JACK WATERFORD. Thin pickings from big bikkies

Oct 8, 2019

Britain’s ‘war’ on organised crime is failing, and it’s probably the same here

Some fresh and depressing evidence for those who, like me, fear that federal law enforcement is a good deal less effective and efficient than it could be, because of the way its resources are configured, led, and under the close and very unaccountable supervision of ministers and bureaucrats.

Last week, the British parliament’s public accounts committee, a body with far more clout and authority than anything the Australian parliament has been able to muster of recent days has had a look at the way that the British Home Office – the rough equivalent of our department of home affairs – manages the war against organised crime.

Some might seem surprised that busybodies in parliamentary committees are working as normal during the political crisis caused by Brexit and the shenanigans of Boris Johnson, but the truth is that the business of government – executive, legislative and judicial – carries on in the kingdom regardless.

Others might think that Australians would have very little to learn from the experiences of Britain in combatting organised crime. They are, after all, foreigners, and, at least at the moment, pending, perhaps, October 31, in league with a whole lot of other foreigners in Europe, dealing with forms and practices of crime which could surely have no parallel in civilised Australia.

Yet the fact is that our home affairs department was fairly closely modelled on the British system. Indeed, the fact that Britain has long had immigration, customs, police and security intelligence function under the same umbrella, and that things seem to work out reasonably well there, was a key selling point used by folk like Mike Pezzullo, in the bureaucracy, and Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, successive ambitious ministers for stoking panic about boat people and border security.

In both the British and the Australian models, moreover, many of the agencies in the portfolio are notionally independent of government or departmental secretaries. Yet they can be much more closely controlled by politicians and bureaucrats these days, because they are almost every week begging for more money because of some overtime blowout, the unexpected cost of diesel in the Torres Strait, or spectacular mismanagement of estimates for superannuation payouts.

And even when they are eagerly doing favours for government, ministers, particularly Peter Dutton, have proven to be strangely mean in forgiving such excesses. They may be setting new standards (British and Australian) in using and abusing the public service and statutory agencies for purely partisan purposes, but they expect it on the cheap. The public might sometimes get a different impression because each new federal budget includes new announcements of $50 million for this new drug initiative, and another $20 million for that anti-paedophile program. What the press statements miss is that, usually, this money has come from reducing spending in some other area of the same agency budget.

When one looks at the formal reports, including external reviews,  and the marketing blather about what British and Australian agencies are focused on – say in fighting organised crime – they tend to identify the same sorts of targets, and use much the same form of words to describe what they claim to be doing.

Both the British and Australians, for example, now publish annual updates for their assessments of the cost of organised crime to the community. One might get the impression that the bigwigs in the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission have calculated this after detailed assessments of all of their telephone transcriptions, secret agents reports and so on. Yet by a curious coincidence, the cost of organised crime to the Australian economy – said at the moment to be about $37 billion a year — happens to be almost exactly the same, after adjustments are made for population and the value of the pound,  as opposite numbers in Britain have  calculated for the cost of organised crime there.

Perhaps the similarities are because, as senior crime fighters are always pointing out, organised crime has become globalised controlled by much the same sort of characters (sometimes actually the same people).

They switch their inputs and outputs – trafficked women, drugs, laundered money, evaded tax and the proceeds of crime and credit card fraud and so on around the globe to wherever they make the most profits.

Or perhaps it is because this war is largely one of public relations, with very little public view of skirmishes, prisoner of war camps, or evidence of actual success measured by bodies rather than clichés and fake statistics.

Whenever there is an apparent triumph in the fight – usually involving a large seizure of drugs – those involved in the law enforcement industry, from ministers, commissioners and bureaucrats down, can be guaranteed to hold press conferences showing what a good job they have been doing. Yet figures from the ACIB itself – an agency not unfond of claiming credit for drug busts, or pretending that it means something —  show that the combined anti-drug action by federal and state agencies is entirely ineffectual. It rarely snares over an average year as much as 10 per cent of the volume of drugs on the market.

And that, unlike most police statistics, repeatedly shown by external reviewers to be made up to suit whatever agenda is being pursued, is a relatively objective fact, determined by analysis of drug traces in the urine of Australians which passes through major sewerage works.

The war against organised crime, like the war against paedophilia, against drugs, and the war against social security cheats (far less commonly major drug cheats) has a particular attraction to federal agencies that it cannot much share with state agencies, such as local police forces.

Each of these may be wicked, a great social evil causing immense damage to society, but they do not quite impact on the community in the way that domestic violence, street crimes, breaking and entering, thefts of cars or from cars, and other common or garden crime do.  Indeed even if federal authorities have no success at all, they will get away with it as long as they churn out press statements extolling their work.

If local police appear not to be doing their job – so that, perhaps, the people of Melbourne are too terrified to go out to a restaurant at night – questions are asked in parliament, and news reports affect people’s sense of personal security and safety in being alone.

Crime is crime, and the biggest evidences of it, at local level will be for ordinary local police work, usually in arresting relatively low-level players engaged in their ordinary practices. Drug dealers, standover men, snatch thieves and so on may be a part of a big operation. But community policing, even if it makes people feel safer,  with never find the Mr or Mrs Bigs,  the masterminds thought to be profiting most from the illegal activity. Arrests of easily replaceable small fry do not change the equation.

Yet we have to take on trust the claims of many agencies which claim to eschew work in the street for intensive intelligence-gathering functions, often using undercover detectives, very sophisticated surveillance, the monitoring of phone, computers and telecommunications and so on.

It all seems glamorous and dangerous – and makes for good thrillers and detective novels. Sometimes a smart operation will find a yacht with a tonne of cocaine hidden inside, a furniture importer  who has concealed drugs in imported goods, or (usually more by accident than design, a great cache of stolen credit cards and the wherewithal for identity fraud).  But the number of cases going through the courts suggests that such agencies are not getting many scalps, or useful intelligence, for the public money being spent.

The lack of effectiveness is generally concealed behind vague and unverifiable claims that the intelligence work led to action by other agencies.

Seems like Britain has much the same problem. One cannot bluff, bluster and prevaricate in front of most British parliamentary committees in the manner that has become a bureaucratic art form here. Least of all before the public accounts committee, with the toughest and most experienced parliamentary members, many with administrative or ministerial experience, and deeply familiar with bullshit in all of its forms. Think Penny Wong, John Faulkner and Robert Ray times 10.

In 2018, the British government announced a new strategy for dealing with organised crime in all of its manifestations. (Like us, we announce a new strategy frequently, even if, as it turns out, the substance of the strategy seems to turn on a good many abstract and fairly meaningless adjectives and nouns, all full of good intention and determination, but without explication of what is actually going to be done.)

Most of the initiatives are bureaucratising crime, doing more to create work for middle managers in law enforcement agencies than new functions for line officers.  There’s also extra make-work because agencies now needing to be coordinated have to be managed by suits working in Mike Pezzullo’s ever burgeoning new empire, with ready access to the strategic wisdom and deep feeling for history of the man himself.)

Alas, perhaps because of the absence of a Pezzullo, and the glossy pamphlets and page 1 publicity, the British PAC thought their government did not yet seem to fully understand the threats from serious and organised crime.

“It does not have the right data to measure success or the performance of the government or law enforcement bodies tackling serious or organised crime. These bodies are focused on pursuing criminals after the crime has been committed. But this has been at the expense of doing work to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

The Home Office is currently not using all the levers it has at its disposal to ensure that law enforcement bodies at local, regional and national levels prioritise work. [If it turns out that Australia has the same problem – and I bet it does — that could be yet  another set of coordinating committees directly under Pezzullo’s control.]

“With a better system, police forces will continue to focus most of their resources on local priorities, which will not necessarily reflect or help address the national priorities… There is still confusion over the role that law enforcement bodies at each level should play … Funding mechanisms are complicated and short-term…”

The new strategy, apparently, is to take the focus away from chasing crooks, and prioritising activities that might stop crime in the first place. It involved the same “4P” model being used for the UK’s anti-terrorism strategy. The Ps (the obvious product of a middle management encounter group and a deep and meaningful interchange with butcher’s paper) were:  to prevent people getting involved in crime; to pursue and disrupt illegal activities once they have happened;  to protect society against crime, and to prepare for when crime occurs so the impact could be mitigated.

That is, I think, to do more intelligence work, and to be more proactive in finding and discouraging potential offenders, and frustrating or disrupting planned crime.

But the government was spending only four per cent of its organised crime budget (about $A 165 million) on prevention activities. Most of the total budget (79 per cent or $A 3.6 billion) was still being spent on the supposedly downgraded “pursue strategies”.

Moreover, “we are not convinced that the “prevent strategies” are well enough thought through. The department asserts that it is launching “a multitude of programs” to prevent crime, but it is unable to explain how these are designed in a way that builds on previous initiatives. For example. Its “’new initiative’ of ‘community coordinators’ seems to be little more than a re-invention of previous initiatives such as its neighbourhood policing initiatives,” the committee said.

Britain does not have the ferocious and largely unaccountable police powers given by a very tame Australian parliament under the pretence that it was to fight terrorism and paedophilia. But its surveillance technology is far more extensive than Australia’s. It was, however, very difficult to say whether that, or new interception powers, or better computers, was demonstrating more crime, or better recording of data, or more willingness to report crime.

The National Crime Agency used data from local authorities to revise previous estimates that there were 700 drug-dealing combinations operating across county lines. Now it thinks there are 2000.  They may, of course, be slicing the same onion differently, but in the process increasing their intelligence task not by 300 per cent but 3000 per cent for an increasing inability to see the whole picture.

One wonders about all the attention given to data collection when no one has any idea if the new figures being fed into the computers show more crime, or more reported crime.

Some police regions, such as Merseyside, thought there was more crime, in part because budget cuts had fewer cops on the beat, but also because poverty and lack of job opportunities was increasing alienation, and tolerance of criminal activity in some communities. But the Home Office and the National Crime Agency were not so politically correct, and blamed technology and globalisation. While technology had many benefits, it was also a massive “enabler of crime” and was also enabling new types of harm.

“This ranged from cyber crime to the 2.88 million offenders of child abuse online world-wide. The NCA also recognised that ‘the more we look the more we find’ and there was now a greater willingness to report and record some types of crime such as modern slavery and human trafficking.” [Note how the agency submission shifts to international figures so as to add more drama to the impression that its war on organised crime was making each of these 2,880,000 folk squirm. And stop wondering casually how they got to such a precise figure. ]

 It’s a serious problem, but requiring more effort, particularly as it is becoming more and more difficult to justify the funds, the resources and the draconian powers being used to combat terrorism.  Organised crime is nearly as amorphous, difficult to count, and work done to combat it is virtually unaccountable, other than for the odd raid by an auditor-general, and the hope of an effective parliamentary committee.

Or perhaps the new growth area for federal agencies could be in setting up concentration camps for those climate change demonstrators causing annoyance and inconvenience to Peter Dutton and sundry quiet people, as well as resentment that some of it may be funded by Newstart. At least then we could count heads.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times



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