position within the Australian Government? How can we deliver the current core requirements of a safe society and prepare for new challenges, both known and yet-to-emerge? How do I ensure that my workforce is prepared, is informed, and is reflective of our diverse society?

These are fundamental and important questions. Questions that I have been asking myself, questions I have been asking our stakeholders and partners, and questions that I have been asking AFP members.

We have examined the outcomes of a number of reviews including our organisational culture, the future environment, efficiency, and technology.  Some of these outcomes are confronting, but provide a clear path forward. 

An ambitious but achievable agenda of transformation has been agreed upon.

Central to the transformation agenda is the provision of a supportive and respectful culture for all AFP staff to work within – this is essential across the entire organisation and is critical to sustained performance. A committed effort from the AFP’s leadership group is challenging some of the accepted ways of doing business.  And that is a good thing!

Inclusive communication, diversity (especially gender diversity) and transparent decision-making are important to our cultural reform aspirations.  And that is why 22 August 2016 was a good day for the AFP. It was the day I released the report by Elizabeth Broderick into Culture and Inclusiveness in the AFP. A day on which we decided not to take the easy path, but to show leadership as an organisation and say that – as good as we are – we should and will be better. And being better starts with being prepared to look deep within ourselves and ask difficult questions – not just about culture and diversity, but our mental and physical health as well.

An effective AFP begins with being a healthy AFP, and this demands improvements in our culture and our diversity.  There are many reasons why this is good policy – moral reasons, legislative reasons, capability reasons, leadership reasons, and diversity of thought reasons – or just simply trying to reflect the community we serve. 

It is not that the AFPs culture was terrible. In fact, Elizabeth found that we had an organisation that was engaged, motivated, passionate about our role and ready for change. Our attrition rate is low and we know that our members enjoy the work that we do – after all it is important work. But we can, and will get better. 

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel – commonly considered the father of modern policing – set nine principles to guide the role of police in society – principles on which Australian law enforcement is modelled.  Key among those principles was a phrase ‘that the police are the public and the public are the police.’ This has been interpreted many ways over the years, but I favour a view that ensures that to the best extent possible, police forces look and feel no different to the community we serve.  We are just in a privileged position to be trusted with the authority to enforce the laws we all agree on. The current AFP does not look enough like modern Australia, and we are working hard to change this.

We have also recently launched our Futures Centre and an on-line Strategy for Future Capability.  The results of our consultations on the future of the AFP are not surprising, but they are challenging.  Given global complexity, technological advancement and changes in crime and criminal operating models, the AFP will need to increase its commitment to technology, specialisation and education.  We need to build a more flexible workforce that values diversity through increased collaboration and partnerships with agencies and the private sector. Our international network will become central to all that we do, and equally, our national role in both shaping policy and coordinating law enforcement responses will be in sharp focus.

This work has reinforced for us that it is not just what we do that matters – but how we do it.

Just as we have designed a new vision for the AFP – one that focuses our minds on Policing for A Safer Australia – we have refined our mission to say:

Through leadership, collaboration and innovation we will transform the AFP to ensure that we:

  • are Intelligence-informed
  • will build partnerships in Australia and abroad
  • will drive Australia’s international policing interests to combat crime, and
  • will develop leading edge capabilities and knowledge.

These are the cornerstones of the future AFP.  They are what stand us apart from our colleagues and they are the competitive advantage we have in the fight against crime.

In some ways these are subtle shifts and seem logical.  But in policing terms, they are more profound.  It means that while we will always focus on the frontline, we will now ensure that the frontline is well-served, and well-resourced for the challenges ahead. 

It is with this in mind, I believe a singular focus on police numbers must be balanced by a sophisticated focus on police capability.  Capabilities that will not always be delivered by sworn police – but may well include a range of specialists designed to match the challenges of the day.

Too often policing is judged by the numbers.  Not just the numbers that make up crime statistics, or our key performance indicators, but also the number of personnel, the number of uniformed officers available, the number of sworn police an organisation has.  Our capacities (how many more police do I need) are so often prioritized over our capabilities (what skills and tools do I need my police to have). Both are critically important, but it is our capabilities that we should consider more deeply.

Another important principle Sir Robert Peel left us with was to reinforce that ‘the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.’  Numbers of police is only half of the equation.

Equally, we can also no longer afford to view our workforce as a distinction between sworn and unsworn – it must be about the outcome, and the best way for it to be delivered. Police officers and the execution of police powers will always be central to what we do, but from an AFP perspective at least, it is often only one part of the equation.

But when it’s all said and done, it’s a pretty simple standard to meet. And I am quite clear about what we need to achieve.  I see organisational health as all encompassing – when an AFP officer knocks on a door, he or she knows that behind them is a line of support that can be drawn upon.  The officer is fit and healthy both mentally and physically, they are well-trained and well-equipped, they are supported by the best technology available and they have access to the best resources available.  It is a risky job, but they know their health and safety is an organisational priority.    And if they need specialist skills to deal with whatever complexity sits beyond that door, then they are readily available.

The AFP will never meet all the demands placed on it, but we can be clear about where we can have the greatest impact within those demands. Specialist intelligence, forensic, surveillance and covert capabilities must align with our specialist legal, technological and workforce management capabilities if we are to be successful.  Getting the balance right is challenging but important.

These are the principle foundations upon which to build the future AFP.  They are crime-type agnostic, but they reflect the breadth and complexity of what we must now confront.

Let me finish, with where I started.

The AFP is a great organisation - in fact we are more than that. We are an organisation that is central to the national security of Australia, we are central to the confidence that the Australian community has in government and their safety, we are a national institution that should, and does, demonstrate leadership. The reforms and changes I have discussed today are not about fixing the AFP – they are about making us the best policing and law enforcement agency we can possibly be.

We are also an organization that I am immensely proud of, passionate about, and one I will defend against unreasonable criticism. I feel a deep personal obligation to make sure my officers have what they need to do a job that is so demanding of them.

But equally, we are an organisation who I will ensure continues to be accountable and transparent.  AFP members deserve the support and encouragement of their leadership – both from me, the community and from government. This comes from being accountable.

And so, 100 years on, I would like to think that Prime Minister Billy Hughes would be proud of his legacy and the progressive, world-leading, innovative law enforcement agency he created, even if the world that it now finds itself in would seem so unfamiliar to him.

And if he was here today, I would advise him that he comfortably keep his gun in his railway carriage. We’ve got this covered.

Thank you for your interest – and I am pleased that eggs were not on the menu today.

Commissioner Andrew Colvin

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