Graham Ashton: Terrorism, Bali and individual freedom

Chief commissioner Graham Ashton is sharpening his focus on how Victoria Police looks after people. Photographer: Jarrod Barnes.

Since taking on the role of Chief Commissioner at Victoria Police just over a year ago, Graham Ashton AM has been on a quest to improve the mental health of his troops and inspire confidence in the organisation.

“Courageous conversations”, “confident humility”, “active leadership” – this is the vocabulary and these are the aspirations of Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton. 

A career police officer, he joined the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in 1980 at the tender age of 18. Combating terrorism, uncovering corruption and leading Australia’s investigation into 2002’s Bali bombings may be the hallmarks of his career, but it’s Ashton’s attachment to people that defines his skills as the leader of an 18,000-strong force in one of Australia’s most multicultural states.

While his time in the AFP taught him about good governance and inter-agency diplomacy, Ashton says he finds policing at a state level, with its access to the community and direct impact on people’s lives, to be incredibly rewarding.

To that end, he wants to ensure his officers are up to the task – and that means a radical change in culture. Recruits are now instructed to develop a confident humility in their approach to their job and dealings with the public. Ashton wants them to be assertive but not arrogant.

"I learnt how to find balance and negotiate outcomes. That prepared me for life as a policeman. We are the umpire in blue, so probably a good thing."

He also wants them to be mentally strong. For too long, he says, police leadership has not looked after the mental health of its troops. Policing can be a demanding job involving all manner of trauma. But there’s been an expectation that those at the coalface should cope, and if they can’t, there’s been a stigma attached to seeking help.

Last year, Ashton commissioned a sweeping review of the treatment of mental health issues in Victoria Police. The resultant report, released in May, found a string of shortcomings, and Ashton is now in the process of implementing the inquiry’s recommendations.

In an interview with former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley, he explained how he is going about it.

Alex Malley: There are many theories about children who are the middle child … were you difficult as a boy?

Graham Ashton: No, no. In fact, being in the middle I learnt how to find balance and negotiate outcomes. I tried to work out the path forward rather than be the protagonist. That prepared me for life as a policeman. We are the umpire in blue, so probably a good thing.

Malley: You are the only one in your family to have gone down the path of policing. Was that something in your mind early on in life?

Ashton: I did want to get into something where I could do my own thing, be a bit independent. The police force came along … it was an opportunity to get out and explore the country and ultimately get out and explore the world.

Malley: What were your early observations of the AFP as a young man moving into the ranks?

Ashton: In 1979, three organisations merged to become the Australian Federal Police, so when I joined just a few months later, it was certainly evident early on that it was three organisations trying to be one. 

It was three very different cultures and three networks all trying to look after each other. It took nearly a decade until the organisation was able to really find its feet as a singular organisation.

That instilled in me a view that you’ve got to take a long view with these things, put time into working through those cultural issues, particularly in large organisations where you have myriad cultures involved. 

It can take many, many years and in this day and age when everyone is in a hurry, that’s a real challenge to maintain people’s enthusiasm and commitment. 

The Bali bombings

Death and destruction at Kuta Beach, Bali, in 2002.Malley: Take me back to the 2002 Bali bombings, where you led Australia’s investigation. What is your recollection of that time?

Ashton: There was a lot of responsibility to negotiate a cooperative arrangement with Indonesia, where we could assist and bring some expertise in different areas, as well as the victim identification process and other aspects of the mission. It was a very complex operation but also one in which we were managing some quite difficult things in relation to the death and destruction that had been caused to a lot of victims’ families. 

There was a mortuary that was in a very poor state, absolutely overwhelmed with victims. Some of our people had to do some work that you would never wish them to have to do. There were a lot of leadership challenges managing and leading that mission, which have stayed with me and helped me to be a better leader and manager.

Malley: What do you think those attributes are that you took away as a leader?

Ashton: We had a diplomatic mission we had to do and an investigation that we had to get done, which required very good cooperative effort. But at its core were people.

So for me, it was understanding the empathy that was necessary, understanding that you had to achieve high-level outcomes while still not losing sight of the fact that we were dealing with real people and real lives and we needed a very human response. 

Sometimes that can be lost when we are working in those environments. It gets very busy … there is a tragedy where people have suffered great loss, and to me it was making sure that you don’t lose sight of getting the balance right. 

Currently, as the chief commissioner, we have victims of crime on a daily basis. So while we are in the business of policing and running a $2.7 billion operation and 18,000 staff, you’ve got to also remember that there are people at the core of it, people in our organisation and people in the community, and you’ve got to make sure that you apply equal time to both aspects.

"While we are in the business of policing ... you’ve got to also remember that there are people at the core of it, people in our organisation and in the community."

Protection versus liberties

Malley: In Bali, you dealt with terrorism that clearly hasn’t gone away globally and has become much worse. How do we balance the need to increase or at least improve police powers to counter that threat of terrorism with the need to protect people’s privacy? 

Ashton: The issue of terrorism powers is an evolving one. We’ve seen numerous iterations of terrorism legislation at federal and state level over the past decade. Those continuous reforms reflect the fact that it is an area that is contentious in terms of whether people are able to give up certain liberties for their overall protection. How many liberties are they prepared to give up?

For me, there’s a price you pay for having a highly free society and one in which civil liberties are at the fore. The downside is it makes it more difficult to prevent and detect terrorism offences. It’s a continuous balancing act. 

The debate won’t go away. But we have to be conscious that [in] providing a society where people enjoy freedoms, there is a consequence to that and part of the consequence is you won’t enable security agencies to fulfil their charter as they might. 

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Mental health in the police force

Malley: One of the biggest issues you’ve raised since becoming chief commissioner is mental health within the force. What prompted you to commission the review and what discussions did you have with the authors leading into this report?

Ashton: Mental health is a big issue in society and certainly within policing. For many years, we have not done enough to support and strengthen the mental health of our police. Police work in emergency environments where they are regularly subjected to various trauma – mental trauma and sometimes physical trauma.

We have to provide a supportive environment as an employer and as a profession to ensure that we improve mental health. 

Victoria Police officers at the ready.[I wanted to] create some watershed change in that area. So I brought together a panel of experts to review Victoria Police, and they have made recommendations that will significantly improve our response both to our current serving police but also to our past serving police. I’m now getting on with implementing those changes. [In the past year] we’ve had numerous police suicides. It’s a very clear and present problem for policing.

Malley: One of the recommendations was a fundamental change in the culture around leadership. What were their concerns and what do you think makes a good leader?

Ashton: That’s about active leadership. It’s not just sitting back looking at your performance data. It’s actually involving yourself in the necessary conversations with your people, to actually know what is happening with your people so that you can have active early intervention conversations that can prevent the escalation of issues to the point where they become a problem.

Being able to have those courageous conversations early is absolutely critical, and the report found that leadership has been too passive and not involving themselves in those conversations. 

One thing that supports that is the stigma that’s associated with seeking mental health support in our organisation. People suspect it’s a sign of weakness if you have to reach out for psychological support, and, again, the leadership culture has allowed that to develop. 

Police are trained to be the ones who cope in a stressful situation and emergency environment. People turn to a police officer and the police officer is expected to have all the answers and provide order when there is chaos around. We are humans, too. [Some] police don’t cope; they may put on a brave front, but then may experience traumatic issues as a result. It creates a stigma of weakness if you reach out [for help]. 

Malley: Issues of culture are about blind spots. What’s your strategy to ensure that the change can take place at the ground level? 

Ashton: There are a range of them, but two of the core ones: our senior sergeants are a critical leadership layer. They are quite close to the front line … so I’ve initiated specific training for senior sergeants in which I personally am involved meeting with them and talking with them about these leadership challenges. 

All Victoria Police staff will have an annual check-up with our psychologist, even when things are going well. That will make a big difference, because starting that process as a recruit, the organisation will make people much more familiar with psychological support as an aid to their duties. It normalises it as a regular part of their role. 

"Mental health is a big issue in society and certainly within policing. [I wanted to] create some watershed change in that area."

Vision for the future

Malley: So in three years’ time, all things being well and you having followed through with your various strategies, what do you hope to be able to see as Victoria Police’s culture and drive?

Ashton: Regarding culture, I’ve been promoting the term “confident humility” and I’d like to see it in every police officer and every unsworn staff member we have working for us.

I’d like our people to have the confidence to take charge and the confidence to inspire community confidence in us – to be seen as the person who can solve the problem but still have the humility to be approachable and not be over confident and not be at all arrogant. Every graduation parade that I preside over of our new recruits, in my speech I always talk about the term “confident humility”.

For the organisation itself, my mantra since taking it on a year ago was about modernising the force. We have been behind the times in relation to IT, for example. Governments have already invested in an IT program that will deliver modern communications to our police at the front line. 

Racial tension and crime

Malley: I’m interested in your thoughts on racial tolerance. I know in Victoria there has been some focus on African gangs recently, but each generation has a gang that people focus on. What is the level of racial tolerance within the community and what actions are appropriate in policing in those circumstances?

Ashton: It’s certainly being tested at the moment. One of the great strengths of Victoria is it has over the years been able to bring communities of varying ethnicities together into one melting pot. We’ve been able to harness the benefits of that. 

Society works best when we have an inclusive society that welcomes and embraces difference as well as similarities. We’ve got to ensure we provide policing that supports a strong multicultural environment and an inclusive environment. That social cohesion is being tested at the moment for a whole range of reasons.

Office of Police Integrity

Malley: You were one of the founding office bearers at the Office of Police Integrity, which has turned out to be one of the most controversial agencies in Australia over its life. What did you learn about the other side of policing and about yourself in those more complex circumstances?

Ashton: It’s a very difficult environment in which to work. Anyone involved in anti-corruption work would say that they find it very, very challenging, because it’s a very unpopular area to be in. You are roundly criticised for the most minor of mistakes and never acknowledged for any successful work done. 

One of the principal learnings for me is that it was about not outsourcing your integrity. As chief commissioner of Victoria Police, we’ve got to make sure that we own our own integrity. 

These oversight agencies are really important to provide independent oversight of your activities and provide community confidence. [But that doesn’t] abrogate responsibilities to that organisation; otherwise managers will walk away from difficult conversations and difficult activities. They will see it as the role of someone else and partition it off from their everyday responsibilities. 

So for any organisation, it’s very important that you take ownership of your integrity and include it as a key area over which you have a sustained level of focus over the long term. 

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