19 June 2011

Where shallow politics gets you

I have worked for a number of NSW government departments on contract in recent years. In the policy areas of those departments, almost all of them had Victorian Government manuals on their desks: a tribute to that state's policy leadership and its valuing of smart, hardworking people. The ability of its Premiers to stand up to Canberra knowing that they had solid research and rolled-gold facts behind them has set Victoria apart from other governments, and gives pause to even the most enthusiastic disparager of states' rights.

The one exception: Police. NSW Police had been through the wars in the 1980s and '90s, where a culture of making excuses for dodgy policing or even slackness was slowly and painfully scourged. Victoria acknowledged this by importing a senior NSW police officer who had been closely involved with reform, Christine Nixon, as their Commissioner; but one person can only do so much, and she should have gone long before she became so blithe as to underestimate the response required on Black Saturday.

During their most recent spell in State Opposition, the Victorian Liberals made great sport of the then-Labor governments' difficulties with law-and-order. It was one area where a normally socially liberal party would get all high-dudgeon conservative. They would never blame the police themselves for any shortcomings - hardworking, difficult job and all that, as long as they didn't ask for more money - apart from the odd crack at the (Labor-appointed) Commissioner from time to time.

Yet, some police were the problem. In some cases stupid people held high office within the Victorian Police, particularly those responsible for twentyfirst century skills like media manipulation or IT portfolio management. The spate of shootings whereby the inconvenient were erased by trigger-happy detectives, memorably portrayed in Animal Kingdom. There were too many to ignore, too many to pretend that the whole Victoria Police was shamed and limited in their effectiveness by a critical mass that was, apparently, too small to be identified easily and excised cleanly from the Force.

Every generation, the Victorian Police hits a new low when some gang becomes legendary by making the Victoria Police look like monkeys - Ned Kelly, Squizzy Taylor and John Wren, Kath Pettingill, the Painters & Dockers, and now the Morans and Carl Williams of our time. Every time, the Police eventually plod forward, arrest and/or kill the main protagonist(s) and consider the problem solved. Every time, politicians are so grateful that the bad headlines disappear when the offender is off the streets that their calls for reform fade, and with any momentum for it within the Police.

The Liberals ran a simple, dumb law-and-order campaign: more police (from where? In an age of full employment, who wants to plod around as a Victoria Police officer?), a crackdown on boganry in all its forms. It sounds great and looks snappy in advertisements. It was a no-brainer for the Victorian Libs, and look how well it did for them. Labor can do the Laura Norder thing too, but the conservatives will usually sound more convincing (except in NSW, where the Libs tried bringing out Laura at every election bar the last one - i.e. every election they lost - because it was their only real policy of any substance).

You can't run a law-and-order campaign with a police force that has been led badly, where sloppy and dodgy policing works side-by-side in identical uniforms to careful, shrewd and decisive policing. It was never going to work, and Victorian Liberals who sneer at smart-alecs being wise after the event or piling on to a difficult predicament are missing the point, again. The Liberals should have thought long and hard about what you can and should expect from a police force these days, given a community like Victoria, and worked out ways to get the Victoria Police from where it is to where it needs to go.

Australia doesn't have the abysmal police forces of other countries, where police abuse their arrest and entry powers to solicit bribes, sexually harass women, or pursue political ends on behalf of government. Any criticism of police cannot but affect the majority of police who are dedicated to doing the right thing and who do their jobs as best they can under often difficult circumstances. Victoria Police are right to bristle at sweeping accusations, but - even considering its source - the idea that the Victoria Police is a world unto itself governed by its own standards and rules is silly and unsustainable.

It is always difficult to comprehend and fix a system while it is still operating. Mechanics can put vehicles up on hoists and surgeons can anaesthetise their patients, but those who conduct far-reaching inquiries into key agencies of government have to deal with events that are changing while the inquiry is underway. Findings may be inapplicable as soon as they are written, let alone announced.

The task of those who would reform a police force face both those problems: hurt feelings, and the difficulty of investigating a complex, continually operating system - and in the case of police, one that is necessarily not open or transparent. No wonder the Liberals shirked it, and as you can see it has worked an absolute beauty in sheer political terms.

The problem is that policing has the capacity to suck the oxygen out of everything else they were hoping to do. Neville Wran was a vigorous leader elected in a landslide in 1981 (again, in NSW - yes, yes, but bear with me) but two terms later he was gone because that old whore Laura Norder wore him down. Who cares what policies he brought in for education or whatever: you may as well praise Richard Nixon for his environmental and OHS laws. Policing, judicial sentencing and associated issues wore out a government that not merely mastered but pioneered modern media-intensive political techniques.

The Baillieu government has come to rely heavily on the credibility of its Police Minister, Peter Ryan, in establishing its political momentum. By the standards of Victorian state politics, Ryan is certainly knowledgeable and tough, but it won't be enough for the government to rely on him to the degree that it does:
  • Firstly, there isn't a depth of knowledge in the Victorian Coalition on these issues - talking points simply aren't convincing. You need a debate, different points of view with the minister and the leader having to master and decide on differing and well-informed points of view; and
  • Secondly, a police minister needs to build a case for reform that goes above and beyond the usual politics. Any Police Minister who decides to take on villains and sluggards within the Force single-handed becomes overwhelmed and isolated by a coalition of those who are not only his targets, but Greg Davies types who won't hear a word of criticism against our fine, hardworking police (difficult job, circumstances etc, here have a cops-are-tops T-shirt), and of course the Opposition. I am still amazed that Victorian Labor hasn't started banging the drum about Liberals-dumping-on-public-servants; this is what Bob Carr did to the NSW Liberals in the 1990s (all right, enough with the NSW comparisons).

The media are showing their limitations, but they are doing their best. John Silvester and Andrew Rule are not only two of the best police roundsmen, they are easily in the top dozen journalists in Australia. They're thorough and well-connected, and they write well. They too can only do so much. Other journalists focusing on policing and justice describing this incident or that do not necessarily come to grips with the big policy questions, or if they do they lack the ability (alchemy?) to turn anecdotes into information. Rarely, you get exceptions like this. Of course, politics journalists know only about polling, parliamentary theatre and parliamentary gossip, which is to say they know nothing at all.

By playing to the media Victorian Liberals aren't advancing the debate, or taking the chance that they can lift the debate to a level where the Opposition, such as it is, simply cannot follow them. Ryan, Baillieu and the government are facing former ministers knowledgeable about policing generally and the Victoria Police in particular. They need not be so spooked as they seem to be, nor can they rely on old-school political tactics like bluff and a sense that they are still growing into the job.

Because there are no answers to the complex issues of policing Victoria within the Liberal Party, there has to be an open commission of inquiry outside both the government and the police. The Victorian Liberals should have gone to the last election promising just that: admitting the problems were too big and hard for them, and promising not to play the same cack-handed political games that brought Labor down, and which proved too hard for them to pull off successfully.

Yes, there is the old Sir Humphrey rule that you never call an inquiry unless you know the outcome already. Governments are at their best when responding to big issues that are way beyond their control: look at Hawke's responses to the Campbell-Martin inquiry and the Costigan commission, or Howard's responses to the Port Arthur shootings and East Timor. Ryan might think he's being clever by acting as a steady presence amid the turmoil going on around him, but a tumultuous police force papered over with PR can't implement effective policing, whether over basic keeping-the-peace or sophisticated policing strategies that outwit clandestine networks. He needs to be the bigger man and call that inquiry, and go with it where it will.

The alternative is that the government keeps on playing games about who met with whom, who said what in which context, and other ridiculous bullshit that helps nobody. If the Baillieu government gets overwhelmed on policing people will stop listening to it on transport (what is it doing on those issues?) or health (ditto) or whatever. The nightmare scenario is that Laura Norder runs the Baillieu government ragged, with the Liberals able to identify issues only after they have them by the throat.

In contrast to the more subtly-minded moderates the hard right came to office with a clear idea about what they wanted to do, which is why a basically sensible bunch of Liberals end up tarred with the right-wing brush because fines-for-swearing and other trivial right-whinge nonsense is all there is to show for half a year of Liberal government, really.

And that's where you get with a shallow approach to politics: you get overwhelmed by issues which are foreseeable, and through which clever and dedicated people will help you so long as you don't actively repel them. The Liberals' dilemma is that they have driven many such people from their ranks and replaced them with careerist suckholes. That dilemma will become a problem if they can't start showing themselves capable of intellectual heft and nuance pretty damn soon on issues that have gotten away from greater minds than theirs. A culture change is necessary within the Victoria Police but also within the Victorian Coalition - profound, far-reaching and the sooner it begins, the sooner it can be settled.

The Liberals risk creating the impression that they can get into government but can't do much whilst there but issue press releases and hold talks. Even Labor can do that.


  1. I see one candidate has said good old fashioned policing does mean back to the Blue Gang running things.
    They should have had an open Royal Commission and let the cards fall where they may,or they could get rid of the police union leadership.

  2. Good read. As Silvester pointed out at http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/massaging-crime-figures-stats-the-way-they-like-it-20110617-1g85v.html, it was as early as 1994 that doubts were raised over the accuracy of crime statistics. Though a minor issue, it certainly reflects the collective failure of both parties.

  3. The Liberals should have thought long and hard about what you can and should expect from a police force these days, given a community like Victoria, and worked out ways to get the Victoria Police from where it is to where it needs to go.

    I don't mean this to sound combative - I'm genuinely curious - what exactly do you mean by the phrase "given a community like Victoria"?

  4. John & PK, agree wholeheartedly.

    Anon, what I meant was that you can review best-practice policing in New York or Surrey or wherever, but the trick is to apply it to Victoria. Before that, you need a clear understanding of what Victoria is and what it wants and needs, and it's hard to do that if your experience of Victoria is filtered through polls and focus groups.

  5. Johnny Rotten20/6/11 11:20 pm

    Andrew best practice policing in NYC from my observation a few years back was heavy on presence with cops in cars idling away their time on street corners talking to cops on the beat or munching on fast food. I mentioned to one trader that this presence must at least be reassuring to the populace. This observation was met by a shrug and the comment that New Yorkers regarded it as all show and no substance, the accusation being that New Yorks's finest tended to disappear when the going got tough.