Dismantling the web of harms: tackling serious and organised crime in Australia
20 Aug 2015| and

A new report from ASPI’s Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement Program raises questions about the harms caused to Australian interests through serious and organised crime.

Those harms extend to individuals and the community, businesses and the Australian government. This claim isn’t designed to cause moral panic. Instead, we aim to reinvigorate the conversation about the harms caused by serious and organised crime to Australia’s interests, which is estimated to cost the Australian economy over $15 billion per year.

One of the more difficult questions to ask in this conversation is whether Australians actually realise the forces at work behind serious and organised crime. After all, it’s Australians’ desire for illicit commodities and services which drives demand for many organised criminal enterprises. Further organised criminal opportunities come from the increasing penetration of the cyber domain into the everyday activities of many Australians. The public’s inattention to the problem contrasts with the Australian government’s efforts to counter organised crime, which can be seen in documents such as the Crime Commission’s annual Organised Crime in Australia report and the recently-revised Organised Crime Response Plan.

Defining the web

Diagram: web of harm of serious and organised crime

Serious and organised crime poses a real national security threat in countries like Mexico or Afghanistan, where they can directly challenge government or act as an illegitimate alternative. Their problems are unlike Australia’s. But organised crime still hurts our economy, infringes on border integrity and sovereignty, damages prosperity and regional stability, and erodes political and social institutions. It also impacts upon the lives of everyday Australians and affects business costs and profits. So organised crime’s detrimental effects might be better described as a broader threat to Australia’s national interests, rather than just a threat to Australia’s national security.

We’ve identified five key harms that organised crime creates for Australia’s interests: personal and community risks for Australians, government and private revenue losses and increased costs, eroded sovereignty, safety concerns for Australian citizens and investments overseas, and political instability in some of our neighbours. We’ve used evidence gained from over 55 interviews, and drawn on research by Australian and international agencies and scholars to asse©mble a picture of these harms.

The paper concludes with a series of key questions to different groups affected by serious and organised crime. The community needs to consider whether they care about organised crime (at least enough to change our behaviour to counter it), and whether they understand where illicit goods and services, along with the criminal threat, come from. It’s also worth asking whether we know how to report instances of crime.

Businesses need to consider whether their levels of information-sharing with government on crime are optimal, if peak bodies understand the criminal threats specific to them and what the future of crime is to their industry.

Questions for government are perhaps more complex. Government should consider if there are better ways to integrate the community and businesses into an overall response to organised crime, and if there’s a better way of describing the threat to the Australian public than in terms of ‘national security’. The government needs to examine whether our current approaches to dealing with organised crime are optimal, and ask if we have the best possible system to uncover and deal with corruption. We can also enhance our international efforts to tackle the issue.

Australia hasn’t experienced the same level of violence and corruption due to serious and organised crime as other countries. But we can’t assume that’s only for a want of ambition on the part of criminals: if our law enforcement wasn’t as strong and our society not as cohesive, the harms would surely be greater. That’s why dismantling this web is in everyone’s interests.