The decision of Northern Territory Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ken Fleming to step aside from a review related to the alleged murder of Kumanjayi Walker by a police officer demonstrates how hard it is for such bodies to maintain an air of genuine independence.
This week the commissioner stepped aside from any role in the ICAC’s investigation related to the incident. Fleming says he wanted to reassure community members, and Indigenous people in particular, that the ICAC was truly independent of government. He says he aimed to take an even-handed approach in responding to the territory’s latest death in custody and play a balancing role, working equally with the police and Indigenous communities. But some of his comments at a rally in Alice Springs drew complaints to the ICAC office.
“One of the most important messages today is: ‘black lives matter’,” he said at the emotionally charged event, one of a series of rallies around the country. “Anybody who says contrary to that is guilty of corrupt behaviour.”
He now accepts his choice of words could cause a perception of bias among some observers.
Public critics of the comments include former Country Liberal politician Daryl Manzie, a former police officer who sat in the NT legislative assembly for 18 years and held a long line of ministerial roles, and independent MLA Terry Mills, who represented the Country Liberal party for about 15 years and was chief minister for just over six months in 2012 and 2013.
Fleming referred complaints about his comments in Alice Springs to the independent ICAC Inspector, Bruce McClintock, and stepped aside after receiving McClintock’s advice. His office will continue to be involved in the sensitive investigation.
“From the moment this tragic incident occurred I have set out to give my time to both the NT Police and the Central Australian and Warlpiri Aboriginal communities, in a balanced manner,” the commissioner said in a statement.
“I proactively sought counsel to engage in a culturally appropriate manner with senior Aboriginal community leaders, and specifically Warlpiri people who have been impacted by this event.
“Those community leaders have called for a review of the decisions made before and after this event by public bodies, including agencies other than NT Police, and the policies and processes which govern that decision-making.
“My intention when participating in the community meetings in Central Australia was to explain our ability to independently look into these matters to the communities who are upset and seeking the truth.
“I accept that some of my comments have led to the perception among some observers that I am closer to one side than another on this matter, and so I will no longer be involved in it.
“The public must trust in the ICAC’s ability to provide independent oversight of public bodies and public officers.”
Without Fleming playing a role, the ICAC will remain involved in an NT Police investigation which is being handled by specialist investigators, lawyers and technical experts with significant experience managing major crime investigations, as well as serious and complex investigations.