Cuff love: The politics and power of Victoria’s law and order addiction

Cuff love: The politics and power of Victoria’s law and order addiction

11/12/2021

By Royce Millar and Chris Vedelago

Police confront anti vaccination and anti lockdown protestors during a number of protests in September.Credit:Jason South

Historians could recall nothing like it: a ragtag group of conspiracy theorists, lockdown opponents and right-wing extremists confronting police on the steps of the city’s Shrine of Remembrance.

Blood was spilled; protesters urinated on the monument. For many Victorians, the violation of the memorial to their fallen soldiers and peacekeepers would be a defining image of the city’s lockdown.

For some it was a portent of civil collapse, with the protest uniting political opponents in alarm. Perhaps this is why so many of us overlooked another historic shift on those same steps, that same September day.

For the first time in Victoria, hundreds of riot control officers and special paramilitary police, normally used against armed offenders and terrorists and in violent sieges, confronted demonstrators using, also for the first time, foam-tipped bullets, teargas and an armoured vehicle known as a Bearcat.

Riot police move in to control a violent protest.Credit:Justin McManus

It was yet another new frontier in policing after an extraordinary 19 months in which, as former police chief commissioner Christine Nixon puts it, “we locked down a citizenry like we’d never done before”.

“We’ve never seen that in terms of policing in Australia,” says Nixon. “This is such a phenomenal change for us.”

Melbourne’s worst public health crisis called for sacrifices unthinkable in 2019: a curfew unparalleled internationally, the so-called “ring of steel” around the city and the unnerving experience of police stopping people on the street to check IDs and quiz us about our business.

Yet even before COVID, Victoria Police had become the largest force in the country.

Two decades of tough-on-crime policies from the major political parties has given police record staff levels, booming budgets and ever greater power on the streets and in politics. Victorians are now imprisoned at a rate not seen since the colonial days of the late 19th century.

It seems a good time to ask: have we scared ourselves into being over-policed and over-incarcerated – and if so, at what cost?

The problem

Jeff Kennett was the last Victorian premier to cut police numbers. It didn’t end well for him. As the Liberal premier slashed his way through public service budgets in the 1990s, Victoria Police was just another agency forced to rein in spending.

Back then, Victoria was one of the safest and most lightly policed jurisdictions in the country. NSW was the state of convicts, crime and corruption. Victoria was the respectable free settler state.

But Kennett miscalculated. The hot favourite to win a third term in 1999, he was turfed out of government in an election in which police made themselves an issue. Here was a lesson for all subsequent political leaders.

Twenty-two years and five election cycles later, and with government funding that has tripled to $4 billion, we now field the largest law enforcement agency in the country.

We have more police than NSW and substantially more per 100,000 people. We actually spend about the same on policing even though the northern state is three times our geographical size, with 1.4 million more people.

In the 20th century Victoria boasted one of the lowest imprisonment rates in Australia and internationally. Now, after two decades of legislation by Labor and Coalition governments, the state locks up people at a rate inconceivable 40 or 50 years ago.

Victoria has abolished remission (release for good behaviour), scrapped suspended sentences and toughened parole, especially after Adrian Bayley murdered Jill Meagher in 2012, and introduced restrictive bail laws after James Gargasoulas’ Bourke Street killings.

The state’s prison population almost doubled in the decade to 2019 and the annual cost of housing and supervising inmates more than tripled. We’re spending billions of dollars on sprawling prison precincts the size of small towns on the city’s outskirts.

Temporary respite came when COVID put a brake on population growth, slowed court processes and the accompanying lockdowns quelled street crime. Yet the government expects the annual cost of running prisons to double to more than $4 billion by 2030.

Police relied on a show of force to dissuade protesters during a series of demonstrations in September.Credit:Wayne Taylor

However, this increasing spending on police and prisons has not stopped a long-term increase in the violent crime rate. Despite there being many more police on our streets and more people locked away, Victorians also report feeling generally less safe in their homes and on the streets, according to an annual survey by the Productivity Commission.

Something has happened to us and our relationship with crime.

How did we get here?

A potent mix of politics, media and vested interests has made us a more frightened and punitive state.

Where a “tough-on-crime” mantra was traditionally the preserve of political conservatives, both major parties are now locked in what Victorian upper house cross-bencher Fiona Patten calls a “law-and-order arms race”.

“Neither of the major parties think that, politically, they can now get out of that race,” says Patten, the Reason Party leader currently chairing a parliamentary inquiry into the state’s justice system.

It’s a race that police actively encourage. More police means more members and more clout for the Police Association of Victoria, a union founded as a “harmless social club” but which has morphed into an industrial and political powerhouse.

While in the wider workforce union membership (now at 14 per cent) and power is declining, the police union boasts 98 per cent coverage, giving it formidable leverage with government.

At the 1999 state election, and the crucial Frankston East by-election shortly afterwards, union members campaigned against the Coalition, including handing out how-to-vote cards. Nixon recalls that “some” from the union even claimed responsibility for “tipping Kennett out”.

Then premier Ted Baillieu celebrates the graduation of 20 protective services officers with Commissioner Ken Lay in 2012. Credit:Angela Wylie

Since then, most of the big increases in police resources have come from campaign promises, sometimes without police even asking for them. Police numbers, says Nixon, are political.

Kennett’s successor Steve Bracks increased police by 800 in his first term and promised another 600 before the 2002 election.

The union under controversial secretary Paul Mullett backed the Bracks-led Labor at its 2002 campaign and then again in 2006 after it famously struck a secret “side deal” with Labor to boost police numbers again and commit the state to paying the legal costs of officers investigated for corruption.

Then, after Mullett’s time at the helm ended in 2009, the union worked closely with the Ted Baillieu-led Coalition as it campaigned hard on law and order, promising to scrap home detention and suspended sentences and tighten bail laws.

“They [the association] were an exceptionally powerful voice when we were writing policy,” acknowledges former Baillieu government minister Kim Wells, now an opposition backbencher. “I have nothing but respect for the police association. Wayne Gatt [the union’s leader] fights for his members until the end. I respect him for that.”

It’s rare praise indeed from a Coalition MP about a union and its leader.

Then premier Denis Napthine at a photo opportunity with police in 2014 to announce the arrival of 1700 new recruits on the beat. Credit:Justin McManus

Baillieu rode the law and order wave to unexpected victory in 2010, and the lock-’em-up lesson was reinforced.

Daniel Andrews is a keen student of politics. Even though he is a left-winger, as Premier he is renowned for his hard-line position on policing and justice.

In late 2016, amid controversies around African gang violence, a breakout from the Parkville detention centre and a spike in the crime rate, Andrews announced a massive $2 billion spend on more than 3100 new police officers – the largest recruitment in the state’s history.

Then after the Bourke Street killings in 2017, he introduced bail laws spruiked by Labor as Australia’s “most onerous” – laws that have left hundreds, perhaps thousands more Victorians in jail on remand, and human rights advocates aghast.

“The Andrews government has been excellent on many human rights issues, but its record is being undermined by its harsh, punitive approach to law and order,” says Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser, who accuses the government of having a “law and order habit” it needs to feed.

Premier Daniel Andrews in 2016 with then-Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton.Credit:Justin McManus

The duality of Andrews’ policies makes sense electorally and is consistent with trends elsewhere.

Victoria University lecturer Chris McConville is one of a few historians who specialise in Melbourne politics and street culture, including crime and policing. He says a “rethink” about public order has been going on in left-leaning parties in the United States and Britain for some time. “Hanging on to traditional working-class voters cannot be done without a harder line on crime,” he says.

Clearly there is more to the law and order story than the power of the local police lobby.

Ned Kelly to Nixon

Colonial records show how heavy-handed the legal authorities were in the days of Ned Kelly. In the year he was hanged, 1880, the imprisonment rate was about 186 per 100,000 people.

For the next century, the rate declined steadily, hitting a low of 39 per 100,000 in 1977 before an upturn coinciding with the end of the postwar economic boom, whittling away of the welfare state and a growing aversion to risk.

Nixon, who joined the NSW Police in the 1970s, says crime became a “significant” public issue about 40 years ago, not because we were actually less safe but because we were made to feel that way.

She points to an increasingly shrill media fuelling community fear. “Your paper occasionally,” she tells The Age, “but more so The Herald Sun. Have a look at what they publish: If it bleeds, it leads. That’s it.”

The former police chief is especially critical of the constant chorus by “media commentators” that everything needs to be “tougher”. “It’s a very easy space to use. That’s what drives up community fear.”

Police commissioner Christine Nixon and her deputy Simon Overland at a press conference in 2007.Credit:Mario Borg

Andre Haermeyer was the Bracks Labor government’s police minister from 1999 to 2005, during Nixon’s time as chief commissioner. Their relationship was an uneasy one. Still, on the role of the media and fear, they’re in agreement.

“By international standards Australia, and in particular Victoria, are very safe,” says Haermeyer. “While you have media that exaggerates the problem, governments will be under pressure to pour more money into response, rather than prevention.”

Almost always overlooked by politicians, shock jocks and newspapers is the cost of tough-on-crime measures.

Too much of a good thing?

Twenty years ago, the Victorian auditor-general was concerned that police numbers had fallen below the national average and that we may have been short of police. That situation is now reversed and Victoria is well above the national average, with more police than NSW or Queensland.

Is it possible we now have too many police?

It’s a sensitive question at a time when bitter, partisan politics around the pandemic in Victoria has made a measured assessment of police policy and action difficult.

Still, Patten is clear. “Yes,” she says, we have too many police. She supports the good work police do, but explains: “We always say that we can’t arrest ourselves out of the drug problem or any number of other social problems. Yet still we keep trying. Our answer is always the same: hire more police.

“But police are essentially reactive. We need to be looking at the causes of crime and to prevent people from going to prison.”

Curiously, the Staff Allocation Model, a system introduced by the Andrews government to end “boom-bust” police hiring in Victoria, is not a public document.

The more police there are, the more we rely on them. “From cats up trees to you name it,” says Nixon. “So many more people call the police than ever before. They will call the police because it’s so easy.”

Reason Party MP Fiona Patten says Victoria is caught in a law-and-order arms race.Credit:Justin McManus

Haermeyer points out that police are expected to deal with situations and people they are neither properly trained nor paid for: family counselling, dealing with domestic violence, social work, mental health.

Even Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt acknowledges that police are not the best people to deal with mental health crises and should be the last people called to such incidents.

Then there is the question of street tactics and equipment. Almost certainly, the extraordinary COVID protests have set a new benchmark for militarised handling of protests – more guns and gas and on our streets. So successful were the Special Operations Group and other specialist anti-riot forces at containing the September protests that the Police Association has called for their use to become standard at demonstrations.

Criminologist and Monash University emeritus professor Jude McCulloch cautions of the risk of this new level of police militarisation being “normalised”.

“In a different political environment we may now see a very different approach to a Black Lives Matter rally, for instance,” says McCulloch. “What’s going to happen next time we have African youth in groups?”

The wider tough-on-crime contest between the major parties has also left us with a jaw-dropping taxpayer bill and a big question mark over value for money and fairness.

Most caught in the crime crackdown are not hardened criminals or sexual and violent attackers. They’re lower-level offenders on remand, ineligible for bail, unable to get a timely hearing or incapable of meeting conditions for their release, such as stable housing; most have alcohol and/or drug problems.

The growth in prisoner numbers is greater for women than men, for First Nations people it’s greater still, and for Indigenous women it’s greater again.

But despite the huge investment, nearly half of all prisoners ultimately reoffend and return to prison, which is a key performance indicator for the corrections system.

In countries with more preventative approaches to crime and corrections, such as Norway, the recidivism rate is less than half that of Victoria.

‘No apology’

Behind the scenes, with the political heat turned down, senior players from both major parties acknowledge they have created a big headache for whoever is in government. As yet, however, there is no clear path out of the law-and-order conundrum.

Five years after Andrews announced his record 3100-plus extra police and introduced a new model for hiring, pressure is mounting again ahead of the 2022 election.

In September, Gatt told the parliamentary justice inquiry that police were now “barely able to staff and man their police stations”. The union’s 2021 annual report includes the objective of being “politically prominent and influential” and lobbying both sides of politics for an increase in police numbers.

Haermeyer says “ideally” other specialist government agencies would pick up some social and mental health work left to police “so the police can go back to doing what most joined the force to do”.

But Police Minister Lisa Neville shows no inclination to rein in police numbers or resources. She tells The Age the government makes “no apology” for the thousands of new officers recruited since 2016 “and will continue to provide Victoria Police with the resources, technology and infrastructure it needs to better protect the community”.

A police spokeswoman said the recent bushfires and pandemic had demonstrated how “agile and responsive” the organisation needs to be.

“There is no doubt police are working harder than ever, locking up offenders in record numbers, partly due to the additional resources.”

On the law and order front, including issues such as bail reform and prison spending, there is growing consensus that the current policies are financially unsustainable and unjust.

Police Minister Lisa Neville. Credit:Penny Stephens

The solutions have been well canvassed, including by the Productivity Commission, which has studied Australian prison spending to conclude that taxpayers are losing out in the new penal culture.

Commissioner Stephen King says there are cheaper and more effective alternatives to prisons, especially for low-level offenders, including home detention, diversion, community service, drug, alcohol and mental health programs, and restorative justice programs where offenders and victims of crime come together.

“These things tend to work. They tend to lower recidivism, they’re significantly cheaper. We just have to grab them.”

King tells The Age that even a small cut in prison spending will leave more funds for schools and hospitals and other crucial services likely to prevent crime and imprisonment.

As The Age revealed in May, the government acknowledges in private that reform is needed, especially on bail laws, for both financial and justice reasons. But one year out from an election, neither side of politics appears willing to take the first step out of a race that both sides agree is costing us far too much.

Patten’s parliamentary inquiry has heard the same issues raised time and time again: the need to wind back our harsh bail and parole laws, raising the age for criminal responsibility, and a dire need for affordable and secure housing and better mental health and drug treatment.

She calls on the major parties to stop feeding or responding to media scare campaigns and to look at the evidence.

“I think you can sell to the public the idea that we’re better off building houses than prisons, to be looking after families rather than putting children in jail. The community gets that, especially if we’re not scaring them half to death.”

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