White knight in white shoe land
Jacks and Jokers By Matthew Condon UQP, 466pp, $29.95 “THAT’S astounding,” said Queensland police commissioner Ray Whitrod on hearing the Bjelke-Petersen cabinet had promoted inspector Terry Lewis to assistant commissioner. Did the government not realise Lewis had been a bagman for corrupt former commissioner Frank Bischof? Police minister Tom Newbery was unmoved. “That was when he was a detective sergeant — he is now an inspector and wouldn’t do that sort of thing.” It was November 1976, and the realisation for Whitrod, corruption-fighter and reformist, that his position was untenable.
Jacks and Jokers is the second instalment of a trilogy by journalist and author Matthew Condon covering the rise and demise of a careerist police commissioner. Covering 1976-82, the book follows the successful first volume, Three Crooked Kings, and examines Lewis’s consolidation of power, his subordinating law enforcement to the furtherance of the Bjelke-Petersen government, and the police force’s reversion to a culture that fostered corruption and misconduct.
Ironically, these grubby accounts at times challenge the orthodoxy that the police force immediately acquiesced in Lewis’s undermining of Whitrod, who was simply a naive white knight in white shoe country. Rather, Whitrod’s legacy immediately manifested itself in the cadre of honest officers who opposed and frustrated Lewis’s attempts to overturn the reforms of the previous six years. It was a battle Lewis fought for several years before prevailing, testimony to Whitrod’s achievements.
As with Three Crooked Kings, Lewis’s version of events features heavily in this book. By contrast, there is, at first glance, almost a coyness about Condon’s analysis of Lewis’s assertions. Having conducted regular interviews with Lewis, 86, during the past four years, Condon no doubt must have experienced the challenges of maintaining his objectivity without destroying his relationship with his source. He manages this deftly, subtly inviting the reader to make inferences about the central character.
“Lewis said he was used by numerous people he thought were loyal,” he writes, tongue-in-cheek. Similarly, he quotes a wistful Lewis in his version of critical introspection: “I suppose I was overly … too kind to undeserving bastards.” This biographer is not above taking the proverbial.
Yet it certainly was an opportune time for many an undeserving bastard. Condon provides numerous examples in his pithy, rapidburst writing, sometimes at the expense of interconnecting these diverse anecdotes. The characters of the so-called Rat Pack — Lewis, Tony Murphy and Glen Hallahan, the bagmen to Bischof — feature again.
Hallahan has retired at this point yet he can’t shake notoriety given his interest in the burgeoning drug importation trade. Murphy, having beaten a perjury charge following the suspicious death of the main prosecution witness, rises to assistant commissioner under Lewis. One gets the impression from this book that Murphy was in many respects the grey eminence of the new regime, with Lewis content, at least in the early days, to prove his loyalty to and further his influence with then premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
A new generation of bagmen emerges, personified by Jack Herbert, who renews his friendship with Lewis. A nondescript inspector, Graeme Parker, later to become a star witness for the Fitzgerald inquiry, takes over the Licensing Branch. It was the era where illegal brothels and casinos operated with impunity, at least for those paying their dues to the system known as “The Joke”. And it thrived best under an arch-conservative government that staunchly promoted family values and law and order.
At times a depressing reminder of what one politician aptly dubbed the “Kingaroy Cops”, this book is not without the occasional tickler. Witness, for example, a young Bob Katter declaring in state parliament that Whitrod’s dispatching of Lewis to Charleville was “a vendetta”. Or Peter Slipper, then president of the Young Nationals state council, demanding an inquiry into official misconduct. And from Lewis himself, a meticulous diarist (which proved his undoing): “Hon. (Russ) Hinze phoned re bullet-proof vest ordered for him.” It’s a safe assumption he wasn’t talking about your off-the-shelf variety.
In contrast to its predecessor, Jacks and Jokers finishes in 1982 on a note of anticlimax and insouciance. During that year Lewis reached his zenith. His friend Murphy, fellow Rat Pack member and sometimes rival, had retired early, recognising that a closet could hold only so many skeletons. Now a confidant of BjelkePetersen, Lewis held power unprecedented, even to the extent of vetoing potential ministers of police. His police critics had disappeared, either driven from the force or cowed into silence.
Indeed, the events that will be covered in the final book of the trilogy, to be titled All Fall Down, would have seemed a ludicrous forecast for Lewis.
No one could have predicted the upheaval that would come five years later with revelations that the highest authority in the force was in on “The Joke”. Just about everyone believed a police commissioner wouldn’t do that sort of thing.
Martin Leonard is a Canberra-based reviewer.
The Courier-Mail covers a police inquiry in late 1976, soon after the elevation of Terry Lewis to assistant police commissioner