The Northern Territory’s most senior police officer, Reece Kershaw, will become the next commissioner of the Australian Federal Police when Andrew Colvin steps down at the end of September.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton announced the impending appointment on Wednesday. This surprised the NT government, which re-appointed Kershaw last November as police commissioner and chief executive of fire and emergency services until 2023.
He joined the NT Police Force as an assistant commissioner in 2011 and held several roles, moving into the top job in 2015. His policing career began with the AFP in 1988, Dutton explained, reeling off a long list of Kershaw’s federal policing roles over the years in a press conference at Parliament House.
The AFP’s next commissioner has served the organisation in senior roles focused on serious and organised crime, close personal protection, child protection operations and high-tech crime. He was also seconded to the former National Crime Authority (and its successor, the Australian Crime Commission, now called the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission).
“My initial focus will be around making sure that the frontline officers in the AFP are supported with the right training, the right technology, the right equipment, that the operating model of the organisation is fit for purpose for now and the future, and also that the health and wellbeing of all staff is examined in relation to those strategies and those support mechanisms,” Kershaw said.
He added that he came to “understand the importance of true partnerships [between] law enforcement and other agencies” over the last nine years in the territory.
“And that is going to be another area of my focus — to make sure that we’re able to unleash and unlock those resources, those law enforcement resources, to do as much damage to the criminal environment, to those persons that also break the law, and to those organisations who seek to harm Australians [as possible], and to make sure that Australia is as safe as it can be.”
The press conference allowed Kershaw to address mental health in policing. He said the pressures that have driven several AFP officers to suicide in recent years affected state and territory police as well.
“I go to the commissioners’ forums. It’s a national issue. We talk with the Police Federation and our various police unions. I think there’s … more work to do there in that area. It is a disturbing, I guess, issue for us. I’ve lost some officers as well in the Northern Territory, so the AFP is not alone in this area.
“I think it’s really important to look at, you know, those strategies and the support mechanisms that we can roll out to prevent this from happening.”
The minister said police organisations around the world had the same challenges.
“And when you’ve got officers with access to firearms, when you have a high-stress environment in terms of the investigations that they’re involved in, and in some cases, when you look at the individual circumstances around, you know, marriage breakdowns, … child custody matters, where people have terminal illnesses, you know, there are a number of particular circumstances that make each case unique, as equally tragic as the previous, but this is not an issue that’s just known to Australia.
“It’s an international issue, and we are working very closely with all of our agencies to provide whatever support we can. It’s an incredibly important area of focus.”
Playing a straight bat
Counter-terrorism, national security and protecting the Australia’s interests would remain the priorities, the incoming commissioner said. The AFP would seek to “attack the supply chain” global organised criminal groups from Australia and abroad. “I think state police can play a greater role in that area and I look forward to working with all those partner agencies to do that,” he added.
ABC political editor Andrew Probyn asked whether Kershaw thought the AFP was underfunded. “Look, I think at the end of the day, you’ve got the resources you have, and you need to do the best with what we’ve got,” he replied.
He said he would simply try to “demonstrate public value, and remember that it’s taxpayer money” when pressed on the question.
“Just to reassure you, and I’ve not met a head of agency that hasn’t asked for more money,” Dutton cheerfully observed, “and I’m sure the commissioner, having served governments for a long period of time, will continue that fine tradition of seeking more money as any leader of an organisation like the AFP probably should.”
Along with mental health, “funding and resourcing” was nominated as a key priority for AFP Association president Angela Smith, who congratulated Kershaw later in the day and said she looked forward to discussing these matters along the next enterprise agreement.
A big question on the minds of press-gallery journalists was whether under Kershaw, the AFP would pause to consider press freedom while investigating leaks from government or pursue their sources to the limits of the law. Would he give the minister a heads-up before a search of a journalist’s home or workplace, as the AFP recently did? The answer was brief.
“Well, my style is that the minister’s office would not be informed pre-operation unless it was something of national security that required that. And in relation to the media freedoms, I believe in our democracy and that’s the approach I’ll take.”
Why the urgency?
Unusually, the minister announced Kershaw’s appointment before recommending it to the Governor-General. This means the minister’s office or the department had to submit “compelling reasons” for the urgency via the secretary to the Federal Executive Council, according to the relevant handbook.
“Concern about speculation over an appointment, for example, would not of itself be regarded as valid justification,” the handbook explains. It was a good enough justification for the AFP Association president, who thanked Dutton and the government for “the early timing of the announcement” in her afternoon statement.
“The announcement brings an end to the speculation and business can return to normal,” Smith said.
Before his time in the NT, Kershaw worked for the AFP in Canberra, Melbourne and Western Australia. He was posted overseas several times, including to the Solomon Islands, The Hague and East Timor, where he was chief of a United Nations policing operation. He reached the rank of Assistant Commissioner before moving to Darwin.
He earned an NTPF Medal for Outstanding Leadership and the Australian Police Medal during his time in the NT. He has a Master of Business Administration and qualifications from the Australian Institute for Police Management, the Australian Institute of Company Directors and a law enforcement leadership program run by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“He’s represented his country and … the territory with the great respect of those that have served under him, and I’m very pleased that he has accepted the offer to become the next commissioner,” Dutton said.
“I want to truly pay tribute to Andrew Colvin, who has served 30 years with the Australian Federal Police and has led the organisation with great distinction and with great capacity. And Andrew Colvin is also a relatively young man who will go on to a very distinguished career in the next part of his life as well, and we wish AJ all the very best in that endeavour.”