Organised crime

In 1980 Frank Costigan QC was appointed as royal commissioner to inquire into the affairs of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union and he delivered five interim reports in 1982–83. The first two dealt with the administration and criminal activities of the Painters and Dockers, the third with union involvement in tax evasion, the fourth with 'bottom of the harbour' tax evasion schemes and the fifth with a major criminal scheme involving Hamidan Ltd. The third report and parts of the fourth and fifth reports were made public, the remainder being withheld to protect prosecutions. Costigan’s final report was delivered in 1984 and partially published.

As Costigan delivered his reports the Fraser Government’s response moved almost to a state of frenzy. Cabinet was deluged with information from committees of ministers and public servants and it also received detailed lists of Painters and Dockers murdered, maimed or missing in action. For the public, the Painters and Dockers, with their bizarrely murderous culture and strange nicknames, provided a little colour in a generally dreary political and economic landscape. One of Cabinet's most immediate concerns was allegations against its own employees. These included the recruitment of criminals, payment of absent employees, violence, theft and compensation fraud at Navy dockyards and the involvement of Australian National Line crews and facilities in theft and narcotics. Some of these problems were already known and attempts had been made to address them, although the Painters and Dockers' control of recruitment hindered reform. Police investigations and prosecutions continued under the Hawke Government, which also tightened checking procedures to try to keep criminals out of the maritime industry.

Evidence presented to the Costigan royal commission, and also to the Stewart royal commission on the Terrence Clark drug syndicate and the Nugan Hand bank, emphasised that Australia needed a more sophisticated law enforcement structure to fight organised crime. In June 1982 Attorney-General Peter Durack gave Cabinet a possible blueprint for a National Crimes Commission (NCC). Like royal commissions, it would be able to compel answers and order the production of documents, but it would be a standing body that could accept powers and functions referred by the states. Durack then visited the United States and United Kingdom to study crime fighting. He returned convinced that the keys to success were trained personnel, electronic surveillance, close involvement of prosecutors in investigations and immunity for key witnesses. He still saw a role for an NCC in investigating organised crime, but did not favour giving it the power to recommend specific prosecutions because such organisations tended to be over-optimistic. The Commonwealth discussed the concept with state attorneys-general and police ministers, but found that they were concerned about civil rights issues, wary of Commonwealth invasion of their territory and in some cases sceptical about the seriousness of organised crime. They also complained that the royal commissions had not produced much information that prosecutors could actually use. The states generally favoured a more fragmented system based on the existing Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, supervising ministerial councils and various special commissions.

Legislation to establish the NCC was passed in December 1982, but the Fraser Government was defeated before it could be brought into effect. After prolonged consultations the Hawke Government decided in September 1983 that the NCC should become a National Crime Authority overseen by a committee of ministers from each jurisdiction, which would determine what matters were to be referred to it. The Bureau of Criminal Intelligence would remain a separate agency. Cabinet also decided to establish an office of Director of Public Prosecutions.

In September 1982 the Fraser Government considered the report of Mr Justice Woodward’s royal commission on the export meat industry. The royal commission had been set up in 1981 following the exposure of scandalous practices in the industry. Woodward found that prior to August 1981 there had been serious deficiencies in the industry and he was strongly critical of the Department of Primary Industry. The situation was now better, but there was still considerable room for improvement.

Selected documents

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016