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Parliament House Canberra

The AFP is at a crossroads, and Peter Dutton's 'old school' style isn't what it needs

By John Coyne

Andrew Colvin is the first of a new generation of senior law enforcement officials.

This isn't because of his age, being significantly younger than most Australian police chiefs and Commonwealth law enforcement agency bosses when appointed Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

Nor is it because he is Harvard educated, or far more cerebral than most of Australia's operational police.

These factors shaped the thinking and leadership style of this top cop, but what really set him apart was that he brought an energetic honesty to the office.

Commissioner Colvin's new school of policing values strategy with a focus on solving problems and working with partners. While many a retired police commissioner has highlighted that police won't arrest themselves out of problems such as ice, Commissioner Colvin has been working hard to find innovative policing alternatives.

By challenging the policing status quo Commissioner Colvin, who is retiring on October 1, has earned widespread respect from Canberra's senior policymakers.

In contrast, selling his new law enforcement approaches to government and more traditional thinking police officers has been challenging. Old-school policing has a sharp operational focus on the good pinch (arrest) of senior criminals, large drug busts and cash seizures rather than solving the problems.

Politicians such as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, himself a former Queensland police officer, prefer old-school policing for its sharper "getting tough" focus on punishing criminals. They love the symbology of a minister standing in front of a large quantity of seized illicit drugs flanked by armed police.

Despite the formation of the Department of Home Affairs, and Mr Dutton's punitive approach to law enforcement, Commissioner Colvin has vigorously defended — in private and public — the statutory independence of the AFP.

Government might be tempted to appoint someone more open to their policies, but Australians need and deserve someone very different.

Australia needs an AFP commissioner with the strength of character, political acumen and tenacity to ensure the force remains strategically focused on community safety rather than delivering on the Government's tough talk.

Similarly, they need a commissioner who will proactively defend the AFP against any Home Affairs encroachment into operational matters.

A strong record

There can be no doubt that the AFP has achieved much while Commissioner Colvin has been at the helm.

The AFP has been critical in the disruption of 16 terror plots since 2014. It has consistently broken illicit drug seizure records, and the list of other more operational successes is lengthy.

Then in March 2018, likely much to the chagrin of Mr Dutton, Commissioner Colvin bravely told a Senate estimates committee that his 6,500-strong organisation faced a "supply and demand" challenge.

The Commissioner described a force experiencing greater demand for its services in the face of increasing crime.

But arguably, Commissioner Colvin's greatest achievements are related to his commitment to the development of new law enforcement strategies and innovation, while maintaining the statutory independence of the AFP.

Big shoes to fill

Finding a suitable replacement for Commissioner Colvin will be no easy task. This person will need to resolve several issues.

To start, there's a growing global surplus of illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, which is driving down wholesale drug prices. Criminal groups in the Golden Triangle and Mexico have shifted their focus to the production and distribution of synthetic drugs. And since 2015, East Asia and South-East Asia have become the leading subregions for methamphetamine seizures worldwide.

The continued globalisation of Australia's crime problem is shifting policing responsibilities from the states and territories to the Commonwealth.

The bottom line here is that the AFP is facing a widening gap between the amount of crime that's occurring and their capacity to respond to it.

At the same time, the AFP's budget has been in a steady state of decline for several years.

The AFP's "supply and demand" challenge has had deep impacts on the morale and wellbeing of its workforce.

In 2016, concerned about bullying and harassment, Commissioner Colvin commissioned former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to undertake an independent review of the AFP. And he then courageously made the damning findings publicly available, before embarking on a comprehensive agenda for change.

Five AFP workplace suicides since February 2017, while they may not be directly linked to service, shows there's much to do to support the mental health of our officers on the front line.

On several occasions leading up to his appointment, Commissioner Colvin had stated he would only ever do one term as Australia's top cop. So, this week's announcement shows that, as always, Commissioner Colvin is a man of his word.

There are still a few months to go, but unfortunately Commissioner Colvin's departure will leave a gaping hole in Australia's law enforcement community that will be difficult to fill at a time when the AFP's independence is under sustained threat.

Originally published by: ABC News on 17 Jul 2019