Justin Smith sits down with Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton ahead of his final days in the top job.
Smith: Chief Commissioner, I can only call you that for a little while longer and then it’s all going to fade away. How’s that feel?
Ashton: Well it’s been an incredible year, for everyone around the world. Certainly here in Victoria, for Victoria Police we’ve had a very busy year responding to emergencies, the bush fire and COVID-19, then we had the tragic loss of our officers on the freeway. And events are just frequent and constant, so you just tend to go from one issue to the next these days.
Smith: It’s been an incredibly sad year, hasn’t? It must have been very tough on you, but also the people that are around you, the people you see everyday. And the people you’re leading, it must have been incredibly tough.
Ashton: Well at the start of the year when we were responding to the bushfire, you know our members, had a very difficult job to do in terms of vacating, evacuating people from burning homes, saving people’s lives, putting themselves at often considerable risk in small communities was incredible to see and then our members obviously having to gear up with masks and everything to deal with the bushfire smoke and all that sort of stuff. The start of the year and then suddenly to go straight into the COVID-19 environment where suddenly they had to embrace a whole new way of policing in terms of enforcing these fines. Normally you want people to go out, you want people to be on the beach or in the park, go fishing. The sort of things you normally embrace community to do. You’re suddenly saying “No. Go home or you’ll be fined.” it completely changes the nature of that relationship and the members had to adapt to that overnight. We didn’t have the usual six months of legislation change where we can put training programs in place and put policy in place, it just happened like that overnight. So a big adjustment for our members, even after what was even a tough start to the year.
Smith: You’ve been pretty good at change, though, haven’t you, over the last five years or so? It’s something that you seem to strive for. You see something that you don’t like - maybe these aren’t your words and the way that you’d think about it - but things that you don’t like and you want to change. One of them for me is, you know, is mental health. You didn’t like the way mental health was being viewed by the community and by Victoria Police and you wanted to be part of changing that.
Ashton: Yeah, certainly if there’s things I don’t like I do try and change them. That is true. I’ve certainly have had a focus on just being like that. But certainly, in mental health we haven’t - police forces all over, not only Victoria Police - haven’t done that well for decades. When harm would occur, self-harm would occur in the workplace in particular suicides in the workplace, suicides of officers often would be the sort of thing not talked about, swept under the carpet. And that just was never going to be a good way to go into the future, we had to make sure we stopped the harm occurring and not sweep it under the carpet after it did. And so the investment that we’ve made in mental health reform has just been critical in doing that, trying to make sure we - we’ve got a long way to go - but to make sure we’re as good as we can be.
Smith: We’ve changed our language too, didn’t we? The whole community needed to change their language and stop saying things like, “There are no suspicious circumstances.” and, “Police are not investigating.” you know, code for things like suicide. We’ve changed that discussion, haven’t we?
Ashton: We have and I think in its way that’s helped to reduce stigma because we start to understand it as a serious phenomenon in the community and certainly it is a serious issue in policing. And by talking about it you bring it from outside in, in terms of that conversation that becomes an inclusive conversation and one in which people become more literate. And that, that breaks down stigma and at the end of the day, breaking down stigma is that big step towards improving a situation.
Smith: Some stigma was broken down when you took some time off yourself to have a mental health break, for want-of-a-better-term. You know, when you look back at that time did you, you still felt you did the right thing?
Ashton: Yes, certainly, Justin. In 2017 I took six weeks off. It was the end of the year and I was really burnt out. Mentally, physically, sort of exhausted. It’s a busy job but I certainly had just focused on job, job, job, job. I was really, really fatigued and wanted to take some time. And I could have just taken leave and not said anything to anyone, it was around Christmas time, so I could have certainly gotten away with that. But I thought, “No I can’t do that,” because I’ve been going all around the force telling people to put their hand up if they’re struggling, put their hand up, get support, get better, take some time, you know? And then I felt that I had to be consistent, well hang on, this is what I’m doing. And it’s important to do it for all of you. And I’m really glad I did that because I received, I still receive, a lot of really good feedback on the difference it’s made in a number of police members' lives.
Smith: You have members still saying to you, “Look because you did that, I went and spoke to somebody. I reached out, I took a little bit of time.”
Ashton: I heard it again today, just this morning. A day doesn’t go by, or a week doesn’t go by certainly when I’m not getting that sort of feedback.
Smith: Do you remember, I know it’s very personal, do you remember that moment where you thought, “I’m doing well here.”
Ashton: There was a couple of events I was at where I had to speak at them, and I’m regularly doing that, although in a COVID-19 world at the moment we don’t have a lot of events on. But certainly it’s a big part of the job. And I was at a couple of events where I was sketchy as anything, and thought, “Geez, that’s not me, I’m normally so much sharper than that. I’ve got a really important job here and if I’m going to make decisions and I’m not with it, that’s not good for the community, it’s not good for me, I need to take some time, get myself right, get some rest.”
Smith: Somebody said to me, years ago, “What’s Graham Ashton like?” and I said, “Look, this doesn’t sound like a compliment but it is - He’s a lousy politician.” You’re not very good at political speak and sort of spitting out the rhetoric. You seem to speak from the heart a lot, would that be pretty fair assessment?
Ashton: I’ve never really been into politics in any way, I don’t, I wasn’t brought up on that. I don’t engage in that, I don’t like engaging in it. Yeah, it’s never been part of my makeup.
Smith: One thing I think about is the same-sex marriage debate. You were asked a very straight question about how you felt about same-sex marriage. And I think to paraphrase you, you said, “It’s about time.” and you know, you were all for same-sex marriage and equality. You got a lot of flak for that, where people were saying, ”He shouldn’t be dabbling in politics.”
Ashton: Yeah. Well I didn’t see it as a political question, which is probably to your point. I mean, people will have an opinion that you are political in one way or another, and I get it both ways. People have accused me of all sorts of political motivations, none of which are correct. But on that issue I felt, “Well I’ve got employees here who I’m responsible for, one works alongside another and yet one has different rights to the other.” And to me I saw it through that lens of, this just isn’t fair. It’s not a fair environment for all of my employees to work in. And so I should be trying to make sure everyone who works in Victoria Police has a fair go. I sort of saw it through that lens and I was asked a question and I answered it.
Smith: You don’t regret that?
Ashton: No, absolutely. No, I’m sure history will have me on the right side of that.
Smith: You became a copper when you were 18 years old. I don’t know how different you feel from that 18 year old kid, but has that sense of injustice been the driver through all of that?
Ashton: Maybe not initially. If I’m completely honest with you, I don’t think initially it was. I don’t think I understood that stuff. I was probably a bit of an idiot until I was about 25, to be honest with you. I didn’t start to grow up and see the world as it needs to be seen and mature.
Smith: What do you mean an idiot?
Ashton: Oh you know, as a young copper I wanted to have fun and get out and get amongst it, catching crooks, have fun. You didn’t think about the bigger issues, you didn’t think about the real impact on the community of crime, you just wanted to catch the crooks and after a bit you start to see, “Jesus the impact of this stuff is terrible on communities.” You can see the harm, you can see the injustices that are going on and then that motivates you to want to do something about it. And I think you develop that over time, well that’s what happened to me and certainly the further I went in my career the more passionate I got about that issue.
Smith: Do you remember that, you said 25, but was there a particular case that kicked that in where you thought, “I can actually make a difference here.” For family violence and children being hurt.
Ashton: Yeah, I think through some of the drug trafficking cases I worked, I saw some of that but I specifically… I worked in Indonesia for a couple of years and lived in Jakarta where I was responsible for police investigations in the Indonesian Archipelago, we were pursuing peadophiles, Australian peadophiles in Lombok which was an island just off from Bali. Moving from village to village trying to catch these guys with the Indonesian Police, that we knew where in and around these villages, we knew who they were. But the impact that that had in these villages, of accessing the children and destroying the lives of the young people of those villages. And then eventually... They seemed always to be a step ahead of us, we’re getting to this town, we're getting to this… Things like seeing the damage that... we ultimately caught those people, but seeing the damage to people, the real lives that are destroyed by crime and some of that crime is pretty disgusting, that motivates you to see it in a very stark and real way.
Smith: So they’d sort of moved on to the next victim and there you were cleaning up and seeing that, these crushed lives.
Ashton: Yeah, get in there one step behind them and the harm had occurred to the kids in that community. And you come in with the Indonesian Police and the local health authorities to try and… and then you’re trying to find out where they’ve gone to and to get onto them, you’re trying to get ahead of them to get them under arrest so we can get them extradited back to Australia and get them before Australian courts.
Smith: After you’ve seen that damage, what does it feel like to arrest somebody like that.
Ashton: Well, you're satisfied that you’ve been able to get them, but there’s always that feeling, “gee, I wish I could have got them earlier,” “I wish I could of…” “If we’d done something different would that have…” you know that sort of ‘what if?’ stuff. Certainly satisfying to catch them.
Smith: You were back in Bali in 2002 with the AFP (Australian Federal Police) for the Bali Bombings and that was around the identification, that must have been a brutally tough time as well. There was a lot of heartache there.
Ashton: That was horrendous, terrorism act. We had hundreds of hundreds of families affected through the loss of their loved ones. The families turned up en-mass in Bali, so we had a big issue in relation to trying to identify their loved ones from the very large, fire-affected crime-scene. Both fire- and fragment-affected crime-scene. We had to coordinate disaster victim identification in a foreign country by bringing in the UN experts and their own medical people to do that work. Very difficult time for the families to think, “There’s actually a process that could take weeks here,” when, “I’m here to collect my loved one and take them home now.” The anger that comes with that and the grief is a very raw thing, and so we had to do a lot of work with families to try and assist them through that process at the same time, we had to get on with that identification but there’s also the investigation. The gathering of the intelligence, and then trying to work out who had committed the crime. And then get about trying to catch them with the Indonesian Police to bring them before the courts over there. Which we ultimately did, but it was a… there were some very hard days during that investigation.
Smith: How was it going from the AFP to a state police, the Victoria Police? And I want to ask you, as a second part to that question, do you feel more AFP or more Victoria Police?
Ashton: At the moment I feel very Victoria Police, as I guess I’ve been for over a decade with VicPol, so I guess I do feel more VicPol at the moment. Maybe at the start that might have been different but certainly not now, very much feel more VicPol, I guess, because of the recency of this work, very much so. I guess transitioning across they’re two very different police forces, they do very different jobs. You’re much more community interfaced in VicPol, you’re really with community, you’re part of community, you’re doing that work. There’s a very quick sense of satisfaction to help people in those community settings, whether it’s in the city or the country for Victoria Police work. The Federal Police you’re a bit removed from the community in that sense, you’re working on organised crime, the sort of international sort of criminal. The impact of doing that work is significant, you can make a huge difference doing that work, but it doesn’t have quite that same intimacy with the community, they’re very different sorts of work in that way.
Smith: And you’ve liked that? You’ve liked that community? You like being around people, you like meeting somebody new?
Ashton: I take an interest in people, you know, their challenges and things they’ve got to go through and I feel I get a sense of satisfaction if I can help people. You can only help them if you listen and find out what their issues are. If you don’t do that you can’t really help them, so I guess one goes with the other.
Smith: We’ll on that, one of the big changes over the last five years or so has been family violence. The word we use, you know, we don’t use domestic violence anymore, we use family violence, and the attitude towards it has changed immensely, how have you seen that change unfold?
Ashton: If you think back even, say a couple of decades ago when, for a police officer called to the family violence, it was really about, “Ok let’s just stop the fighting and we leave.” you know? Or; “If we have to separate you...” “You head off up the road.” It’s just about dealing with the actual violence at the time.
We’re so much better educated - our police now - about what the challenges are and how to respond. We have a whole Centre for Family Violence Learning, a huge building out here at the Police Academy dedicated to teaching our members about family violence, what are the causation factors, what are the issues of power imbalance that can go into causing it. How do you deal with it in sometimes very complex settings. You know, where you could have multiple victims, children, adults, related and not related. And then you’ve got the whole cultural circumstances in some families that differ depending on the cultural background. All of that requires specialist training. We’ve been able to give that to our members all across Victoria Police. We’ve established the centres in our regional areas where we’ve got specialist family violence units to work specifically on the repeat offenders and support the victims that have been the subject of repeating offending as victims. To support them and deal with those recidivist offenders, they do that work and that’s right across the state now. We can see the cross-over in terms of sexual offending and criminal investigation teams and family violence as well. We’ve come a heck of a long way in terms of that professionalism. That’s often reflected back to me in terms of the quality of the police work when we talk to victims and the fact that they can see that the police care.
Smith: These are big things to change, aren't they? Like turning around the Titanic a little bit too, you know, you’ve got some ingrained thinking inside the community and you’ve got ingrained thinking inside Victoria Police. You’ve really got to try and switch that around. These are hard jobs to do.
Ashton: Yeah and that doesn’t happen overnight. That’s the main thing with these sorts of issues, you can’t change them overnight. You’ve got to put concentrated effort in for years to make those sorts of changes. And that’s one of the critical elements is to make sure that you are doing that, that you put in place the systems, processes, and spend the money to make sure that you can generate change that will, that might take years but it’s going to last for years if you do that.
Smith: There’s that fine line sometimes, where everything is going along fine with Victoria Police and then there will be an incident where Victoria Police have either, somebody in the job has done the wrong thing, whether it’s somebody high up or someone down towards the bottom. And that respect towards police can change very quickly and we see that play out a lot in the United States at the moment and around the world. How do you sort of, negotiate through something like that where there’s been an incident.
Ashton: Yeah we employ a lot of people, we’ve got nearly 22,000 employees, so from time-to-time, despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes members will do the wrong thing. It’s the vast majority of members do the right thing by a long way, you’re talking about a very small group but it has a big impact when people do the wrong thing. It impacts on the community, it’s a big focus for media, the community see it. So for us, it matters, even the smallest mistakes can matter. We’ve got to make sure, our best chance of dealing with that is to make sure that we own it when it happens. I think one of the biggest things you can do is to sort of try and be defensive and try and not show that you actually understand the problem, you know? You’ve got to show that you get it, “Yeah, we shouldn’t have done that,” “That was a mistake and this is what we’re doing to try to fix it.” Because I think at the end of the day, people get that policing’s not easy. People can be under a lot of pressure when they’re doing it and sometimes they’ll make mistakes. I think most people get that. But if you’re honest about that I think that goes a long way. I think people understand it. If you’re trying to be defensive, they go, “Nah, he doesn’t get it.” you know? “Things aren’t going to improve because the person at the top doesn’t get it.” That’s important that you convince the community that you do care about it and that you will own it and that you will fix it. Because on the ground, that’s what's happening. You are owning it, you are offended by what’s happened as well.
Smith: Is that where that anti-politician kicks in, as well? Where you stand up and you say what’s happened and what you’re thinking. And as you say, you own it? You don’t try to…
Ashton: I don’t know if it’s a political thing, I think it’s more if anyone asks me about running organisations, it’s one of the first things I say is, you got to be authentic and own your mistakes. Own the issues when they go wrong, because that’s… You won’t improve them unless you do and you won’t have… People won’t have confidence in you unless you do these days. The days of putting the spin on things and trying to angle your way out and deflect or be defensive no matter what the setting. I think those days are gone.
Smith: Was that conscious for you at the very start? “I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to be that kind of guy that does that.” Or was it just always going to be that way with you?
Ashton: It was a trait I noticed in Ken Lay, I think he was someone who really was keen to own the issues when they happened and say, “Yep, this didn’t work, we stuffed up here. But this is what we’re doing to fix it, we’re only human too.” That certainly rubbed off on me, I thought Ken was a very authentic, genuine sort of leader and I was keen to emulate that.
Smith: So what stands out for you over the last five years?
Ashton: In the positive or the negative?
Smith: Let’s start with the negative, actually.
Ashton: You don’t have to go back far to go just into April with the collision in Kew and losing our four members killed on duty. That was probably the worst day for me in this role. Was that day and the days that followed. That was just the most dreadful event and dealing with the consequences of that was challenging but they were tough days.
Smith: The community reaction was incredible to that, tough wasn’t? There was a positive, the way we felt about our police?
Ashton: Well if you can take a positive from it it was uplifting for everyone that the community came out like they did. I mean it was incredible to see the buildings lit up in blue, the amount of messages that I got and the amount of… I’ve made a point of corresponding back to everyone who reached out to Victoria Police from the community. And I’m still signing letters now back to people.
Smith: What do those letters say?
Ashton: Hundreds and hundreds of letters and emails from, I don’t know how many hundreds of them, thousands of them we got from the community wanting to express their condolences and say that they’re thinking of us and they’re thinking of the families. That’s the general tone, but from all around the world from Europe, from the US and the UK, letters and emails, gifts arriving for the families from police officers. We got one this week from Arizona where the police officer had made these plaques for each of the families and sent them to us in the mail. So it’s just been incredible.
Smith: As I said before, that’s not a given that respect for the police is not always a given, we’re seeing that play out now, so that’s incredible.
Ashton: Yeah, it’s not a given and it has to be earned. It is fragile and something that we need to make sure that… well certainly if you’re the police commissioner, it’s one of your major goals to make sure it’s maintained.
Smith: What are the other things that stand out - and staying on the negative side - what are those things?
Ashton: Again it's around that loss of life and we’ve had… We’re talking here today in the police chapel and the amount of times I’ve been here for police funerals, I don’t know, I would have lost count of the amount of funerals I’ve been to in here, with police funerals and elsewhere around the state. And they’re always really tough days for family, tough days for everyone. Regardless of the circumstances, but sometimes the circumstances can be very tragic. The families involved where often young children are left behind, they can be really difficult days.
I think probably, on the positive side, you know we’ve been able to do a lot of modernisation in Victoria Police. To see the benefits of that as we’ve rolled that out has been very satisfying to be able to give the police mobile devices in their hands and body-worn-cameras to keep them safer. And to introduce better equipment for them to wear, better cars for them to drive, better police stations for them to operate in, I’ve taken a great satisfaction out of being able to be a part of leading that. With the team at… Command Team at Victoria Police, that’s been a real positive. And the other thing that I’ve tried to do both on gender and mental health is to lead the change. But another thing I’ve tried to do is to make sure that as we’ve modernised, we’ve brought our traditions with us. And that we’ve been able to also recognise that we’re one of the oldest institutions in the state. And that service with Victoria Police should mean something and it means something if we observe those traditions and ceremonies, and celebrate when we do things well, and remember when we’ve done that over the years because every major emergency that’s impacted in Victoria over the years, Victoria Police play a role in dealing with it, and helping the community. And we need to be remembering those opportunities, because today when our members are on the frontline doing very, very difficult work, in the back of their minds they need to be reassured that what they’re doing matters and it means something.
Smith: That’s a tough line to walk, isn’t it. You’re trying to modernise but you’re also trying to make sure the traditions are upheld and we’re still honouring people that, you know have done something even 100 years ago.
Ashton: Exactly, and we’ve certainly been doing that and I think that in my mind, it’s not either/or. You can have both, you can present a very modern, well-equipped police force that serves the community in a very modern way today, but also be an organisation that understands and respects its history and learns from its mistakes, but also celebrates when things get done well.
Smith: You wanted to change the language about how we refer to past members as well. We call them veterans now. That was a big part of your doing, you must be proud of that.
Ashton: Well I’ve been able to play a part in starting to recognise our veterans and to understand that we have a duty for them and to thank them for their service. But also for many we still have a welfare duty because their police service has impacted on them and their welfare, we’ve still got a duty to be looking after them. I’ve been able to play a role in getting some recognition of that. It was Wayne Gatt at The Police Association who sort of coined that term around the veterans. We’ve been able to grab that and really make that a very live thing for our police.
Smith: So you’ve picked up some things from Ken Lay. As you walk out the door and you get some quiet moments with Shane Patton, what are you going to say to him.
Ashton: Apart from: be careful what you wish for? I think that there are a range of things, of advice I’ve thought I could leave him with, so what I did was I wrote him a letter and I’ve put it in an envelope and on the last day I’m going to give him the letter and that’ll be the quantum of my advice to him taking over the role.
Smith: Could you give us a little spoiler?
Ashton: Oh no, just… It’ll be a letter for him to read, but it’ll talk a bit about the responsibilities he has and how important they are and what a privilege he has. And never to lose sight of that and just a few insights about some different parts of the role that I’ve learned only through doing the role. I’ll just pass that onto him and of course, the best thing I can do then is get out of the way and let him get on with the job as the Commissioner of the day, Chief Commissioner of the day and I’ll be certainly doing that. I’ll be cheering him on from the sidelines.
Smith: You like him?
Ashton: Yeah, he’s a good fellow, he’s a really good fellow and he’s a good... He’ll make a really good Chief Commissioner, he’s got really good skills, he’s a good leader, he’s a good decision-maker and whilst I’ve had a big focus on modernisation, I think he’s well placed to take operational advantage of that modernisation. I think he’s got nouce and decision-making ability to take advantage of the changes that we’ve made to make sure we’re delivering a better service for the community.
Smith: So what now? What happens after you’ve finished and you’ve walked out the door?
Ashton: Well, as I sit here with you today, Justin, I really don’t know what is next. I’m taking my retirement. It’s not something I’ve had… It’s intentionally something I've not thought about, I made a decision to not to be thinking too much about it. This job is like a five year high-wire act. You don’t want to fall off the wire at the last little bit so I’ve focused on making sure that I continue to focus on what I’m doing right up until that last day. And then I decided I’ll leave, wake up the next morning with nothing to do, I’ll be retired and then I’ll have a think about things from there.
What do you think you’ll like to do, you know, you’re still a young man, there’s a lot of things I know you care about, is there a charity you want to be involved in? Or do you really not want to think about it at all?
Ashton: You know clearly you develop areas that you’re passionate about over the years and I’ll have a think about a few of those areas when I get a chance and if I can make a difference in some way, contribute in some way, that might be an opportunity down the track. Yeah, really wide open in that regard at the moment.
Smith: Well something that people may not know, a couple of things, one is that you’re nuts for barbequing, they may not know, I think that’s been mentioned before, you’ve also got a very good sense of humour. That may not always come across, I guess, that’s all part of the job and part of the uniform, but you’ve got an incredibly good sense of humour, are you looking forward to laughing a bit more?
Ashton: Humour is in the eye of the beholder. Some people might not agree with you, Justin, but I do have a go. I am prepared to have a crack, I think it’s in this sort of job, you deal with a lot of... You’re talking about a lot of death and destruction, everyday. I think for police, it’s not uncommon to have a sense of humour fairly well-honed because of that. To try and be humorous where you can. I’ve certainly been like that over the years. Helps to make the esprit de corps in the office work a bit. But if they don’t like it then they can hang it on me for the terrible jokes I tell.
Smith: Is there anything you want to say to the community that you’ve been serving for the last five years?
Ashton: Well if I could say anything, it would be, thank you, it’s been an honour to be Chief Commissioner, it’s a privilege I’ve taken very seriously over the last five years and I’ve sought to really try and make a difference while I’ve been in the role. But policing doesn’t happen without the consent and the support of the community and I want to thank the community for that consent and support over the five years that I’ve been in this role. And thank you on behalf of Victoria Police for that.
Smith: Thanks very much, Chief, we appreciate it.
Ashton: You’re welcome, thanks Justin.
Reviewed 28 June 2021