ANALYSIS: The serious abuse of office charge laid against NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne has exposed troubling integrity issues in the NT’s public institutions and raised some uncomfortable questions for the Gunner Government ahead of the Territory election next month.
Chief among them is why Attorney General Natasha Fyles, who knew about the allegations surrounding improper hiring processes in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner two years ago, renewed Ms Gwynne’s contract in May – just two months before the charge was laid.
Then there’s the question of why a supposedly shuttered secret unit of the NT Police that was struck to investigate “politically sensitive” issues in the public service five years ago is still operating without the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s knowledge.
And then there’s the issue of how a publicly-funded media newsroom in town was so convinced Ms Gwynne could do no wrong they exerted pressure to kill a story into credible allegations.
There’s also the theory posited by some observers of NT politics that the charge is payback for Ms Gwynne upsetting NT Police in her role as the Children’s Commissioner. That theory might actually have some legs, but less because of anything she did as commissioner and a lot more to do with the numerous enemies she made while in police and the influence she continued to exert in the senior ranks after she left.
Ms Gwynne was appointed to the Children’s Commissioner role in 2015 by her close friend and then-attorney general John Elferink, after a 26-year career in the NT Police force. The appointment caused a few raised eyebrows in the public service at the time, after other candidates with more experience in the field were seemingly overlooked.
Despite her connections to Elferink however, many saw Ms Gwynne as effective in the role of Children’s Commissioner over the last five years, including Attorney General Natasha Fyles who reappointed Ms Gwynne for a further five years in May.
But questions have been raised in political and legal circles over why her lucrative contract was renewed while she was under investigation.
Surely someone in the government was aware of the investigation that had been active for nearly two years and had been sitting with the Director of Public Prosecutions for many months before the charge was laid this week.
At the very least, Attorney General Natasha Fyles was well aware of allegations of improper hiring practices that surfaced in 2018.
Allegations made against Gwynne, ABC Darwin newsroom exerts pressure to silence story
In November 2018, this reporter, while working at ABC, sent Ms Gwynne a series of questions about the hiring process used to select a senior officer in her office.
Ms Gywnne was alleged to have hired a personal friend for the position, a friend who had been sacked by the NT Police in 2015 for her role in an alleged housing rort and who did not appear to have the qualifications for the unique position, according to senior public service sources with knowledge of the hiring process.
The government was forced to undertake a new hiring process after the questions were sent and it remains unclear if any pay-outs were made as a result of Ms Gwynne’s alleged actions or what the total cost to taxpayers was to remedy the situation.
It’s understood that matter is part of the evidence relied on to charge Ms Gwynne, however it’s unclear if there are any other alleged instances.
Ms Fyles and then-NT commissioner for public employment Craig Allen were also sent questions about the matter in November 2018.
Ms Fyles referred the questions to Mr Allen who returned favour and referred the questions back to the Minister. In the end, both chose not to answer and refused to acknowledge the serious nature of the accusations.
Despite being made aware of the allegations against the Children’s Commissioner, Ms Fyles as the responsible Minister appeared to have dropped the matter with no further enquiries.
At the time, the ABC Darwin newsroom, under the direction of current NT Police communications manager Rob Cross, did not want the story reported or questions asked of Ms Gwynne.
The ABC Darwin newsroom, it was said, was very supportive of Ms Gwynne and her performance in the role of Children’s Commissioner.
Questioning her actions was not looked upon with much favour in the newsroom by certain reporters who considered Ms Gwynne beyond reproach and unwilling to upset her for fear she would leave them out of the loop for upcoming stories. In fact, Ms Gwynne cancelled a scheduled interview with another ABC reporter in the days following the questions being sent.
The story about Ms Gwynne’s alleged hiring fiasco ultimately did not run, although many in the public service knew about the matter and it appears now that an unidentified party sent a complaint to the now defunct Public Interest Disclosures (PID) Commissioner’s office in 2018 that, in turn, passed it on to the NT Police’s Special References Unit which was established in the wake of the John McRoberts scandal to investigate “politically sensitive” matters involving politicians, police and public servants before the ICAC was established.
Chalker defends Special References Unit while ICAC says it wasn’t informed of investigation
Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker attempted on Friday to explain why the SRU had investigated and laid the charge of abuse of office against Ms Gwynne:
“So, it was established, pretty well in line with when the ICAC was starting to be created, in a conversation around the ICAC being created, so that those referrals could be passed into the Northern Territory Police, into a sterile corridor to enable those investigators to undertake any referrals that were provided to them,” he said.
“The investigation is now being considered by the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) and that charge has been laid…”
Nobody asked him why the SRU was still operating or why the NT Police did not seek external oversight while investigating a senior public servant who was also one of their own, with clear conflicts of interest at play.
It was widely understood that the SRU was disbanded when the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s office was established.
But high-level sources have told the NT Independent that the SRU is still loosely manned by a couple of investigators in what is assumed to be a dimly lit office with no windows in the darkest recesses of the Peter McAulay Centre.
Which is alarming for a few reasons. Firstly, the ICAC was officially established in November 2018, although not fully functional until 2019, with the mandate to investigate allegations of corruption in police, the public service and government.
So what cases are the SRU currently investigating outside of the Gwynne matter and why? And perhaps more chilling a question, on whose authority?
Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ken Fleming issued a statement on Friday saying he did not investigate the Gwynne matter and that it was referred to PID prior to the ICAC being established – which under the ICAC Act, apparently meant the ICAC should have jurisdiction. The statement said “matters referred prior to this date (November 30, 2018) now fall under ICAC control”.
That’s enough to suspect some other motives were at play in keeping the matter with police and away from the ICAC. It’s especially strange considering the subject was a former police officer who had made enemies within the ranks over the years, one who wielded influence into the upper echelons of senior police management and was known to use it for her own purposes on occasion.
The statement also reveals that Mr Fleming, the man in charge of investigating corruption in the public service, was not aware of this investigation.
Sources have told the NT Independent the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions had a brief since last year on the Gwynne matter but had not acted on it.
The entire affair will remind Territorians of the dark days of the Adam Giles CLP government, when issues of public integrity arose constantly, resulting in the Territory’s fundamental institutions being called into question.
The Gunner Government needs to urgently explain to Territorians what is going on and why Attorney General Natasha Fyles ignored credible evidence of alleged corruption in her department that ultimately resulted in a criminal charge.
Christopher Walsh is the editor of the NT Independent and formerly held roles as senior political reporter at the NT News and investigations producer at ABC Darwin. He is also co-author of Crocs in the Cabinet: An Instruction Manual on How Not to Run a Government.