Serious and organised crime: more than the sum of its parts?
13 Aug 2013|

72 litres of liquid methamphetamine was found suspended in shampoo

The Minister for Home Affairs released the Australian Crime Commission’s (ACC) latest update to its Organised Crime in Australia (PDF) series recently. This report is important and has implications for every Australian. The media needs to publicise it. And, most importantly, some deep thinking—which leads to action—is needed.

Such deep thinking is warranted because the report—which is consistent with other recent Australian Government publications, including the 2013 National Security Strategy—describes serious and organised crime as a threat to national security. If the motive of avoiding the direct personal impact of crime isn’t enough to encourage ordinary Australians to take notice, then the prospect of a government using the instruments of national security against this threat should.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the implications of calling some actor or vector a ‘threat to national security’. Those less familiar with national security might want to think back to the early 2000s, when global terrorism emerged as a major threat. In their collective and individual responses, governments changed laws, and adopted different decision-making processes that involved a significant degree of secrecy and minimal debate. More money was allocated to national security agencies with a mandate to fight terrorism, and governments used the threat to justify the need to use military force on a number of occasions. And as part of these military actions, practices such as rendition, enhanced interrogation and targeted killings via uninhabited aerial vehicles were sanctioned as both necessary and proportionate.

While these actions represent responses at one extreme, their use would represent a major escalation from the types of actions and powers that governments use against organised crime today. So there needs to be a real national conversation about whether serious and organised crime is at a similar or greater point in its trajectory because the effects of labelling something a threat to national security are far reaching.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the threat to society from organised crime is real: and that much of the threat is from the nature of our smart society. We’re developing and adopting new technology at a rapid rate. We’re also conducting more interactions across borders. The ACC clearly explains how these changes create new vulnerabilities, and how equally smart criminals in our society are finding new opportunities to enrich themselves and advance their position. In the ACC’s assessment, the range of opportunities and vectors for organised crime means that we needn’t come into contact with gangsters in order to be a victim of their greed, implying that criminal activities will have initially unseen impacts upon our national fabric.

We need to accept that the ACC can’t tell us everything about organised crime. Theirs is a sensitive and very dangerous business: perhaps one of the most dangerous that we ask our public servants to undertake. Even so, the 2013 assessment provides a clear picture of the types of activities that organised crime is conducting. While most Australians will be aware of drug trafficking and people smuggling, some might be surprised to know that organised criminal activity also extends into counterfeit goods and major frauds involving shares, superannuation and securities. Environmental crimes are also analysed, including illegal trade in animals and animal products. Violence, corruption and identify theft are among the main ‘enablers’ of these activities.

The ACC’s assessment is also illuminating in the way the cyber environment is being exploited by criminals. Virtual currencies such as Bitcoin are used to launder money, computers can now be held to ransom and people are exploited for gain and gratification.

This is a chilling report. And so serious is the threat of organised crime, the Australian Government considers it a ‘national security issue’.

Indeed, this threat was mentioned in the 2008 National Security Statement, and amplified in the 2013 update. The latter notes how serious and organised crime can undermine our borders and security, and impinge on our ‘prosperity, confidence and way of life’. The ACC’s assessment echoes these warnings when it repeats the 2013 Strategy’s statement about the capacity for organised crime to inflict ‘serious harm on our economy, businesses and institutions’. The ACC also notes the UN Security Council’s 2010 assessment that transnational organised crime is an increasing problem in some parts of the world, and that global cooperation is a key to ‘strengthen(ing) international peace and stability’.

Importantly, increasing connections between criminals and actors with a political agenda add to the complex mix of security challenges faced today, especially in states already considered unstable or fragile, or simply facing governance challenges. Such a description fits most states in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood, which means organised crime is both a domestic and international concern for Australia’s broader interests.

Our national conversation on organised crime needs to get beyond concerns about gun crime and bikie gangs, important as these are to the overall problem. The descriptions of the impact of organised crime also need to go beyond the oft-used cost of $15bn per annum (a figure which, incidentally has increased by around 50% since the ACC’s first report in this series in 2008). And the immediacy of the threat to Australia’s security needs to be explained more clearly. At present, the threat is frequently described in the future tense when the impact refers to institutions. Even the overall risk to Australia is assessed as ‘high’, or just above the mid-point on the ACC’s six-point scale, which indicates that combined likelihood and consequence of serious and organised crime isn’t considered to be significantly disruptive at present. A strong and detailed case should be mounted to support the proposition that serious and organised crime is a threat to Australia’s national security.

No matter what we might call it after that conversation, it’s undoubtedly important for Australian governments to fund, authorise and supervise the agencies involved in combating serious and organised crime. And they need to do so in a serious way because, as this report clearly shows, the impact of this nefarious activity will be greater than the sum of its parts.

David Connery recently joined ASPI as a senior analyst. Image courtesy of Australian Federal Police.