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Victoria: the police state

by Louise O’Shea

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews hails from the Socialist Left faction of the Labor Party. This has not stopped his government pursuing a repressive law and order agenda that would make Donald Trump blush.

Crime in Victoria is at record lows. Figures from the Crime Statistics Agency show that the number of criminal incidents per 100,000 population decreased by nearly 8 percent between June 2017 and June 2018. The number of people offending per 100,000 population also decreased over the same period, by a full 7 percent.

The sorts of offences that feature prominently in hysterical tabloid crime coverage – burglary, break and enter and property damage – all recorded double-digit percentage declines, including as much as 16.4 percent in the case of burglary.

And over the last decade, there has been no consistent upward trend in the rate of criminal incidents per head of population. Indeed, the June 2018 rate is below that of 2008.

Yet the Andrews government continues to throw taxpayers’ money at a police force already bulging at the seams with lethal equipment and rampant powers.

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In March 2018, the government announced a 3,135 increase in police numbers, “the biggest increase ever” as he boasted on Twitter, at a cost of $2 billion to Victorian taxpayers. This constitutes a nearly one-third expansion of already record high police numbers.

It’s not just numbers that the Andrews government is beefing up. Victoria Police now have a range of high tech new weapons at their disposal, including semi-automatic rifles, 40-millimetre launchers, stinger grenades, flash and noise devices, capsicum gas canister bombs and body armour.

Even the chief commissioner of police, Graham Ashton, admits the new weaponry is “confronting”, but nevertheless warns that police “will use it”.

Police can do no wrong as far as the premier is concerned. When footage was released last April showing police brutally assaulting an unarmed disabled man in the front yard of his house in the Melbourne suburb of Preston, Andrews did not have a critical word to say about the police’s actions. Instead he insisted that Victorians could “have confidence” in the force.

Andrews has expanded the power of the police at a significant cost to civil liberties, with children particularly affected.

In September the government passed its anti-association laws – the Justice Legislation Amendment (Unlawful Association and Criminal Appeals) Bill – through the lower house.

The bill, which has been slammed by lawyers and civil liberties groups, expands the police’s power to issue anti-association orders and extends the range of people that can be subject to them. It gives police the right to issue orders to children as young as 14, operates retrospectively and removes safeguards on the existing provisions, such as the requirement that police take in to account the nature of the association – that is, whether it is for non-criminal purposes, or whether it is likely to prevent serious crime.

Anti-association orders prohibit contact between individuals, and anyone caught defying them can be jailed.

These changes will prevent children – and others subject to the order – from being able to socialise, connect with family, play sport and talk online. And because they have been justified on the basis of preventing potential associations, they can be given to children and adults with no prior offences.

For African young people, who have borne the brunt of the law and order hysteria over the last few years, this is a special threat. The orders can be used to fragment and divide migrant communities.

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On this question, the Andrews government has failed to stand up adequately to the tabloid press and Liberal Party assault on African youth. Instead, Andrews has pledged his support to the creation of a national gangs database to further victimise and intimidate African youth.

Some of the Andrews government’s law and order measures against children have been justified in the name of fighting terrorism. At an October 2017 Council of Australian Governments meeting, the premier pledged his support for federal measures that would allow terrorism suspects, including minors, to be detained without charge for up to 14 days.

Andrews dismissed concerns about the implications for civil liberties as a “luxury”, telling the ABC’s Insiders program, “It is the job of effective leaders in this country to give [law enforcement] exactly what is necessary”.

At the same meeting, Andrews also signed off on an agreement – the Intergovernmental Agreement on Identity Matching Services – enabling federal and state police to access real time passport, visa, citizenship and driver’s licence images for a wide range of criminal investigations, not just in order to identify terrorism suspects. The agreement also allows private companies access to this biometric information.

Children already in the Victorian detention system have been singled out for particular cruelty. Courts have twice ruled that the Andrews government has violated the human rights of children in detention by sending them to adult prison.

In 2016 the Andrews government sent 28 children from the Parkville juvenile detention centre to the high security Barwon prison. The children were forced to sign a form authorising guards to use capsicum spray, tear gas and firearms against them. Some were left alone in cells for 23 hours a day, and one was not allowed outside for nearly a week.

When the court ruled the transfer unlawful, the Andrews government reclassified a section of the high security prison as a juvenile facility, in order that it could continue to brutalise children. This move was also ruled unlawful and a violation of the children’s human rights. In 2016, Andrews said he made “absolutely no apology” for his government sending children to adult prison.

The Andrews government has also increased the number of Protective Services Officers in Victoria by almost 10 percent and expanded their powers. PSOs are now empowered to make arrests, conduct searches, issue infringement notices and request personal details from members of the public.

Perhaps the most egregious law and order measure introduced by the Andrews government is the changes to bail, sentencing and parole laws: “the strongest laws ever”, as Andrews described them.

Anyone convicted of murdering a police officer in Victoria will now be subject to life imprisonment without parole, something Liberty Victoria argues constitutes “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment” that “breaches fundamental human rights norms”.

The government accepts this: it released a Statement of Incompatibility outlining why the laws conflict with the state’s human rights charter. To pass the changes, the government had to make an override declaration, the first time this has happened in Victoria.

In its scathing comment on the laws, Liberty Victoria criticises the measures as more concerned with electoral expediency than justice, arguing they represent “another example of the State Government, in an election year, increasing the severity of the criminal justice system with little or no evidence to suggest the changes will improve community safety and scant regard for long-standing principles of due process and just punishment”.

In the area of sentencing, the government has introduced mandatory jail time for assault of police, paramedics, doctors and nurses delivering emergency care, firefighters and prison officers.

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These offences are now classified as category one, on a par with rape and murder. Judges may no longer take into account the particular circumstances of the offence in sentencing, including the age of the offender, their life circumstances and the effects of drugs. This will lead to the further incarceration of those already marginalised. And as the Federation of Community Legal Centres has pointed out, it will rebound on victims of violence, particularly women.

Mandatory sentencing is a law and order measure that extensive research has found does not reduce the incidence of crime and is a barrier to rehabilitation for offenders. Its only purpose is to make a government appear tough on crime.

This continuing intensification of the repressive apparatus of the state has led to an explosion in Victoria’s prison population, with all the social consequences that go along with that.

Between 2007 and 201, the Victorian prison population increased by 71 percent. Marginalised groups, including young people, Indigenous people and women, are particularly over-represented.

Figures released by the Sentencing Advisory Council show that in 2009 there were 957 Indigenous people in jail in Victoria for every 100,000 Indigenous adults. By 2017 this had increased to 1,834. Indigenous people are twelve and a half times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous people in Victoria. For women it is a similar story: in the 10 years to June 2016, the number of women in Victorian prisons increased by 75 percent.

These are the groups that suffer in the law and order bidding war. Yet for the Andrews government, the burgeoning prison population is a point of pride.  Corrections minister Gayle Tierney boasted in August that the government’s “record investment in thousands of extra police, and tougher bail and sentencing laws means more people are in prison – and we make no apologies for that”.

Although law and order is seen to be the pet issue of Liberal politicians who depend on manufactured moral panic about crime to muster any broad appeal, it has in fact been Labor governments that have overseen the greatest expansion of the carceral state. According to Chris Cunneen, professor of justice and social inclusion at James Cook University, “the most sustained and largest increases in imprisonment rates have occurred under Labor governments”.

Labor apologists insist that in order to be at all electable, Labor governments must be seen to be tough on crime. This logic leads inevitably towards greater authoritarianism, repression and shameful victimisation of society’s most vulnerable.

It further entrenches the widespread sense of powerlessness, subservience to authority and atomisation that only strengthens the hand of the already powerful. And it undermines the sense of collective power and solidarity on which workers depend to advance their interests.

A left alternative is needed to law and order governments, one that argues to improve the living conditions and dignity of the poor and marginalised, not lock them up. And that takes on society’s real criminals: the bank executives who have – by their own admission – stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from customers, the bosses who routinely underpay vulnerable workers with impunity and the politicians who point the finger at the wrong enemy.

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