Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
ABC News
ABC News

ICAC clears Michael Gunner of alleged political interference in charging of Zachary Rolfe

Former NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner has been cleared of alleged political interference. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

The Northern Territory's Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Michael Riches, has cleared former chief minister Michael Gunner of alleged political interference in the decision to charge former NT police officer Zachary Rolfe with murder.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the name and image of a person who has died, used with the permission of their family.

Mr Rolfe fatally shot 19-year-old Warlpiri-Luritja man Kumanjayi Walker during an attempted arrest in the remote community of Yuendumu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, in November 2019.

Four days later he was charged with murder but was ultimately acquitted at trial in 2022 after jurors heard he acted in self-defence when Mr Walker stabbed him in the shoulder with a pair of scissors.

Public comments made by then-Chief Minister Michael Gunner at a community meeting in Yuendumu, coupled with the speed at which Mr Rolfe was charged, sparked outrage from the NT Police Association and others.

The comments triggered an ICAC investigation into the four days between the shooting and Mr Rolfe's arrest.

Zachary Rolfe was acquitted of all charges at trial. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

ICAC finds comments were made 'off the cuff'

Mr Gunner travelled to Yuendumu on November 12 — the day before Mr Rolfe was charged — and addressed a community gathering alongside then-Police Minister Nicole Manison and then-Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker.

Mr Riches found there was no evidence that the trip itself was improper.

At the meeting, Mr Gunner told community members there would be an "investigation" into the police shooting and that "consequences will flow as a result of that investigation".

"Assertions were made about the propriety of those statements, what the former chief minister intended by those comments and the effect those comments had on the police investigation and, particularly, the arrest of Mr Rolfe," Mr Riches wrote.

Kumanjayi Walker was fatally shot by Zachary Rolfe in Yuendumu in 2019. (Supplied)

The commissioner ultimately found the comments made by Mr Gunner were "off the cuff" and did not amount to improper, unsatisfactory, or corrupt conduct.

The commissioner also found the comments did not impact or influence the decision to arrest Mr Rolfe.

"I find that in making the impugned comments, the former chief minister did not intend to prejudice the administration of justice, nor to influence the police investigation.

"Rather, I find that when making the comments, the former chief minister was endeavouring to address matters that had been raised with him … and matters that he understood were of concern in the community."

He noted that during the course of Mr Gunner's address, he referred to the "coroner" eight times, concluding that his controversial comments were "clearly directed towards a coronial investigation".

Comments were 'unhelpful' for police

However, Mr Riches noted the comments did "cause anger and frustration amongst police", noting a series of high-ranking police officers involved in the investigation into Mr Rolfe found them to be "unhelpful".

NT ICAC Commissioner Michael Riches has cleared Michael Gunner of political interference. (Supplied)

Assistant Police Commissioner Martin Dole, then the commander of the NT Police crime division, told the ICAC: "I thought that [comment was] very problematic, and quite unhelpful … this was a polarising matter within the police force".

"We have already had investigators that were giving particular views on what they think should have occurred or shouldn't have occurred," Mr Dole said.

"The fact that he was making comments that may be … seen to be linked to advice provided by an investigative team, it was very unhelpful."

NT Police Assistant Commissioner Martin Dole told the ICAC Mr Gunner's comments were "polarising" within NT Police. (ABC News: Xavier Martin)

Mr Riches noted some police officers in Alice Springs took sick leave in the wake of Mr Rolfe's charging and Mr Gunner's comments, which were described by a detective senior sergeant as "morale destroying".

NT Police Association President (NTPA) Paul McCue urged Mr Gunner to publicly retract the comment and apologise, telling the ICAC the "inference was that the police had done something wrong".

Paul McCue urged Mr Gunner to apologise for his comments. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

Mr Gunner told the ICAC he refused, as he didn't want to draw attention to it or apologise, as it would be "essentially an untruthful characterisation of what [he] even said in the first place".

The ICAC report showed Ms Manison, then police minister, was "furious" with the "animosity" of the NTPA, accusing Mr McCue of making a grab for popularity.

"I believed it was an outrageous accusation, and that Mr McCue was stirring up community unrest," Ms Manison told the ICAC.

Further report to be completed after coronial investigation

Northern Territory Coroner Elisabeth Armitage opened a coronial inquest into the police shooting in September 2022, which is currently scheduled to resume taking evidence on July 31.

Mr Riches noted in his report that the investigation tabled in parliament this week only addresses findings made about allegations against government ministers.

NT Coroner Elisabeth Armitage is examining the death of Kumanjayi Wlaker. (ABC News: Michael Franchi)

He flagged a second report addressing "other aspects to [his] investigation" will not be published, as "there is no legislative mechanism to do so".

"It is premature to express a view as to whether I will make a public statement in respect of the subject matter of that further report," Mr Riches wrote.

"Any such public comment would only occur after the conclusion of the current coronial inquest addressing events relevant to this investigation."

The ongoing inquest does not currently have a firm conclusion date.

Whilst Mr Riches found no evidence of improper conduct by Mr Gunner or Ms Manison, he said the events offered an "opportunity to reflect".

Deputy Chief Minister Nicole Manison has been cleared of improper conduct by the ICAC. (ABC News: Che Chorley)

"I think all public officials, when considering whether to comment publicly about any matter that is the subject of investigation and/or judicial process, should consider whether it is appropriate to first take advice from the relevant body as to any prejudicial effect that such comment might have," Mr Riches wrote.

In 2019, Mr Riches' predecessor, Ken Fleming QC, disqualified himself from any role in investigating the shooting after a complaint was lodged about his own public comments.

He told a crowd gathered in Alice Springs following the death of Mr Walker: "One of the most important messages today is 'black lives matter'. Anybody who says contrary to that is guilty of corrupt behaviour."

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.