March 10, 1988

Article at The Sydney Morning Herald

POLITICS | Talk is tough but crime is easy

NSW Premier Barrie Unsworth holds a press conference at Bondi Junction (Phil Lock)



EVERY day in the eastern suburbs, one person is assaulted, eight cars are stolen and 11 homes and shops are broken into. Every week, there are 18 acts of vandalism, 91 cases of petty theft and shoplifting, and nine arrests for drug offences. Crime in the eastern suburbs is by no means small-time.

In the war to win votes on the law-and-order issue, both major parties have talked tough, kept the message simple, glossed over the tricky bits - and gone on to accuse the other side of being soft on crime. 

But what does the tough posturing really mean for local residents?

A more detailed analysis of the same statistics the Police Minister, Mr Paciullo, has touted, offers little comfort to eastern suburbs residents.

The area, covered by the Police 'C' District (based at Maroubra), has the third-worst rate of crime in the State and ranks 21 out of 24 in the rate of crimes solved. The figures show:

  • Property break-ins are 28 per cent higher than the Sydney average and the second-highest for any residential area in NSW.
  • Car theft is 36 per cent higher than the Sydney average, and the eastern suburbs are ranked third-highest of any area in the State.
  • Assaults occur in the east at a rate 15 per cent higher than the Sydney average, and it has the fourth-worst figure in the State.
  • Petty theft and shoplifting are 36 per cent higher than the Sydney average, and the worst figure of any area in NSW (excluding the central business district).

Mr Paciullo, in Waverley to inspect the site of a planned $4.5 million police station at Bondi Beach, said the figures were not as bad as they first appeared.

"The rate of crime per 100,000 of population here does not reflect just those acts committed by the resident population but also by the thousands of people who come here.

"The actual number of offences is very high, but there are thousands upon thousands of people who come through this area, and those people are not recorded as residents and therefore are not taken into account when the crime rate is compared with the base population figure.

"It's the same as the central business district, where the enormous rate is totally out of proportion with the number of people living in the area.

"If you look at the crime statistics for the same period last year you'll find that this area recorded one of the biggest reductions. The additional resources supplied are having an effect."

A check of the figures showed there had indeed been a drop in most categories of crime - in some cases markedly so - but that the eastern suburbs still lagged behind most other areas in the rate of crimes solved (ranked 21 out of the 24 police districts).

Among the decreases in the offences recorded compared to the same time last year: 12.8 per cent down in property breakings, 24.4 per cent down in car theft, and a 52.6 per cent drop in arson. However, there were increases in assaults and woundings (up 27.5 per cent), sexual offences (up 15 per cent)and armed robbery (up 66.2 per cent).

The Liberal candidate for Waverley, Ms Sally Betts, was sceptical of the improved crime rates.

"You hear George Paciullo saying the figures have been going down, but nobody I know sees that. I've been burglared only twice - I say only twice because just about everyone else I know has been hit more than that.

"We really do believe you have to have longer sentences, unclog our courts and get rid of drugs in our jails. How can we talk about society being drug-free if the jails aren't drug-free? You need more discipline in schools, and you need to make parents responsible their children."

Mr David Brown, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW, said both parties have postured about their tough approach to crime but have failed to address the treatment of its causes.

"It is more appealing to talk tough about increasing police numbers and penalties, but these are measures that will have the least affect on the crime rate," he said.

"Criminal justice is an important response to the problem, but far more attention has to be paid to job creation, child-care, youth unemployment, homelessness ... you can't ignore these issues. If you do, the causes are still there after you've locked up your criminals, and pretty soon it starts all over again."

He said a recent Institute of Criminology study had shown that a doubling of the number of people going to jail would reduce the crime rate by only one-fifth of 1 per cent.

While unimpressed by the approach of either political party to the issue, Mr Brown did give qualified approval to Labor's approach over the Liberals', describing the latter's as being "riddled with contradictions".

"Labor has been talking tough up front, but they are proposing a more enterprise-oriented prisons industry that would see prisoners given useful skills they could use outside. They're also pushing ahead with the community consultative committees of police and local residents, emphasising a more community-based approach to solving local problems.

"The figures show that crimes are more likely to be committed by prisoners within the first three months of their release, when prisoners can't find work and have difficulty re-adapting to the outside world. Yet the Liberals are effectively proposing to scrap parole, rather than revamping and strengthening it so prisoners will be less likely to repeat an offence."