The Australian federal police is losing its independence and integrity and must be separated from Peter Dutton’s home affairs portfolio, police union leaders have warned.
The AFP was subsumed into the behemoth home affairs portfolio in late 2017, placing it under Dutton’s direct responsibility.
But the Australian Federal Police Association, which represents 6,500 AFP members, now wants the change reversed, saying it has compromised the AFP’s organisational integrity and its ability to carry out investigations without government influence.
The association president, Angela Smith, said the AFP has lost autonomy and is now the “poor cousin” in the home affairs portfolio. Smith said it was a feeling shared widely across the AFP, including in the agency’s senior ranks.
“It’s an embarrassing situation,” Smith told Guardian Australia. “We look the least independent police force in Australia, surely the other police forces are laughing at us.”
The AFPA pointed to the compromised situation the agency was placed in during the Australian Workers’ Union raid and au pair scandals. The latter involved federal police searching the offices of fellow portfolio agency, the home affairs department.
Federal police are also frustrated at criticism in politically charged controversies outside of their control, including the detention of Hakeem al-Araibi, which the agency says was caused by a decision made in home affairs department.
The AFPA wants the AFP to return to either the attorney general’s remit or that of a separate cabinet minister. It wants investigators to be able to determine what is investigated and how, with no outside influence from politicians.
“I know of examples where in headquarters, there’s a group of investigators that investigate certain sensitive complaints that come out of Parliament House. They’ll go a certain way, a certain distance down that investigation,” Smith said. “The political environment will change, then the politicians are no longer interested in that matter so they’ve got to stop, when they wouldn’t have investigated in the first place because the evidence wasn’t there.”
Dutton’s office was contacted for comment.
The push for independence was part of a broader AFPA election wish list released on Friday morning. It included funding to deploy comprehensive mental health support to AFP members. A 2017 survey of the AFP found 23% had moderate to high levels of psychological distress. Staff were showing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at rates of 14% and 9% respectively.
The AFPA also warned the agency was being starved of funding, despite an increasing caseload in child exploitation, firearms and fraud investigations. The association wants AFP funding restored to 2013 levels, which it said were roughly $220m higher.
The election wish list also included calls for greater gun controls. The association has called for the creation of a comprehensive national firearms registry, to replace the patchwork of systems operating at a state and territory level.
It wanted to see registered firearms owners only able to purchase ammunition for the weapon they have registered in their name, and regulations to ensure owners with high volumes of guns at their home meet the same storage requirements as firearms retailers.
The AFPA said the reforms were not designed to hurt law-abiding gun owners, but rather to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands.
“It is a national disgrace that with 22 years since Port Arthur, we still don’t have a national firearms registry, that people can buy ammunition for weapons that they do not own, and ammunition can be imported for weapons that are illegal,” Smith said. “The woeful legislation is making it very easy for dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of criminals. It must be stopped.”
The AFP was approached for comment.