Law and Order: When taking the hard line is the weak option
We all want to be popular, which is why I feel particularly blessed to be the subject of an unending torrent of affection in this newsroom.
Such as the welcome I receive on returning to Media House after a rare sojourn in the outside world. “Where the hell have you been?” an editor will ask (we have several, they breed like rabbits). “Can you file your bilge soon so we can turn it into English?’
I know this is just their way of saying, “We miss you and can’t wait to read this week’s quirky column”. Touching, really.
But for politicians, popularity is more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. It is the lifeblood of their chosen trade.
Why else would you kiss strange babies that may bring up their pureed-apple breakfast on your designer suit, or wear hi-vis vests that make you look like Mr Bean, if not to endear yourself to the people? Politicians are elected to reflect our views and not impose an order upon us – it is called democracy.
But democracy can’t be run like a beauty pageant – although sometimes it seems the biggest boobs tend to win in both contests. Elected representatives must develop policies that make sense to the voters or they will be out on their ears.
In state politics there is no bigger issue than law and order, and with an election next year there have already been hundreds of stories and millions of words devoted to government and opposition promises to curb crime.
Yet really, the positions of both sides can be summarised in just three words: “Lock ’em up.”
The government plans to increase police numbers by about 3000 while the opposition promises to introduce mandatory sentencing for repeat offenders in 11 crime categories.
Consider these facts. In 2006 we had 4000 prisoners, but 10 years later that number had increased by more than 65 per cent to 6500. That will grow to 8000 in the next few years, and with Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s mandatory sentence proposals it will crack 10,000. That is a fivefold jump from 2001.
We are building the 1000-bed Ravenhall Prison at a cost of $670 million, and on these projections will have to build another. Right now our prisons are full and police watch-houses are packed.
In 2002, police staff numbers were about 12,500 but under Premier Daniel Andrews’ initiative will pass 20,000 by 2020 – a jump of 60 per cent. And the crime rate keeps rising.
We are heading down a track with a proven dead end. And we should know, as white settlement in Australia was designed to relieve pressure on overcrowded British jails. It didn’t work then and won’t work now.
In traditionally tough-talking Texas they have changed direction and invested in rehabilitation and mental health and addiction programs. The result has seen a drop in prison numbers, the closure of three jails and a reduced crime rate.
Yet here there is no appetite for such discussions.
So if Dangerous Dan and Tough-Guy Guy want to take off their shirts, Putin-style, and go down the hard line, let’s stop mucking around with water pistols and pull out the bazookas. If you want to go all John Wayne on us, why not embrace the Singapore Solution?
Recently, a senior Victorian police officer asked his Singaporean counterpart about their gun crimes. For a moment the Singapore policeman looked confused before asking his off-offsider when was the last such offence. The reply was “1990”. When the Australian asked the secret he was told, “We execute them”.
Singaporeans say our approach to illicit drugs (chase the suppliers while offering harm minimisation for users) is nuts. And the figures say they are right. We are seizing more drugs than ever, and yet drug abuse is worse than ever.
And it will get worse. Stand by for a flood of Chinese fentanyl, an opioid, that has devastated Canada, with more than 900 deaths last year in the province of British Columbia.
Forty years ago Singapore authorities tackled demand rather than supply, forcing users into mandatory (and uncompromising) rehabilitation. Code-named Ferret, users were put into centres that looked like prisons, forced to go cold turkey, given military-style training, work, and finally released to a job. The addiction rate halved.
“Compulsory rehabilitation of drug addicts is the key to any lasting attack on the problem,” the then Singapore Central Narcotics Bureau director Tony Poh told me inside one of six dedicated prisons (sorry, rehab centres).
“Too many law enforcement officers think that they can turn off the drug supply like a tap. If there is a demand there will always be a supply; the profits are too great.”
Clearly we will never embrace the Singapore method, but the facts are clear. We must find our own way to slow demand, which makes it so disappointing that both sides of politics are obsessed with finding a law enforcement solution that doesn’t exist.
Police say virtually all organised crime, most violent offences, and the majority of property crimes are drug related. The crime rate goes up because drug use continues to climb; yet we cling to the failed model like a drowning man to a sinking lifeboat.
Take the proposed safe injecting room in Richmond. Despite a coronial recommendation for a trial and the support of a number of experts, both Andrews and Guy immediately dismissed the idea. Why? Because it is not seen as tough.
The reality is that a large percentage of voters are frightened by the increasing crime rate and want lock ’em up laws. When I once advocated a broader approach, a reader wrote suggesting I was a “left-wing wanker”. Well, in fairness, he may be half right.
Governments are supposed to build stuff. Schools, hospitals, roads, bridges and parks – things that take more than one election cycle to complete. We know the Metro Rail Project will disrupt traffic for several years and accept it as the price that has to be paid. So why is law and order different?
The issue of drugs and related crime cannot be dealt with purely by arrests, conviction and punishment. We need both sides to stop this political arms race and look for long-term policies that punish criminals, rehabilitate drug addicts and slow the rate of new users.
Fact: If we do not deal with drug abuse the crime rate will climb.
Last week, this paper reported violent patients with ice-induced psychosis are being placed in medically induced comas and shoved into scarce intensive care beds on ventilators to protect staff from attacks. Meanwhile, we have 1000 Protective Service officers guarding near-empty railway stations for political rather than practical reasons.
That decision alone shows that rather than being strong, politicians on both sides are as weak as water.
People who cannot access mental health care commit thousands of crimes and dozens of murders. Every shift, police deal with people who need treatment, not punishment, which means cops can’t get on with their core duties. While the majority of people suffering mental illnesses do not commit crime, too many end up being processed within the criminal justice system.
But the votes are in more cops, not more rehabilitation or mental health care, no matter what the end result.
We have feel-good government ads shoved down our throats, but when was the last time you saw a drug ad that would act as a conversation starter at home? We have skin cancer campaigns, confronting road toll ads, Worksafe messages and anti-smoking programs, yet very little to deter illicit drug use.
There is a chronic lack of rehab beds, and yet both sides of politics will spend billions on new jails rather than invest a tiny percentage on getting users clean.
Forget the polls and the news cycle. We need to pause, kneel and drink deeply from the Fount of the Just. We need a 20-year commitment from both sides for a continuous public and schools education program funded directly from seized assets of crime.
The government appointment last week of former Police Association secretary Ron Iddles as an independent law and order watchdog is a welcome one, but does not go far enough. We need a panel to take a fresh look at all the issues to find some bipartisan consensus on what is a national crisis. I would suggest:
Jeff Kennett. A polarising, charismatic, eccentric figure who knows how to get things done. The fact the former Liberal premier organised former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard to replace him as beyondblue chair shows he can rise above party politics.
His decision to support a Richmond safe injecting room indicates he isn’t a prisoner of the law and order lobby. If Labor’s Andrews appointed Kennett, it would be hard for the Liberal Matthew Guy to sook.
Justice Paul Coghlan. This Supreme Court Justice and former Director of Public Prosecutions is practical and smart. A supporter of victim’s rights, he is aware of the legal logjams that gum the system and has the will to fix them. As the grandson of a Chinese opium dealer, he is no silver-spoon judge.
Jill Baker. Former Fairfax and News Limited editor whose career relied upon understanding the fears and aspirations of all Victorians.
They would not be able to find all the answers, but at least they would have the dash to ask the right questions. But will the politicians have the dash to look beyond tomorrow’s headlines?
The story Law and Order: When taking the hard line is the weak option first appeared on The Age.