'Be careful, counter terrorism can consume your life'

By The Mandarin

June 1, 2017

The warning Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin received from a mentor on taking his first counter terrorism job shortly after September 11 has proven prophetic:

“I was told by a wise former UK Intelligence analyst who was working for the AFP – he said ‘be careful son, counter terrorism can consume your life.’ Well, that was two weeks before the first Bali bombing and I know he was not just speaking to me, but to the hundreds, if not thousands, of AFP officers who have had their lives consumed by this task ever since.  It is rewarding, but it is unforgiving.”

Colvin was speaking yesterday at the National Press Club on ‘Policing For A Safer Australia’ as his vision for the organisation he leads. A task immeasurably more challenging he says due to asymmetric threats like cyber terrorism, where lone actors “blur lines of attribution between criminal, commercial, and state make this a genuinely wicked problem.”

Beyond cyber, all the AFP’s jurisdictional remit is becoming more complex to understand, investigate and prosecute. Colvin cites the average international tenure of a single foreign bribery investigation at seven-and-a-half years, and it’s not uncommon to exceed 10 years.

Nonetheless, terrorism remains the AFP’s top priority, having seen an exponential rise over the last 13 years. Yet there was something about the terrible events in Manchester that had a deeper impact as it targeted the young, he said.

Colvin reflected on how AFP can capitalise on its unique position within the Australian government, ensure a safe society and prepare for the unknown challenges yet to come.

Below is an excerpt of Colvin’s speech:


We have examined the outcomes of a number of reviews including our organisational culture, the future environment, efficiency, and technology.  Some of these outcomes are confronting, but provide a clear path forward.

An ambitious but achievable agenda of transformation has been agreed upon.

Central to the transformation agenda is the provision of a supportive and respectful culture for all AFP staff to work within – this is essential across the entire organisation and is critical to sustained performance. A committed effort from the AFP’s leadership group is challenging some of the accepted ways of doing business.  And that is a good thing!

Inclusive communication, diversity (especially gender diversity) and transparent decision-making are important to our cultural reform aspirations.  And that is why 22 August 2016 was a good day for the AFP. It was the day I released the report by Elizabeth Broderick into Culture and Inclusiveness in the AFP. A day on which we decided not to take the easy path, but to show leadership as an organisation and say that – as good as we are – we should and will be better. And being better starts with being prepared to look deep within ourselves and ask difficult questions – not just about culture and diversity, but our mental and physical health as well.

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

It is not that the AFPs culture was terrible. In fact, Elizabeth found that we had an organisation that was engaged, motivated, passionate about our role and ready for change. Our attrition rate is low and we know that our members enjoy the work that we do – after all it is important work. But we can, and will get better.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel – commonly considered the father of modern policing – set nine principles to guide the role of police in society – principles on which Australian law enforcement is modelled.  Key among those principles was a phrase ‘that the police are the public and the public are the police.’ This has been interpreted many ways over the years, but I favour a view that ensures that to the best extent possible, police forces look and feel no different to the community we serve.  We are just in a privileged position to be trusted with the authority to enforce the laws we all agree on. The current AFP does not look enough like modern Australia, and we are working hard to change this.

We have also recently launched our Futures Centre and an on-line Strategy for Future Capability.  The results of our consultations on the future of the AFP are not surprising, but they are challenging.  Given global complexity, technological advancement and changes in crime and criminal operating models, the AFP will need to increase its commitment to technology, specialisation and education.  We need to build a more flexible workforce that values diversity through increased collaboration and partnerships with agencies and the private sector. Our international network will become central to all that we do, and equally, our national role in both shaping policy and coordinating law enforcement responses will be in sharp focus.

This work has reinforced for us that it is not just what we do that matters – but how we do it.

Just as we have designed a new vision for the AFP – one that focuses our minds on Policing for A Safer Australia – we have refined our mission to say:

Through leadership, collaboration and innovation we will transform the AFP to ensure that we:

  • are Intelligence-informed
  • will build partnerships in Australia and abroad
  • will drive Australia’s international policing interests to combat crime, and
  • will develop leading edge capabilities and knowledge.

These are the cornerstones of the future AFP.  They are what stand us apart from our colleagues and they are the competitive advantage we have in the fight against crime.

In some ways these are subtle shifts and seem logical.  But in policing terms, they are more profound.  It means that while we will always focus on the frontline, we will now ensure that the frontline is well-served, and well-resourced for the challenges ahead.

It is with this in mind, I believe a singular focus on police numbers must be balanced by a sophisticated focus on police capability.  Capabilities that will not always be delivered by sworn police – but may well include a range of specialists designed to match the challenges of the day.

Too often policing is judged by the numbers.  Not just the numbers that make up crime statistics, or our key performance indicators, but also the number of personnel, the number of uniformed officers available, the number of sworn police an organisation has.  Our capacities (how many more police do I need) are so often prioritized over our capabilities (what skills and tools do I need my police to have). Both are critically important, but it is our capabilities that we should consider more deeply.

Another important principle Sir Robert Peel left us with was to reinforce that ‘the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.’  Numbers of police is only half of the equation.

Equally, we can also no longer afford to view our workforce as a distinction between sworn and unsworn – it must be about the outcome, and the best way for it to be delivered. Police officers and the execution of police powers will always be central to what we do, but from an AFP perspective at least, it is often only one part of the equation.

Read the full speech on the AFP website.

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