Home / World News / Paul Papalia’s bomb-defusing skills to come in handy with the WA Police Force a powder keg of discontent

Paul Papalia’s bomb-defusing skills to come in handy with the WA Police Force a powder keg of discontent

As a tank battle raged on the Al Faw peninsula, and with missile strikes posing a constant threat, Paul Papalia was more focused on the dangerous task at hand under the surface of the murky, tidal river.

It was 2003 in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasar, one of the first targets in the Iraq War after the US-led invasion.

Then a Royal Australian Navy executive officer, Mr Papalia was charged with leading a team of clearance divers tasked with clearing the port of sea mines after crossing the border from the south so that humanitarian aid could arrive.

WA Police Minister and former Navy Diver Paul Papalia.
Camera IconWA Police Minister and former Navy Diver Paul Papalia. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

During that task, under metres of water with zero visibility and no way to communicate, one of the divers, Jason Dunn, was trying to lift a sea mine from a sunken Iraqi tug — to be towed away and blown up — when it slipped from its cradle and landed in his lap.

In an act that earned him, and fellow diver Troy Miles, distinguished service commendations, the pair were able to wrangle themselves out of the situation and save the day. “If it had blown up we are dead in the water but they’d also be dead on the surface,” Mr Dunn said.

Mr Papalia — who was second in charge of the whole operation and could have stayed back at headquarters — was sitting in a dive boat directly above the situation unfolding below after offering a junior sailor a rest.

“That was someone else’s job but he was leading from the front,” Mr Dunn said.

Over the past few months, WA Police has made headlines with claims of an all-time low morale and a mass exodus of police officers among reports of dissatisfaction with increasing workloads and a “burn and churn” culture.

Mr Papalia has also at times been in firing line.

But with a 26-year military career under his belt — during which he served as a Navy clearance diver, in the counter terrorist squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment and deployed to Iraq twice — he knows what it is like to be on the front line.

“He genuinely cares about the people below him, and you can tell through his style of leadership,” Mr Dunn said.

Fellow ex-Navy clearance diver and special services soldier, Mike, said he remembered “Paps” bringing a “sense of calm” to the volatile environment of a war zone.

“When you go to war there’s various ranges of emotions but every time I was dealing with Paps it was just that calm and collected personality and as a result everyone else becomes calm around him in the way he used to deal and approach with situations,” he said.

Mike said there could sometimes be “a bit of a divide between officers and enlisted men”.

“But for me, I’m in touch with very few officers I’ve served for over the years but he’s one of those guys after 20 plus years of knowing him I’ve always seen him as a great bloke,” he said.

Asked if there was ever a moment he believed his life was on the line, Mr Papalia replied, “yeah, but that’s normal”.

Looking back, Mr Papalia said perhaps walking into 200 nerve agent-filled rocket warheads surrounded by explosives that had failed to detonate may have been one of those moments.

But Mr Papalia said, “more often you don’t think about that”.

“You think about getting the task done and looking after the people that I was working with,” he said.

DO POLICE DESERVE A PAY RISE? ABSOLUTELY

Having come from a military background, Mr Papalia said he had always aspired to be the police minister after his entry into politics in 2007.

Mr Papalia said the values of service before self were the same in the police force.

“You put on a uniform, you relinquish the indulgence of civilian life and you make commitment to sacrifice your own self-interest on behalf of the team, and that’s what they do,” he said.

“So it’s something I’ve wanted to do for that reason. I’m not leading the operations, but I can guarantee you, and I guarantee police, that their well-being, their resourcing, supporting them, is at the forefront of my mind. And that’s why I wanted the job.”

But in recent months, both WA Police and the minister have come under fire over a WA Police Union survey which showed morale in the force has plummeted to historic lows and evidence officers are leaving in droves.

In May, Mr Papalia denied there was a low morale among rank-and-file officers and instead questioned the motive behind the survey.

Police are seen arresting a man in Northbridge.
Camera IconPolice are seen arresting a man in Northbridge. Credit: Matt Jelonek/The West Australian

He suggested the timing of its release “might have something to do with the pay case being negotiated right now”.

WA Police officers are currently in negotiations with the McGowan Government over a wage rise, with the union arguing a proposed 2.5 per cent pay increase was insufficient.

Asked by the Sunday Times if he believed officers deserved a pay rise, Mr Papalia responded: “Absolutely.”

“I’m not the minister responsible, but absolutely,” he said.

“They’e done an incredible job. These officers right now have confronted a challenge the likes of which no living police officer has met in the past.

“There’s no playbook, they took us through it safely, and they continued to deliver excellent policing outcomes at the same time — they are a force we should all be incredibly proud of.”

Backlash also erupted after former police commissioner Chris Dawson, who is now the Governor of WA, sent a letter to officers forcing them to choose a preference for a regional stint if they had not already served in the country. The union described it as the “21st century equivalent of press gangs”.

That came as COVID-19 vaccine-reluctant cop Ben Falconer launched a Supreme Court challenge against Mr Dawson’s now-defunct vaccine mandate.

Earlier this year, it was revealed police were so disillusioned with their jobs more than 100 officers applied for one investigator role in the mines.

Asked he was concerned about officers leaving the force, Mr Papalia said “of course I’d rather they didn’t”.

“We will be doing everything we can to try and retain them,” he said.

About brandsauthority

Check Also

Hovland defends PGA title in the Bahamas

Viktor Hovland has become just the second player, after Tiger Woods, to successfully defend his …

%d bloggers like this: