Being seen to be tough on crime was an assured vote winner in the past, but recent setbacks to the government’s stop and search powers have shifted the debate.
TIMING is everything in politics. And that fact has never been more clearly demonstrated than in the treatment of the state government’s contentious ‘stop and search’ legislation.
Last year there was close to what appeared to be bipartisan support to give police powers to frisk people in trouble spots like Northbridge and the odd beachfront in summer.
But after the government introduced its plans to parliament, Labor retreated, letting the Liberals – and the Nationals – make the running.
In political terms Labor’s decision looked like a wise move; two recent events support that view.
The first was the decision of the Corruption and Crime Commission to release damaging vision of prisoner Kevin Spratt being tasered 13 times while in custody in 2008.
The premier, Colin Barnett, was justifiably less than impressed. He had spent months defending the extra stop and search powers he planned to give the police, saying repeatedly he was confident that they would not be abused.
Yet here was damaging evidence of a group of officers doing precisely what he said they wouldn’t do. And they were using tasers for a purpose not envisaged when the weapons were introduced.
Admittedly, Mr Spratt’s record showed he was no angel. But the vision brought embarrassment all round.
The second event was the tabling last week of the upper house committee’s report on the legislation, which recommended – by a majority vote – that the measures be dropped.
Liberal MLC and lawyer, Michael Mischin, chaired the five-member committee made up of two Liberals and one member each from the Nationals, Labor and the Greens.
The committee was formed almost exactly 12 months ago, and had two extensions of time, before completion.
Its report refuted several government justifications for the increased powers. One was the claim that the concept of ‘reasonable suspicion’ that someone might be carrying a weapon was not readily understood and was difficult to apply.
Another was that the powers would reduce “the incidence of the carriage and use of weapons in entertainment areas,” which was one of the policy objectives.
The two Liberal members supported the thrust of the legislation, but it was the Nationals’ Mia Davies who sided with Labor and the Greens, ensuring the measures failed to get the crucial majority support.
It was an embarrassing setback for the government, and demonstrated the fragility of its ‘alliance’ relationship with the Nationals.
The government also found support for the initiative starting to shrink. The WA Law Society, for example, emerged as a strong opponent.
“Incidents involving the inappropriate, reckless and possibly unlawful use of tasers by police officers show that WA Police should not be given additional powers which will also be open to abuse,” the society’s president, Hylton Quail, said.
“People in WA should be phoning or emailing their local members to voice their opposition if they are concerned about this proposal.
“Despite being repeatedly challenged to do so, the government has failed to justify the need for increased stop and search powers for the police.”
The challenge now for Mr Barnett is to come up with a set of amendments that will be acceptable to the upper house.
As the Greens and Labor now seem to be locked in to opposing the bill, the changes will really be aimed at Ms Davies and her four National Party colleagues.
If three of the Nationals can be won over, and all the Liberals stand firm, the changes will be passed. Otherwise it will be a futile exercise.
But as far as the Nationals are concerned, the early signs for the government are not good. Veteran National Max Trenorden, who is now in the upper house, has described his current position on the issue as a “question mark”. The party’s president, Colin Holt, also an MLC, says he believes the police have enough power, and his colleague, Phil Gardiner, appears unsympathetic to the legislation. That’s enough to kill the issue stone dead.
Party leader Brendon Grylls, who earlier supported the changes in the Legislative Assembly, is unconcerned. He says it’s a matter for each of his MLCs, regardless of the implications.
Regardless, what has transpired should be a salutary lesson not only for the governing Liberal-Nationals alliance, but all political parties.
Law and order issues have traditionally been a vote winner; ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was a popular political slogan not so long ago. Parties felt they had to compete with each other, or run the risk of being branded as soft.
Perhaps the rough rise for this legislation might be a sign that MPs, at least, are becoming a little wary of simply toughening up law enforcement measures.
Police Minister Rob Johnson has supported the government’s plan, saying crimes involving weapons are on the increase.
The upper house committee dealt with this issue, saying that: “Although the number of these offences has increased the committee saw no evidence that the rate of offences (for example, the number of offences per capita) has also increased. The committee noted that even if the rate of offences has risen, it may not have done so in proportion to the rest of the population.”
Despite the setback over the committee’s report, Mr Barnett is still hoping that the upper house will accept the amendments to the key sticking points and have the legislation passed before Christmas.
That means that after the regulations are drawn up, the changes could come into force before the end of summer.
Another issue that has caused the government trouble has been its ambitious goal of having patients who are admitted to emergency departments in hospitals processed within four hours. It’s a worthy goal, and one the federal government picked up as a national initiative.
Yet Health Minister Kim Hames has had to concede that some modifications are required and somewhat more modest goals introduced. Health had bedevilled successive state governments, and it looks like this one is no exception.
It could be mid-term blues, or it could be a case of being ‘mugged by reality’.
But the problems are a reminder to the government that, while it’s one thing to set targets, achieving them, whether through legislation or action on the ground, is the real test.
• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV’s state political reporter.