Former OPI director Michael Strong tipped for watchdog role

Michael Strong, when he was OPI director in 2010.
Michael Strong, when he was OPI director in 2010.

Photo: Justin McManus

The likely appointment of Mr Strong to the powerful watchdog role could reignite tensions with the Liberal Party, which shut down the Office of Police Integrity in 2012 and denied Mr Strong a role with the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission established by the former Baillieu government.

The enmity of the relationship was laid bare in a leaked audio recording in 2013 of former Premier Ted Baillieu’s chief of staff, Tony Nutt, who accused the OPI of acting like the “Stasi”.

Privacy advocates are also expected to be concerned about Mr Strong’s suitability for the role, when the former OPI, under his watch, was accused of abusing its powers, including the widespread use of phone taps and coercive questioning.

According to its website, the Public Interest Monitor “represents the public interest and provides greater accountability in the collection of evidence from warrants and orders that intrude on the privacy and civil liberties of Victorian citizens”.

It is responsible for scrutinising all applications by law enforcement and integrity agencies for the use of telephone intercepts and other covert and coercive powers.

Fairfax Media understands that Mr Strong discussed the role with Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings, who is responsible for integrity-related issues in the Andrews government.

Mr Strong was also interviewed by Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles and senior figures from the Department of Justice and the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office.

It is understood the former County Court judge has been told the job is his if he wants it.

An Andrews government spokesman denied any decision had been made, but claimed it was “most likely” the deputy Public Interest Monitor would fill the role until the November election.

Mr Strong declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media.

The position, which includes a remuneration package of almost $500,000, was recently advertised when long serving Public Interest Monitor Brendan Murphy, QC, declined a government offer of a third consecutive term.

Shadow attorney-general John Pesutto said appointments to the monitor role had been free of “any real controversy” and it was incumbent on Premier Daniel Andrews to ensure that continued.

“Whilst not pre-judging any future appointment the government might make here, Labor governments over the last 15 years have shown a propensity to mess these things up, whether by politicising independent agencies or by ill-advised selections,” he said.

Any move to appoint Mr Strong could also prove contentious within Labor Party ranks.

In 2015, Mr Strong was asked to investigate bullying allegations against former small business minister Adem Somyurek that resulted in him standing down.

Mr Somyurek has consistently denied those allegations.

Appointing Mr Strong could exacerbate internal ALP tensions, with Mr Somyurek now a powerful player in Labor’s factional landscape.

Under Mr Strong’s directorship, the OPI was accused of waging political attacks on those who undermined former chief commissioner Simon Overland.

The OPI bugged the phone of former Victoria Police deputy commissioner Sir Ken Jones as part of an investigation into allegations he had provided the media with information damaging to Mr Overland.

More than 50 phones were also tapped as part of the ill-fated Operation Briars investigation into claims that a homicide investigation was compromised by a series of leaks involving senior police.

The collapse of Briars-related prosecutions hastened the demise of the OPI and destroyed the careers of former police union chief Paul Mullett, assistant commissioner Noel Ashby.

The OPI was renowned for its strong-arm tactics, including serving respected journalist Cameron Stewart from The Australian newspaper with a court order as he dropped his one-year-old son at childcare.

He was threatened with criminal charges if he refused to provide sworn evidence during the trial of a police officer who had provided Stewart with information on terrorist raids in 2009.

Mr Strong resigned from the OPI several months before it was disbanded in 2012.

In a recording leaked to the media in 2013, Mr Nutt said the OPI had been plagued by a “cowboy, Stasi, bizarre, no judgment, just-fit-people-up” culture under Mr Stong’s leadership.

At the time, Mr Strong described the comments as an outrageous slur and defended the performance of the OPI.

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