One thing about the Kelly era that is still the same today is that the Press like to write sensationalist stories in order to sell newspapers. Thus, when the Kelly Gang had murdered three Policemen at SBC the Press became increasingly critical of Police performance and expressed and encouraged a rising sense of outrage in the community when the Gang was not immediately apprehended. With the robberies at Euroa and then Jerilderie the outrage increased even further, so that by the time the Gang had been destroyed and Kelly captured, but with further loss of life at Glenrowan, the call for a Royal Commission of enquiry into the Police became too loud for the Government of the day to resist any longer, and a Royal Commission was established within a few months of Ned Kellys execution. (Click HERE to read all of the Reports of the Commission at Bills site : Thanks Bill!)
They say these days, somewhat cynically that Politicians don’t launch Royal Commissions unless they know what the outcome is going to be, and for the Politician the outcome they seek is always some sort of advancement of their own political agenda, whether it be to undermine their Political opponents position, or strengthen their own. The truth about the motivation behind the establishment of an RC might be better understood by looking at who the Government appoints as Members of the Commission or by its outcomes and at which of its recommendations the Government acts on. Obvious contemporary examples of the politically motivated RC are the Governments RC into the Union movement, and the absence of the one into the Banking system proposed by the Opposition. There are also examples of RC’s that are less obviously inspired by purely political motive, but the politics becomes apparent afterwards, when the Government of the day has to respond to the recommendations of the Commission.
So when it comes to the Royal Commission into the Kelly Outbreak we shouldn’t be so naïve as to imagine it wasn’t launched without a Political endpoint in mind, or that its enquiry was wholly objective and free of personal and political agendas.
Justin Corfield says in his Encyclopedia that Graham Berry, the Premier who established the RC was anxious to have the ‘Kelly business’ over by the time of the next state election. Thus at the very least, this RC was a clever way for the Government to delay having to respond to a difficult issue until a much later time, when they hoped the publics disquiet had settled and its attention had moved on to something else.
There was also an obvious anti-Police bias to the Commission: according to Ian Jones, the Chairman of the Commission Francis Longmore was “an enemy of Standish and the police since the days of Harry Power’. George Wilson Hall, another of the Commissioners was also known to be hostile to the Police in general and to Standish in particular; he was the publisher in 1878 of an anti-police booklet, a satirical parallel of the Kelly story called ‘The Book of Keli’ in which the Police were led by ‘Dishstand’ an obvious reference to Standish who was then mocked and ridiculed along with others whose names also were thinly disguised variations of the names of real people. Such partisan figures as Hall and Longmore would never be appointed to a modern Commission. These days we recognize that the appointment of people with known bias to a Commission weakens the authority of its findings, and provides an easy excuse for them to be ignored or dismissed. In 1880 however such concerns dont seem to have been taken into consideration, but the truth remains, that having biased commissioners reduces the credibility of the Commission.
The full title of the Enquiry was
Royal Commission of Enquiry
into the circumstances of
THE KELLY OUTBREAK
THE PRESENT STATE AND ORGANISATION OF THE POLICE FORCE, ETC.
Its terms of reference were
1. To inquire into the circumstances preceding and attending the Kelly outbreak.
2. As to the efficiency of the police to deal with such possible occurrences.
3. To inquire into the action of the police authorities during the period the Kelly gang were at large.
4. The efficiency of the means employed for their capture; and
5. Generally to inquire into and report upon the present state and organization of the police force.
A total of nine members were appointed to the Commission, and they conducted hearings in Melbourne and various towns in Kelly country, asking a total of 18289 questions of 65 witnesses, starting with Standish himself when the Enquiry began on March 23rd 1881. The witnesses were denied the option of being supported at the commission by their own legal counsel.
From all this evidence the Commission produced ‘in lieu of the usual resume of the evidence’ what they called a‘sketch of the antecedents pursuit and destruction of the Kelly Gang of Outlaws’ This ‘sketch’ was a detailed description of the entire outbreak, based on the evidence supplied by the witnesses, and it formed the basis of the two reports that the Commission produced.
The first report, issued on 6 July 1881 made four recommendations :
- – Inspector O’Connor not be appointed as an officer in the Victoria Police
- – the permanent employment of black trackers as an auxiliary branch of the police service
- – a thorough system of police patrol shall be established throughout the colony, more especially in the North-Eastern district
- – that immediate steps be taken to arm the mounted police of the colony with the Regulation Pattern Martini-Henry carbine
The second report was issued at the end of the Royal Commission in October 1881, and contained 17 findings, the first of which was
“ That immediately prior to the outbreak and for some time previously the administration of the police in the North-Eastern District was not satisfactory; either as regards the numbers and distribution of the Constabulary or the manner in which they were armed and mounted; and that a grave error was committed in abolishing the police station at Glenmore, and in reducing the number of men stationed at Stanley, Yackandandah, Tallangatta Eldorado and Beechworth”
The next 14 recommendations were about the behavior of named individuals, almost all of them members of the Police force, beginning of course with Standish, then Nicolson, Hare, Sadleir, Brooke-Smith and so on down to a cluster of Constables, and included Curnow and Wallace. The last two findings were expressions of appreciation for assistance provided by the press at Glenrowan and by the Queensland Government who supplied the Black trackers. They commended Senior Constables Kelly and Johnson, Constable Bracken, Thomas Curnow and Mr C.H Rawlings, but everyone else was rebuked to a greater or lesser degree and recommended for demotion dismissal censure or early retirement.
In summary therefore, of 21 findings and recommendations, only 3 could be said to be about reform for the future, but six times as many, 18, were judgments about the past, criticisms of the behavior of players in the Outbreak, or in other words as Sadleir is reported to have said of the Chairman “he went relentlessly for scalps”. And the three positive recommendations ? – establish colony-wide police patrols, arm mounted Police with Martini Henry rifles and employ black trackers!
And that was it! I was staggered! After all those days of hearings, all those questions, all that exposure of Police ‘dirty linen’ and detail about every aspect of the Outbreak all they managed to produce were three feeble recommendations about Police patrols , black trackers and rifles, and deal payback and embarrassment to some of the factions in the force. Nothing to say about Fitzpatrick, and not a single mention of the Kelly Gang. Nothing about Police misbehavior towards selectors, harassment of ex convicts, drunkenness, extra-judicial killings or Police thuggery. Nothing.
I am still shaking my head when I think how thoroughly this Commission has been misrepresented by the Kelly mythmakers, who must be either deeply ignorant of the Commissioners findngs and recommendations or else they deliberately lie about them. I found myself having the same stunned reaction as I did after reading the Jerilderie Letter for the first time, realizing that the pro-Kelly brigade had misrepresented it entirely. The Jeriderie letter is claimed by them to be some sort of revolutionary manifesto about the republic of North east Victoria, but it is absolutely nothing of the sort. In a similar way the Kelly mythmakers have convinced themselves and try to convince everyone else that the Reports of the Royal Commission validated their position about Ned Kellys claim to be a Police-made criminal, that the Commission censured Police for the way they treated the Kellys, that the Commission uncovered all the corruption and unwarranted persecution of the Kellys and the selector class generally, and as a result Policing changed in Victoria forever. In fact the Commissions final determinations, contained in its two Reports had absolutely nothing to say about any of that. Nothing. And to claim that any good that may have resulted from the RC, any future reforms of the Victoria Police were somehow thanks to Ned Kelly and are part of Ned Kellys legacy is about as absurd as saying that the changes Prime Minister Howard made to Australias gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre are something we should be grateful to Martin Bryant for, and are part of his legacy. Ridiculous nonsense.
What the Commission criticized in its Reports were all related to the internal workings of the Police force. The Commission blamed the Outbreak on what they felt were the failures of leadership, of initiative, of decision making, of courage, and of respect in the Force, the factionalism, the petty jealousies and favoritism within the Force, the meddling and interference that in combination enabled the Kelly Gang to remain at large for far too long. And Standish was blamed for much of it.
When it came to responding to the first of their Terms of reference, ‘To inquire into the circumstances preceding and attending the Kelly outbreak’, the Commissions view was that it resulted from ‘the unchecked aggregation of a large class of criminals in the North East’exacerbated by the weakening of District policing by the removal of the Glenmore Police station, reductions in the number of Police and the employment of ‘inexperiened and inferior constables’. They reported ‘The incident, however, which seems to have more immediately precipitated the outbreak was the attempt of Constable Fitzpatrick to arrest Dan Kelly, at his mother’s hut, on the 15th of April 1878’.
Later they wrote
‘There can be little doubt that Constable Fitzpatrick’s conduct, however justified by the rules of the service, was unfortunate in its results. It may also be mentioned that the charge of persecution of the family by the members of the police force has been frequently urged in extenuation of the crimes of the outlaws; but, after careful examination, your Commissioners have arrived at the conclusion that the police, in their dealings with the Kellys and their relations, were simply desirous of discharging their duty conscientiously; and that no evidence has been adduced to support the allegation that either the outlaws or their friends were subjected to persecution or unnecessary annoyance at the hands of the police.’
It has to be said that for the Kelly sympathisers the Royal Commission was an absolute disaster. The Commission found no evidence that the outbreak was caused by ‘Police persecution or unnecessary annoyance’, as Kelly himself tried to claim and as Kelly sympathisers still fondly like to pretend. The Commission exposed the extended Kelly family as a criminal gang, and in relation to Kennedys death described Ned Kelly as ‘cruel, wanton, and inhuman, and should of itself, apart from other crimes, brand the name of his murderer, the leader of the gang, with infamy.’
So another Kelly myth bites the dust. This time it’s the one that says thanks to Ned Kelly the corrupt Police who oppressed and persecuted innocent selectors were exposed and punished at the Royal Commission. In fact after looking into it all, the RC branded the Kellys and their associates as a criminal gang and made not one criticism of the way the Police treated the Kellys, other than that they failed to catch them soon enough.
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