Australia needs a better strategy for fighting organised crime
8 Oct 2021|

In 2017, the Australian Institute of Criminology estimated that the cost of serious and organised crime to Australia in 2016–17 was around $47.4 billion. A more recent estimate isn’t available, but all things being equal, the figure for 2020–21 is likely to be significantly higher; it seems it never goes down. Despite a raft of new legislation, big spending and large, high-profile seizures by Australian law enforcement, including Operation Ironside earlier this year, policy success has been elusive.

Two factors likely undermine policy efforts here. First, the public seems to be unable to connect with the scale and scope of the serious and organised crime threat. Second, policymaking continues to be heavily slanted towards law enforcement rather than risk mitigation. So, while we disrupt the threats from criminal groups, we never mitigate the likelihood or consequences of serious and organised crime.

At the state and territory level, law enforcement and community safety are big-ticket political issues. Spates of violent crime, drug-related offences and theft resonate with the community, and the media demand immediate police responses.

At the federal level, it’s easy to assume that $47.4 billion in costs would be equally motivating. It’s not. Of course, especially egregious criminal offences, like child exploitation, can have a profound impact on the victims and their families. Yet, the combined effect of popular culture’s romanticisation of the problem, through programs like The Sopranos and Sons of Anarchy, and the absence of a clear, personal cause-and-effect relationship mean that many Australians can’t see how serious and organised crime touches their lives. This apparent indifference needs to change.

Getting policy settings right is no easier than getting the public behind them.

In 2018, in response to the rising cost of serious and organised crime, the government announced plans to leverage the benefits of the newly formed Home Affairs portfolio to establish a Commonwealth transnational, serious and organised crime coordinator. The office was tasked with better integrating and unifying the country’s various serious and organised crime enforcement efforts.

The approach was a carbon copy of the highly successful implementation of the Commonwealth counterterrorism coordinator. That arrangement’s success across federal, state and territory jurisdictions didn’t come from any authoritative power. It succeeded because governments and the general public understood the significance of the threat of terrorism. The Commonwealth organised crime coordinator hasn’t had those advantages.

In December 2018, the government released its inaugural National strategy to fight transnational, serious and organised crime.

The document provides a four-pillar approach to preventing, disrupting and protecting Australia against serious and organised crime. The first pillar focuses on ‘integrating’ Australia’s available tools to disrupt criminal business models. The second pillar is concerned with building strong domestic and international ‘partnerships’. The third seeks to strengthen national law enforcement ‘capability’. The fourth is a commitment to the strategy’s ‘evolution’ through agility.

The strategy’s authors focused on unifying existing efforts and increasing the responsiveness of law enforcement agencies. The problem is that those agencies’ key performance indicators clearly illustrate that they’re already providing some pretty impressive results.

In 2018, the Australian Transnational, Serious and Organised Crime Committee was established to drive the implementation and monitoring of the national strategy. Membership of the committee comprises a senior official (deputy secretary equivalent) from each Australian policing and justice agency; New Zealand Police; the New Zealand Ministry of Justice; the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre; the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission; the Office of National Intelligence; the Australian Border Force; and the Department of Home Affairs.

In short, the implementation of the strategy has been concerned with disrupting organised crime by increasing enforcement efforts. There can be no doubt that law enforcement’s operational successes within and outside of Australia have been breathtaking, and we ought to be impressed by the return on investment that has provided. We should also acknowledge that the cross-jurisdictional committee and the national strategy have enhanced cooperation and collaborative capability development. However, all of this has come at the cost of whole-of-government disruption policy.

Over the past three years, organised crime policy focused on disrupting and target-hardening has withered at the vine. The Commonwealth coordinator position has been weakened, with responsibility moving from a deputy secretary to a first assistant secretary and now an assistant secretary in Home Affairs.

The problem here is that the strategy’s intent is not to increase the return on investment from law enforcement or to arrest more criminals. The purpose is to ‘protect Australia, its people, and its interests from the harms of transnational, serious and organised crime’. So, if the cost of serious and organised crime increases, like it has with illicit drug consumption, has the strategy failed? In short, the answer must be yes, but that isn’t a reflection on law enforcement. Neither should this be an acceptance of the assumption that the problem would be even worse without law enforcement.

This illustrates that there needs to be a broader focus on our efforts to disrupt organised crime. These efforts need to decrease the likelihood and consequences of serious and organised crime, as opposed to trying to arrest offenders. Unfortunately, our current strategy doesn’t work towards this goal.

In response, the minister for home affairs should consider establishing an independent organised crime advisory committee. The committee, chaired by the department’s secretary, should have a broad membership with representatives from academia, marketing, medicine, education and industry. Its key focus should be on developing innovative non-enforcement ideas for disrupting organised crime and reducing our vulnerability to it. This is not an alternative to the law enforcement effort, but an additional mechanism.

If we don’t find a new approach to dealing with serious and organised crime, we’ll continue to see more drugs seized, more cash and assets restrained and more people in prison. At the same time, the economic and social costs of serious and organised crime will keep rising.