Serious and organised crime: getting Australia’s top-level governance right
22 Oct 2013|

ASPI is examining how the Commonwealth government could bolster its contribution in the national fight against serious and organised crime. In addition to a proposal to build nation-wide capability, research for this paper has also identified ministerial arrangements as a critical enabler of the fight.

The Commonwealth, States and Territories share responsibilities for organised crime, which makes an effective governance structure at the national level essential. With the federal police, all state police forces and other agencies at both levels of government having dogs in the fight, the structure has to be a pretty flexible one.

The incoming Abbott Government promised to reform the current inter-jurisdictional ministerial arrangements in the legal and law enforcement space. Under the present Council of Australian Governments (COAG) framework there are two subgroups representing distinct sets of actors in the fight. The first group, which dates back to the 1960s, represents the law officers, through the Standing Council on Law and Justice (SCLJ). The other, the Standing Council on Police and Emergency Management (SCPEM), is a 1980s construct and represents the law enforcers.

The incoming Government’s plan is to merge these councils into a single ‘Standing Council on Law, Crime and Community Safety’. This new council would have a particular remit on cyber-safety, border security, community crime prevention and organised crime. Interestingly, counter-terrorism hasn’t been named—it’ll probably remain managed by the existing sub-ministerial arrangements which report to COAG. This new standing council includes police commissioners and the heads of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Crime Commission, and would report annually to the Prime Minister.

The merger idea has merit, particularly because it seeks to reduce overlap between the existing standing councils in the areas of organised crime and cyber-crime. A merged group would see many of the key people—police, legal and justice ministers—around the same table. The merger might also help build Commonwealth and State cooperation in new areas such as cyber-safety and border security. Bringing the states and territories into future discussions about these challenges could help with information sharing, legal harmonisation, interoperability, and nationally-consistent leadership. It might also create a national approach to the difficult matter of unexplained wealth laws. Bringing the senior police and officials to the table also has merit too—it’s worked well in the intimate environment of the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

On the other hand, it’s worth taking the time to think through this policy. Simply creating one very large council could lead to inertia if it’s not well managed—more so because around 23 ministers and upwards of 20 officials will probably sit around the new table (given the scope of committee, senior officials from the Attorneys’-General departments will want to be there too).  Also, once the two previous groups’ agendas are aggregated some items will be irrelevant to some ministers. This could lead to their disengagement if the meetings aren’t well-crafted (for example, by splitting the agenda into separate parts for the Attorneys-General and the Police Ministers; and one where they meet together). In addition, the agendas will become so large that some ‘tactical’ concerns of the two ministerial groups mightn’t be discussed until they become major, strategic issues that affect relationships. State premiers might also decline to engage on a ‘community crime prevention’ agenda if they sense this is an attempt by the Commonwealth to move into their turf, and insist it reports to COAG rather than the PM.

These are important limitations for the utility of the proposed merger. Another way to achive a similar effect might be to retain the current arrangments but hold ‘joint sittings’ of the two standing councils where warranted. These joint sittings could ensure that both the law enforcement and law officer perspectives are considered, and that police commissioners and the senior legal and justice officials are working to a shared ministerial intent.

The joint sittings could include other ministers with interests in combatting serious and organised crime or similar matters. Indeed, it’s essential to recognise that countering these threats isn’t just a matter for law enforcement: it requires enhanced approaches to community engagement, education and welfare, financial measures, anti-corruption efforts, and victim support. Engagement is also required with the business community, who often fall victim to organised crime and are in the front-line of countering it.

In order to encourage collaboration between all these groups—and perhaps to test the concept—one early joint sitting of the two councils might be conducted as a national ministerial summit on serious and organised crime. This summit could initiate the whole-of-nation approach that’s needed to counter organised crime, in a similar way to how terrorism was managed through the 2002 Leaders’ Summit on counter-terrorism and multi-jurisdictional crime.  The summit could encourage ministers from different policy areas to take actions that help to promote societal resilience against these criminals, and develop momentum for a new, multi-sectoral, strategic framework to expand upon the law enforcement-focused Organised Crime Strategic Framework from 2009. This summit should be tasked to develop a national agenda and approach for COAG agreement.

It’s important to expand the agencies involved in this fight. As the recently-released UK Home Office report Serious and Organised Crime Strategy explains, ‘preventing ’ organised crime requires deterring people from becoming criminals, intervening in families at risk of participating in crime, and preventing involvement in street gangs.  These actions require active cooperation from national and local education and welfare agencies, as well as local businesses and international partners. Australian ministers should adjust their reference points for the fight against organised crime accordingly.

David Connery is senior analyst in ASPI’s new Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement Program.