STATE POLITICAL EDITOR ALEXANDRA SMITH
Rugby league boss Peter V’landys’ ambitious plan to appoint NSW’s most senior police officer to the game’s commission was scuppered before it even reached Macquarie Street.
There was no approval documentation before Premier Gladys Berejiklian or Police Minister David Elliott for Police Commissioner Mick Fuller to sit on the board of the Australian Rugby League Commission when details emerged last week that V’landys was spruiking his likely appointment.
Aware of the plans, Elliott – one of Fuller’s most ardent backers – saw no problem with his commissioner being on the board, under the remit of cleaning up bad behaviour. The minister was also convinced the appointment would have the support from those within the government, including Berejiklian.
The Premier, on the other hand, had been left with the impression that Fuller was simply considering a volunteer role mentoring young league players, not a board position.
V’landys wanted Fuller to help fix the code’s bad-boy image. However, even for a government with close ties to rugby league, it would have been a gross conflict of interest.
Could NSW have had the situation where the current Police Commissioner was commenting on, and then involved in sanctioning, a player caught up in a drug or sexual assault scandal? Absolutely not.
Despite no formal approach for approval, Berejiklian’s office sought legal advice about whether the state’s top police officer could serve on the board. Just days after the plans were made public, the unofficial plan was killed off.
With Fuller widely tipped to retire from the NSW Police Force late this year, V’landys’ approach was also seen as an indication that the commissioner is looking for his next job. Fuller, 52, has a year left on his contract and would have cabinet support if he chose to stay on, but the expectation is he will not seek an extension.Advertisementhttps://8cbb1c1bb926f11faa7bb3a12f91973b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Commissioner Fuller is close to Berejiklian, and he was her right-hand man during the pandemic. The police force’s role in managing hotel quarantine has been lauded as crucial in the state’s fight against COVID-19.
Fuller’s decision to fine the Premier’s factional ally and friend Arts Minister Don Harwin for breaching public health orders was the only hiccup in an otherwise close working relationship. Berejiklian had to sack Harwin, but he returned to cabinet after the fine was dismissed in court.
Fuller was also in the spotlight last year for receiving an $87,000 pay rise at the peak of the pandemic, making him one of the state’s highest-paid public servants. Berejiklian signed off on that pay rise in December 2019 – before the COVID-19 recession – but it was delayed in the Remuneration Tribunal. In terrible timing for the Premier, it was finalised just weeks after the government announced its policy of freezing public sector wages. Fuller offered to withdraw his request for the extra money, but it went ahead.
Elliott has lamented to colleagues: “If you ask what keeps me up at night, it is losing some of the state’s top police officers this year, especially Fuller.”A
The minister, who credits Fuller with ending the dysfunctional factionalism that had existed in the top ranks of the police force, has made it clear he would need to be convinced that an external appointment would trump an internal candidate for the next commissioner.
One minister predicted this week that Fuller may not be on the Australian Rugby League Commission’s board this year but, come next year, it would be no surprise if V’landys makes a play for Fuller once again. Fuller would have been a great asset for the NRL, but it is impossible to see how dragging the police into the code’s misbehaviour would have been of any benefit to the government, or taxpayers.
As one senior cabinet minister put it: “Sport and politics is a poisonous mix.”
Perhaps the most alarming part of this episode is that none of the central figures thought there would have been a serious conflict of interest – not V’landys, not Elliott and not the Police Commissioner himself.
Berejiklian says her final decision was based on legal advice but we can only hope the far bigger factor was common sense – all too often missing when power plays are involved.
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