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AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin speaking

Commissioner meets the press

Commissioner Andrew Colvin unveiled the AFP's future direction at the National Press Club.

By Graham McBean

The diversity, breadth and challenging nature of the AFP's work was on full display when AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin took to the National Press Club stage on May 31. 

Commissioner Colvin addressed an audience of law enforcement colleagues, journalists, Members of Parliament and academics. He introduced the room to the future of the AFP, including the challenges of policing in an unpredictable criminal landscape, and discussed the importance of fostering a respectful and supportive workplace culture within the AFP.

Two and a half years since being sworn in as AFP Commissioner, Commissioner Colvin welcomed the rare opportunity to pause and examine where the organisation has come from, and most importantly, where the AFP is going. 

"The AFP's history has been one of evolution to meet changing demands. We have proven ourselves many times, regardless of the challenges," Commissioner Colvin said.

"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."

Commissioner Colvin is the fifth AFP Commissioner to speak at the National Press Club, with former Commissioner Mick Keelty last on the stage in 2004. The challenges facing today's law enforcement agencies are very different to those faced in 2004 and even more so than those faced in 1979 when the AFP was established.

While policing is what the AFP has always done, Commissioner Colvin said that how it is done has never been traditional or predictable.  Now, he sees a 'new policing normal' emerging – one that is not purely focused on policing numbers or crime statistics, but on the organisation's ability to prevent and disrupt crime before it occurs.

During his speech, the Commissioner introduced the AFP's new vision – Policing for a Safer Australia – explaining that this vision is one which encapsulates what the organisation does, and reassures the community why the AFP matters.

"It is a vision that places in the forefront of the public mind the reason that my dedicated members continue to do what they do, every single day, often risking their own safety," Commissioner Colvin said.

It is this dedication that saw the AFP involved in an unprecedented international response to the downing of Malaysian aircraft MH17 in 2014. Commissioner Colvin took the opportunity to express his pride in the professionalism and leadership demonstrated by members in their response to the tragedy.

"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," Commissioner Colvin said.

"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."

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin sitting at a desk surround by media
Policing for a Safer Australia – AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin introduced the new AFP vision in his National Press Club Address in Canberra.

Commissioner Colvin credited this investigation, and the AFP's relationships with its global partners, with providing him clarity about the international power of policing, and the growing importance of police-led diplomacy.

"The concept is simple and utilises law enforcement links to build upon and find common bilateral and diplomatic ground," Commissioner Colvin said.

"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."

The AFP has an expansive international liaison network, with officers stationed in 32 countries across the world. This level of international cooperation is what sets the AFP apart from other Australian law enforcement agencies and is crucial to disrupting crime before it can threaten the security of Australia.

"Crime in Australia is increasingly emanating from, being directed by, or having a significant overseas element. We estimate that about 70 per cent of Australia's serious criminal threats have an international dimension," Commissioner Colvin said.

The AFP is operating within an ever-increasing and diversifying remit, and the Commissioner noted the challenges posed by rapid increases in technology are only the beginning.

"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," he said.

The Commissioner noted the example of a recent counter terrorism investigation that saw the seizure of 8.6 terabytes of data on suspect devices – an amount equivalent to 2.3 billion pages of material.

The challenges faced when policing an environment as complex and unpredictable as the internet are matched by the pressures created by the ongoing, exponential growth of terrorism across the globe.

"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," Commissioner Colvin said.

"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."

AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin standing at a lectern in speaking to a crowd
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin meets the press.

This high-intensity operating environment is a stark contrast to the humble beginnings of Commonwealth policing, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.  This last decade has seen extensive change and as effectively the fifth iteration of a Commonwealth police force in Australia, the AFP has never been one to shy away from transformation.

"The modern AFP has a rich history of adaptation," Commissioner Colvin said. "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.

"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."

To ensure it continues to be placed at the forefront of the fight against crime, the AFP has set itself a transformation agenda that Commissioner Colvin described as "ambitious but achievable".

In recent years, the AFP has conducted a number of reviews into its organisational culture, future operating environment, efficiency and technology. Commissioner Colvin says these reviews have helped define the new vision of Policing for a Safer Australia.

Through strong leadership, collaboration and innovation, the Commissioner envisions the AFP transforming to be intelligence-informed, well-partnered both domestically and abroad, driving Australia's international policing interests and developing leading edge capabilities integral to the fight against crime.

"Too often policing is judged by the numbers. Our capacities – how many more police do I need – are so often prioritised over our capabilities – what skills and tools do I need my police to have," Commissioner Colvin said.

"Both are critically important, but it is our capabilities that we should consider more deeply."

Culture change

A key component to the AFP transformation agenda is the promotion of a supportive and respectful culture within the AFP. In August 2016, Commissioner Colvin released the report by Elizabeth Broderick into Culture and Inclusiveness in the AFP.

Commissioner Colvin reflected that this day was a good, albeit confronting, day for the AFP and one where the organisation and leadership group decided not to take the easier path.

Elizabeth Broderick and AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin at a desk signing paperwork
Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and Commissioner Andrew Colvin sign the AFP gender, diversity and inclusiveness reform strategy in February, 2016, to begin the AFP's journey to change the organisational culture.

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

The recently launched Futures Centre and online Strategy for Future Capability have also uncovered challenges that will need to be overcome, Commissioner Colvin admitted. The work needed to build a more flexible, diverse workforce also extending to the AFP's liaison with domestic and international law enforcement agencies and the private sector.

"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."

This alignment, the Commissioner said, will also continue to ensure that organisational health remains a top priority – with members able to call on specialised lines of technical and welfare support when going about their risky, day-to-day activities.

While key messages from the speech focused on the ongoing challenges the AFP faces in order to meet its adversaries head on, Commissioner Colvin's final words were of positivity and pride.

"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."