Rhetoric and reality


The strange thing about law and order is that when governments make good policy they stay quiet about it.

Politicians talk tough on law and order to get and stay in government. Most of the time, law-and-order policy is made to calm the public and quieten the shock jocks. Frequently, it is possible to get a law and order problem off the front page, without solving the underlying crime problem. As Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research observes, ‘All too easily, the task of dealing with a crime problem is consumed by the need to manage public reaction to it.’

Behind the headlines, governments try to do something constructive. However, the result often seems to be a two-track response to crime: one track designed to deal with the political crisis, and the other designed to deal with the problem that generated the crisis. Governments often draw no attention to their more constructive policies out of concern that they will be seen as going ‘soft’ on crime.

In his new book Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality, Weatherburn describes the risk of being seen to be soft as real and a significant impediment to the implementation of constructive, evidence-based policy. Weatherburn’s view is that governments’ reluctance to publicly acknowledge major crime problems makes it difficult for them to set clear crime control priorities, which in turn is ‘one reason why law and order policy tends to be held hostage to every passing crisis, real or imagined.’

Weatherburn provides compelling examples to back his case. In 1992, the Western Australian Labor government introduced mandatory sentencing to combat a serious problem with car theft and increasing public concern at the number of deaths resulting from high-speed police pursuits. Weatherburn observes that one option might have been to consider the wisdom of high-speed pursuits, but several influential media commentators had blamed the problem of car theft and its tragic consequences on a ‘lax’ juvenile justice system, and in response, the government promised ‘the toughest laws in Australia’. Writes Weatherburn: ‘After the new laws came into effect, car thefts began to increase It is absolutely clear that the ‘toughest laws’ in the country had no effect whatsoever on the rate of motor vehicle theft in Western Australia. The crowning irony is that the car theft problem in Western Australia was eventually brought under control, not as a result of tougher penalties, but because a subsequent government passed a law requiring engine immobilisers to be fitted to all vehicles to be registered.’

It’s not hard to see the cycle. With incidents such as the recent spate of shootings in the western suburbs of Sydney, the media gave saturated attention to the problem until it abated but never sought an explanation as to why. Did it abate because of the police response, or was it because of some other factor having nothing to do with the police or the Government? It’s not only the media that doesn’t concern itself with the effectiveness of government responses to crime; frequently the government itself doesn’t either. So for example, when, in 1988, the Liberal Party in NSW abolished remissions and the NSW prison population climbed from 4000 to 6000, no effort was made to examine the impact of the change on crime. It seems that, often, government performance is measured in outputs not outcomes; and that governments are judged favourably because they legislate for tougher sentences, rather than whether those tougher sentences reduce criminal activity.

In Weatherburn’s view, the tragedy in all this is not increased incarceration rates – frequently, those incarcerated are serious and persistent offenders; but that we do not learn from experience. We spend large sums of taxpayers’ money trying to reduce crime without making much of an effort to find out whether what we do actually works. In the long-run this lets everybody down, especially the victims of crime.

The thrust of his book is that there is a valuable knowledge base from which to improve the criminal justice system, if we would but refer to it more frequently. Weatherburn makes a large proportion of that knowledge base accessible by quantifying the size of Australia’s crime problem, assessing the quality of our response to crime, considering some of the major causes of crime, and our general options for preventing and controlling crime. Weatherburn has a wish list of the main issues to be addressed in order to improve our capacity to prevent and control crime. The shocking thing about Weatherburn’s list is the fact that it is not already implemented.

So what would it take to transform law and order debate in Australia?

For a start, politicians need to commit themselves and their government to evidence-based policy, despite the fear of being trumped in a law and order auction, such as the one seen in the last NSW election, which included the extraordinary situation in which counter-bidding in numbers of new police was called to a halt by the Police Commissioner’s statement that the Force could not actually train new police in the numbers promised.

Secondly, the current situation can be seen as partly an issues management problem. While advisors may have enviable skills in manipulating the bleatings of the media, they cannot be expected to do what Paul Keating described as ‘marrying the politics with the policy’ “ that is, making sure good policy solves the problem at hand as well as the political crisis.

It’s likely that any change to law and order policy would require a commitment to public communication and education. Compare the reassurance provided by the statement, ‘We are going to appoint 2000 police’ with the assurance offered by the statement, ‘The major crime problem in this area is X. We are doing Y and Z to address it.’

A potentially fertile strategy is suggested by the fact that the overall volume of crime in a state or country is shaped only in part by the criminal justice system and police responses to crime. It is also shaped by factors such as the prevalence of adequate parenting, the level of poverty and unemployment, the advent of new and desirable consumer goods. These are factors over which the government, rather than the police, have some control. Governments might announce the crime reduction effects of policies made in areas other than crime control, for the benefits of added kudos for the policy and of educating the electorate in the complexities of law and order.

Weatherburn’s conclusion is that the outlook is positive. He observes that the force for change that may not come from politicians or the public is coming from Treasury demands for greater accountability. ‘The increased pressure for government accountability, coupled with a shift in the focus of State and federal Treasury officials, from what governments do with taxpayers’ money, to what they achieve with it, is forcing government Ministers and senior public servants to commission evaluations where once they would have been unthinkable Requests for independent evaluation of crime and justice policy have become a lot more common.’

Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality by Don Weatherburn

The Federation Press website

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