Tough on crime is an empty slogan for ALP
The ability of Prime Minister Rudd and his Government to “talk tough” has never been in question. It’s the one thing Labor actually do well.
Remember that first heady year in office when they declared a war on virtually everything – from childhood obesity and whaling, to banker’s salaries, unemployment and even the global financial crisis itself?
Conveniently, the rhetoric has never had to bear resemblance to reality.
Julia Gillard talked tough during her faux stoush with the Unions, while at the same time delivering them unprecedented power and access in the workplace.
Wayne Swan solemnly warned of a “tough budget for tough times” before he delivered one of the biggest spending budgets in our nation’s history.
Kevin Rudd seriously claimed his changes to border security were “tough”, while at the same time creating a situation where the people smugglers are clearly back in business with a record number of illegal boats bobbing in Australian waters.
Heck, the rhetoric can even swing a full 360 degrees to suit the mood – declaring oneself an economic conservative one year, and writing a long treatise on the evils of capitalism the next.
No problem. Whatever suits perceived changes in the tide of public opinion. Whatever gets airplay. Or whatever suits as a distraction from other government failures.
The Prime Minister is currently “spinning” in India, where, just a few weeks back, Julia Gillard spent five days trying to reassure worried Indian families that Australia was a safe place, following violent incidents involving Indian students studying in Australia.
Ms Gillard declared that the Australian Government was tough on crime, adding: “We have zero tolerance towards any violence towards Indian students, any violence at all in our country.”
If only that was the case.
Just this week, in the Annual Report of the Office of Public Prosecutions, the Senior Prosecutor in Victoria Jeremy Rapke QC, accused the State’s judges of lenient sentencing, particularly in drug cases. In so many cases, these Judges have been appointed by Ms Gillard’s Labor colleagues.
Rapke rightly pointed out that the penalties imposed by Courts in drug cases continue to be inadequate having regard to the insidious effect drugs have on society and said that sentences should reflect “the huge public disquiet about the prevalence of drugs”.
The link between illicit drug use and crime is well established and is described as “mutually reinforcing”. So if the Labor Government is tough on crime, as Minister Gillard declared, there’s a clear imperative that it also be tough on drugs.
This is where Labor’s rhetoric once again diverges from reality. Despite declaring a pre-election “war on drugs” in 2007, the Rudd Government has largely abandoned the “Tough on Drugs” initiative that was so successful under the Howard Government.
Funding has been cut for both the Tough on Drugs initiative and the Customs and border protection services that so effectively prevented tonnes of dangerous drugs from being imported and getting to our streets.
At the Annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in March this year, our “tough” Government actually protested that the term “harm reduction” had been pointedly excluded from a political declaration – effectively betraying Labor’s real “soft on drugs” approach and putting us at odds with our traditional ally, the US.
When it comes to being “tough on crime”, Labor’s own policy platform also betrays them, with Chapter 7 declaring “Labor will promote the principles of restorative justice as a just and effective way to be tough on crime.”
Restorative justice? What exactly is that? A core principle in restorative justice is to “balance offender needs, victim needs and the needs of the community as well” (Bazemore and Umbreict 1995).
Note the “offenders needs” are pretty high up on that list. And that’s the sticking point.
At its best, restorative justice gives victims of crime a voice. That’s a good thing. For first offences and petty crimes it is a method of dispute resolution that can be effective if both parties enter into the process with good will.
But more and more often the principle is being applied to serious criminal behaviour.
For judges who philosophically support restorative justice that often means keeping an offender out of jail wherever possible…the theory being that they are unable to “make amends” if confined in prison.
This is an approach pretty much at odds with the “do the crime, do the time” deterrent to criminal behaviour which has long underpinned the system and reflects the sentiment of most of the Australian community.
But leniency and the philosophical belief that “offender needs” must be considered in sentencing mean we continue to see many cases where the time simply does not fit the crime. Nor does it reflect community standards and expectations.
Many Judges, like the Labor Party itself, see the principles of restorative justice as the most “just and effective” approach. That’s certainly debatable – and I don’t have the space in this column to go into all the pros and cons. But one thing restorative justice couldn’t be described as is “tough”.
So how can Labor claim to be tough on crime when their party platform says the opposite? Moreover, and perhaps more significantly given our proud history of judicial independence, Labor are appointing more and more judges who conveniently share Labor’s “go soft” beliefs.
The Victorian State Attorney General Rob Hulls is a case in point. His appointments now make up half the State’s judiciary – among them two “Lawyers for Labor”, a former Labor candidate, and four senior officials from the left-leaning “Liberty Victoria”, along with many other “activist” Judges.
Without commenting on their individual qualifications, I do question whether their collective views are representative of mainstream values. I wonder if the balance is skewed.
As a Barrister myself, I believe it’s important for the judiciary to maintain the confidence of the public by broadly reflecting the community’s concept of “justice”.
As outlined earlier, the Senior public prosecutor in Victoria also seems to think this is important.
As evidenced in some of his appointments, the Labor State Attorney General clearly does not.
Meanwhile, half a world away, our tough talking Labor Prime Minister continues to declare his Government is “tough on crime”.
Plenty of feel-good rhetoric, but reality will inevitably bite.
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