Arresting developments: law enforcement in the Budget
26 May 2016|

The 2016 Federal Budget did two important things to promote law enforcement in Australia, but it hasn’t arrested the long-term decline in the resources applied by the Commonwealth to countering organised crime.

The additional protection for both Australian Federal Police and Australian Crime Commission employees—worth $153.6 million over the next four years—is vital and timely. Our law enforcement agencies need this support—terrorists, both real and prospective, are actively targeting them. The Turnbull government should be congratulated for improving protective security for our officers.

Solid moves have also been made in the Budget to target wrongdoing at the ‘top end of town’, including an additional $15 million over three years to increase the number of foreign bribery investigators within the AFP. Additionally, recently announced investigative enhancements for the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (and now with the associated levy factored in) will boost their analytical, investigative and prosecutorial capacity and capability against corporate crime.

Initiatives to create a national database for domestic violence orders and extra money to counter violent extremism have also been funded in the Budget. The Government also made earlier financial commitments to Crimestoppers and the ‘dob in an ice dealer’ programs. All are clear priorities and could use the extra resources to help the Government’s broader initiatives to counter domestic violence and reduce the impact of ice.

The Budget contains some funding to specifically counter organised crime, but more should be devoted to this task.

That’s because counter organised crime is clear and pressing threat, and a significant drag our economy.  Indeed, the Australian Crime Commission now estimates the cost of organised crime to Australia to be $36 billion each year: that’s over double their previous estimate.

There’s extra money in this Budget to expand the National Anti-Gangs Squad to South Australia, and continued funding for the ‘Trident’ task force in Victoria. Both are good moves. An additional $20.4 million over four years for the AFP to counter cybercrime is also welcome.

Despite those measures, funding for the Commonwealth’s law enforcement agencies is set to fall over the next four years. The decline isn’t as steep as projected in last year’s budget, but by 2020 we can still expect our law enforcement agencies (except AUSTRAC) to receive less in revenue from government than they did in 2014–15. AFP will be hardest hit, with a loss of revenue from government of around 9% by 2019–20.

Those cuts will be reflected in overall staffing levels for the Commonwealth’s law enforcement effort.

Some small agencies will grow over the next year. The Australian Crime Commission will gain 29 staff (5%), but nearly half of them will be transferred from the now-disestablished Australian Institute of Criminology. AUSTRAC will grow by 21 staff (7.4%), which will help Australia’s efforts to counter money laundering and terrorist financing. The CRIMTRAC Agency, recently merged into the ACC, will remain at the same staffing level.

It’s good that Australia is set to have more criminal and financial intelligence officers. That’s important. But will we have the investigative capacity to use their analysis and bring criminals to justice? The answer to that will depend on how the AFP apportions their effort.

This Budget won’t give the Commissioner much flexibility. AFP numbers are set to fall by another 200 people, about 3%, of the AFP’s 6,275 strong staff—about 7% below its staffing level of 2010–11. Further cuts are expected if the forward estimates are realised.

Why has this low been reached after the national terrorist alert level was raised and after the costs of organised crime have been re-assessed upwards?

The cuts and planned cuts don’t make sense, and highlight two important concerns about law enforcement funding in Australia.

First, it doesn’t make sense to view our law enforcement agencies like ‘any other’ department and subject them to an efficiency dividend of 2.5% p.a. until 2019–20 (when it decreases to 1% p.a.). As the costs of organised crime grow and the harms caused to society change and expand, law enforcement’s job is becoming larger and more complex. Law enforcement need more resources, not less.

The second is that we need, more than ever, a broad and comprehensive review of the Commonwealth’s law enforcement system. The review should examine the interdependencies within the system, its links with states and territories, international partnerships and capacity building, and government-business-public relationships.

The review should lead to a statement by Cabinet of the desired policy, organisational, legislative and operational landscape for law enforcement out to 2025–30. Such a statement should leverage and institutionalise relationships between all agencies with a stake in making Australia a just and secure society.

The statement should explain how the government will fund our Commonwealth law enforcement agencies, so the current decline can be arrested. Using such a statement to repair the law enforcement budget would be a worthy aspiration for the next federal budget.