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Election explainer: The law and order front line

Crime and policing are always hot button issues politically, generating a lot of heat, light and statistics. Liam Petterson walks through the facts and figures that underly the hype.

Election explainer: The law and order front line
Words by Liam Petterson

Law and order issues have been explosive in Victoria, and resonated through national politics, throughout this election year. Opposition Leader Matthew Guy and the Victorian Liberal National coalition have repeatedly claimed that the Andrews Labor government has been “soft on crime” in the state, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that “there is a law and order problem clearly in Victoria”.

Mr Guy’s website, Make Victoria Safe, asks visitors to “take a stand on a crime wave sweeping Victoria”, and the Coalition has crafted 37 crime-related policies which it will take to the election. In response to Victoria’s decreasing crime rate, Matthew Guy said: “I’m obviously happy if there are crime figures that are reducing but unfortunately on these figures we’re seeing violent crime rising.”

The Andrews Government has worked hard to show its own law and order credentials and repel the Opposition’s attacks by introducing compulsory jail sentences for those who attack emergency workers, and toughening bail laws.

What the statistics say 


Overall crime is down seven per cent, according to fresh data from the Crime Statistics Agency, as the incidence of crime dropped from 6420 to 5921.9 per 100,000 people in the year ending June 2018.

Cases of theft, drug dealing, drug manufacturing, disorderly conduct and stalking all decreased.

Homicide, blackmail, robbery, arson, deception, and public nuisance offences all increased over the period.

Nonetheless, Associate Professor John Fitzgerald from the University of Melbourne stresses that crime statistics must be treated with caution, as they can vary with each data set, are subject to seasonal variance, and are influenced by many other factors that can mislead.

For example, although sexual offences increased by 13.6 per cent, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said that “a large majority is [due to] increased confidence from victims in reporting”.

Dr Fitzgerald calls this concept ‘‘police-detected crime’’, where the stats actually measure the amount of crimes reported to or discovered by police, rather than the real amount of crime (which can never be wholly captured).

Therefore, it is not true to say that sexual offences increased by 13.6 per cent  – merely that police detected this rise in reported crime. It is likely that sexual offences are occurring at a relatively similar rate to previous years, yet a higher proportion are now being reported.

With regards to the increasing incidence of violent crime, Dr Fitzgerald says that our high incarceration rate may be contributing to the problem, rather than solving it.

“Our tough law and order policies are incarcerating more people, where they are then being exposed to more violence . . . so then when they come out of prison they’re more violent,” he said.

“Criminology has known for decades that prisons are criminogenic.”

African Gangs?

Data from the Crime Statistics Agency showed that Sudanese-born offenders accounted for 1.06 per cent of crime in Victoria. Because, according to population statistics they only make up 0.16 per cent of the population, they are overrepresented in crime figures by six-fold.

However, Craig Butt, data journalist at The Age, said that people born in Sudan or South Sudan who live in Australia tend to be younger than the general population, and younger people tend to be over-represented in crime.

Butt said that the average age of Victorians born in Sudan is 31.5, while for those born in South Sudan it is 33. For the entire community the average age is 38.2.

“But while this fact helps to contextualise the over-representation it doesn’t remove it. Younger people born in Sudan and South Sudan have a higher rate of offending than younger people from the rest of the community.”

Australian-born people are also overrepresented, making up 64.8 per cent of the population yet committing 71.1 per cent of crimes.

Indian-born, UK-born, and Vietnamese-born people are underrepresented in this data.

Fitzgerald questions the use of the word ‘’gang’’ by politicians and the media, saying that “a gang is a pejorative term with a subjective meaning”.

He believes some politicians are using it as a ‘’dog whistle’’, which is a “a coded message communicated through words or phrases commonly understood by a particular group of people”, according to Merriam-Webster. The implication is that the pairing of the words ‘‘African’’ and ‘’gang’’ will politically appeal to certain constituents.

The Race to be Toughest on Crime

If elected, Matthew Guy promises to get ‘‘tough on crime’’, particularly violent crime. Of his 37 new policies, number one is the introduction of minimum jail terms “for criminals who are found guilty of a second violent offence having been found guilty of a prior serious violent offence”. Solution number two is a major overhaul of the bail system, which comes in the wake of Guy’s claim that “the bail system is broken” after it was found that  Dimitrious Gargasoulas was on bail when he allegedly mowed down pedestrians in Bourke Street in January 2017.

He will bring back the Crime Prevention ministerial portfolio, along with public safety infrastructure such as better street lighting and more CCTV cameras at a cost of $38 million. He has also pledged $29 million for 4000 extra Tasers and relevant training for officers.

Dr Fitzgerald says that the addition of extra Tasers must be seen in the context of what options police have at their disposal.

“If [as an officer] a Taser is your only option, then it’s great because it means you haven’t got a gun. But if Tasers are included and you increase the focus on use of firearms, then you want more Taser education.”

He believes that Tasers should also be viewed within the context of police accountability, and that the current rollout of body-worn cameras for officers will have a large impact on police conduct.

As well as completing the rollout of body-worn cameras, Daniel Andrews has pledged to put at least two desk officers on duty for counter service at every 24-hour Victorian police station.

He also wants to implement new technology that will allow police to triage non-critical cases so that serious situations can be handled more quickly, and add 3135 additional police officers.

Dr Fitzgerald says that increasing police on the ground can be a double-edged sword for politicians. On the one hand, increased police numbers may look politically good in the ‘’tough on crime’’ war, but on the other, it will likely increase the crime rate as more police means more crime will likely be discovered and reported.

What do the voters think?

The latest polling data by ReachTEL, commissioned by The Age, shows that despite Labor leading in the two-party preferred vote 52 per cent to 48 per cent, the Coalition is still more trusted on crime policy.

Of the poll’s 1239 respondents, 53.9 per cent believed that the Coalition was “better placed to maintain law and order”, compared to Labor’s 46.1 per cent.

This report part of a collection of stories published on UniPollWatch 2018, a cross-campus project by journalism students across Victoria, profiling seats, candidates and issues in the Victorian 2018 election. 

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