Cost of cleaning out the Moonlight State

By: Tony Koch

Tony Fitzgerald exposed corruption in Queensland, but it came at a great personal cost.
Tony Koch reports

IN the mid-1990s, a Queensland minister was discussing a possible appointment to the High Court with a very senior member of the Keating government.
He floated the name of Tony Fitzgerald QC.
``Isn't that the bloke who headed a corruption inquiry and ended up jailing National Party ministers?'' his federal counterpart asked.
Told that it was, indeed, the same person, he replied: ``Well, he's got no chance. If he'll jail them, he'd jail our blokes too.''
That exchange typifies the attitude of many in authority to Fitzgerald; It was wonderful to employ him to do the dirty work and give the Queensland police service and political scene a long-overdue enema -- but he soon became too hot to handle, mainly because he was his own man.
Fitzgerald moved south to NSW in the late 1990s.
His close friends say he will never return to Queensland, and that a principal reason is that the Government of Peter Beattie has turned its back on him, despite being happy to use him for an investigation into justice issues on Cape York in 2001.
``Neither Beattie nor any other minister has so much as picked up the phone to Tony in the last six years, and he is fed up with being used,'' a friend says.
``Tony has often said that if he had his time again he would never have taken on the inquiry -- such was the personal price he had to pay.''
Ethicist Noel Preston, adjunct professor at Queensland's Griffith University, says the political rebuffs suffered by Fitzgerald after his commission of inquiry into corruption ``saw him go to the NSW judiciary -- a sorry loss of talent to Queensland''.
``Queensland's public interest was not served by losing the talents of a man like Fitzgerald,'' Preston says.
``Finding a place for him at the head of the judicial system would have been a fitting signal about the transformation of Queensland after the commission of inquiry.''
Fitzgerald, one of Australia's pre-eminent lawyers in the 1980s, was appointed to head the commission by accident.
In the mid-1980s, stories were circulating and questions being asked in parliament that eventually led to good journalism work by Phil Dickie, Chris Masters and Quentin Dempster. This work forced the then National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen to announce a royal commission into police and political corruption.
In 1987, the then attorney-general, Neville Harper, prepared the cabinet minute suggesting District Court judge Eric Pratt as commissioner.
But on May 9 that year, three days before the cabinet meeting, that submission was questioned by Des Sturgess QC, the then director of prosecutions.
Sturgess suggested to Harper that it might not be appropriate for Pratt to do the job because the judge had also headed the Police Complaints Tribunal, and there could be a perceived conflict of interest.
Harper took the advice and asked Sturgess who he would recommend as a replacement, and Sturgess, a top lawyer in his own right, suggested Fitzgerald.
Cabinet on the following Monday -- in the absence of Sir Joh -- agreed, and Fitzgerald was appointed to what government expected to be a six-week inquiry that would reveal nothing.
It lasted two years, cost millions of dollars, and resulted in the imprisonment of four National Party ministers, the police commissioner, dozens of corrupt cops and several prominent business leaders.
But Fitzgerald paid a huge personal price.
For his two years' work he was paid just over $2 million -- a reasonable fee for a senior QC.
But the politicians and others who wanted to settle scores attacked the figure as excessive. Fitzgerald was wounded.
Throughout the inquiry, he and his family had lived under threats of violence and retribution from corrupt cops and underworld figures, and the government was forced to place armed bodyguards in his home 24 hours a day.
Several branches of the media were clearly self-serving and unfair to Fitzgerald, and his report contains references that show how he, in turn, regarded the media.
He wrote that some journalists at his inquiry constantly misreported that much of the evidence was ``hearsay''.
``Journalists were unfortunately encouraged in this aspect of misreporting by some of those who were the subject of allegations by some lawyers,'' he wrote.
``Other allegations aimed at undermining the commission were published on the basis of rumour or misinformation from sources who had reason to fear the commission's work.
``As a result, the public was misinformed.''
In another section he wrote what every serious journalist should have framed on his desk: ``The media played a part in exposing corruption, but as one of the most powerful institutions in our society must also share the blame for its growth.
``Journalists' uncritical dependence on their sources, orchestrated government leaks, and the operations of publicly funded government media units and press secretaries have reduced the independent perspective of the media and can lead to it becoming a mouthpiece for vested interests.''
The inquiry finished in 1989 and the Goss Labor government -- after 32 years of conservative rule in Queensland -- was subsequently elected on a platform of introducing the massive social, parliamentary and structural reform agenda recommended in Fitzgerald's 242-page report.
At the time, police and ministers were being paraded through the courts, and bitterness abounded -- most aimed at Fitzgerald as the perceived architect of their discomfort.
In 1993, Fitzgerald accepted a brief from Goss to report on what should be done for the heritage-protected Fraser Island and adjoining wetlands. Fitzgerald did the job for nothing.
In 2001, he made a comprehensive investigation into justice issues on Cape York and recommended sweeping changes, including alcohol controls on remote indigenous communities -- again at no charge to the public purse.
But he had suffered a serious rebuff before that. In 1998, Fitzgerald announced his early retirement as president of the Queensland Court of Appeal.
It was speculated at the time that he was disappointed that the newly elected Coalition government under premier Rob Borbidge had amended legislation to lessen his power to run the court, and had appointed Paul de Jersey as chief justice over him.
Labor Opposition justice spokesman at the time, barrister Matt Foley, accused the government of ``extracting their political revenge'', a claim that brought a denial from Borbidge and the statement, ``Let's get away from this idea that Tony Fitzgerald is God''.
Fitzgerald moved to Sydney and accepted a position on the NSW Court of Appeal and, in a memorable speech in September 1998, said politicians were providing the community with the worst possible role models for their attitudes and behaviour.
``It is the essence of leadership that strong social values are established by leaders for imitation and adoption throughout the community,'' he said.
Following a stint on the bench, Fitzgerald established a successful mediation business from his Sydney chambers. There would seldom be a week in Queensland that the ``Fitz Report'' is not mentioned in media or political circles, with advocates happy to quote the wisdom of Fitzgerald to drive home a point.
But like the girlfriend of convenience, none want to be seen in public with him.
And his only sin was that he was honest and fearless.