When election commitments are involved, Campbell Newman thinks it best to bypass his freshly stacked parliamentary committees. I’m beginning to understand why.
Queensland Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee has just completed an inquiry into the Bills that will enact the LNP’s mandatory minimum sentencing election commitments. The committee’s report, bearing the racy title "Report No.3", was released last Friday.
The report faithfully quotes great slabs of text from learned organisations — the Supreme Court, Queensland Law Society, Amnesty International — advising the committee that they find themselves confronted with a stupid idea.
"Mandatory sentencing laws are unfair, unworkable and run contrary to Australia’s international treaty obligations," said the Queensland Law Society.
"There is no evidence to support that the increase in the sentence and non‐parole period would be effective in deterring further crime or protecting members of the public or police from further offence," said Amnesty International.
"…it is quite erroneous to think that an increase to the minimum non‐parole periods will promote community safety and protection," said the Bar Association of Queensland.
The committee "carefully considered" this "range of perspectives" and determined that the Bill ought to be passed on the grounds that it fulfils an election commitment and meets its policy objectives. Both of these features of the Bill were readily apparent without the benefit of an inquiry; the former because the LNP did indeed commit to increase the minimum penalties for certain offences during the election campaign, and the latter because the Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum simply lists what the Bill does under the policy objectives section (e.g. "increase the non-parole period for multiple murders from 20 to 30 years imprisonment").
I can now understand why we might prefer to skip the bother of having a government-dominated committee run the ruler over the government’s Bills before sending them back to the government-dominated single house of the Queensland Parliament.
My net level of understanding hasn’t improved much though, as this insight has been offset by greater confusion as to why these committees need the two additional members Newman gifted them upon coming to power.
It is probably safe to assume that the policy objectives of the people who were attracted to this promise during the Queensland election were the usual mix of justice concerns. They want the sentences handed down by our courts to be fair, to reflect the gravity of the offence, and to reduce the likelihood of similar offences being committed in future.
But if these objectives had been transcribed into the Explanatory Memorandum, the Committee would not have been able to say that the Bill met its policy objectives.
The previous Queensland Government referred the question of minimum non-parole periods to the Queensland Sentencing Council for advice in 2011. After an extensive inquiry, a majority of the council did "not support the introduction of a new standard non-parole period scheme of any form in Queensland" due to "the absence of strong evidence that minimum standard non-parole period schemes are effective".
Looking at interstate experience, the council found evidence that this policy increases the prison population and the cost of the justice portfolio, but no evidence that it reduces crime rates. This reality puts the LNP’s justice policy at odds with its central commitment to reduce wasteful government expenditure and cut the cost of living. But it turns out that these problems are not insurmountable. The LNP abolished the Queensland Sentencing Council.
It’s all very democratic, of course. The LNP openly pitched this policy to assuage the law and order concerns of voters and was rewarded with government. But the LNP would know, as would anyone who has taken a minute to read up on the subject, that the people who support this policy are simply mistaken. We can cater to the public’s misapprehension on a range of issues and implement their preferred expensive and doomed policies, but it doesn’t seem the best way to govern ourselves.
Particularly in cases like this one, where we know what approach will leave the public reassured that the sentences handed down by the courts are fair and proportionate. It has the disadvantage of not being nearly as square-jawed or hairy-chested as guaranteed longer prison sentences, but the advantage of being cheaper and more effective. It’s community education.
The Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study showed just last year that 90 per cent of people who are well acquainted with all of the facts and circumstances of a case consider that the sentence handed down by the judge is appropriate. Dissatisfaction arises when the case is viewed through the hysterical and highly selective lens of the tabloid media. So if we are aiming to improve community confidence in our justice system, community education is key.
Thankfully, the Queensland Sentencing Council has a community education function. Oh, hang on…