A $50 million funding program for CCTV installation is touted to make our streets safer, despite studies that show cameras don’t prevent crime. So is it really just aimed at protecting ‘friends of the government’? By Rob Carr.

CCTV installation for crime prevention, or ’friends of the government’?

In this story

It was a synchronised campaign in May and June. At least 12 federal Coalition members appeared in their electorates, declaring that public crime and violence would drop now that surveillance cameras were hitting the streets.

The claim of the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, Josh Frydenberg, was typical: “This funding will go directly to providing real tools to fight crime in our local community by not only acting as a deterrent against vandalism to small business in the area, but also assisting authorities in identifying those engaged in criminal activity.”

The $50 million “Safer Streets” honey pot funding the cameras was a 2013 Coalition election promise. Spruiking at the east Nowra shopping centre in NSW, the current federal speaker Bronwyn Bishop said the cameras were “a deterrent because people know they’ll get caught”. 

In a media release in May announcing the first $20 million funding round, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Justice Minister Michael Keenan said: “All Australians have the right to feel safe and secure ... and [this] program will help to achieve that.”

But the sticky reality is that there is little evidence closed-circuit television cameras reduce, deter or prevent crime.

“There’s simply no compelling evidence, in Australia or internationally, to suggest that CCTV reduces crime,” Dr Emmeline Taylor, ANU senior lecturer in criminology, told The Saturday Paper.

Local lawyer Adam Bonner, who won a challenge in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal against Shoalhaven City Council’s CCTV network in 2013, says his case “reaffirmed what many international studies have told us before – public CCTV does little if anything to assist with crime prevention”. Public debate, he says, is underscored with “anecdote and assertion”.

My own national survey of 18 local councils revealed how limited the success of local government CCTV has been. Most respondents echoed Taylor’s view, with one stating: “The shortcomings of CCTV are many and do not match the cost to install, monitor and maintain.” The survey was undertaken in 2012 and published in March 2014 in Britain’s Security Journal.

Only one local council – Shoalhaven – had collected statistics within the surveillance zone. The council reported that crime rates had gone up after the installation of CCTV in its CBD. 

For local councils, CCTV services help the desire to “feel safe” and can assist, though not always, with evidence after the fact. This is why government CCTV policies typically cite the phrase “fear of crime” as one of the main reasons for installing CCTV, and that these systems are intended to improve “perceptions of safety”. 

Safer Streets Programme funding is available by invitation only to “nominated councils” for the first round of funding. The program provides the government with a way to cultivate grassroots support, or at least a perception of it, by requiring local councils to “accept” offers of funding.  

MPs have drummed up support by organising publicity, petitions and mobilising business chambers with “no strings” carrots of public subsidies. 

Take the experience of Sydney’s Ryde city council. 

The Liberal member for Bennelong, John Alexander, circulated a petition to local businesses on May 16, 2014. The Korean Chamber of Commerce presented it to the council requesting CCTV installations in Eastwood CBD. 

Alexander told The Saturday Paper community pressure mounted following a gruesome assault in parkland the same month. The victim’s wife, Simone But, addressed Ryde councillors at their June 10 meeting with an emotional plea for them to apply for CCTV funding. 

At the same meeting, a council staff report was tabled recommending against installing CCTV in the local Eastwood CBD. The staff cited low crime rates, studies, police feedback and potential cost blowouts.

Even though the assault was in a park outside the CBD, pleas by the victim’s family so moved the councillors that they voted to accept Alexander’s offer to apply for CCTV funding. 

Alexander welcomed the decision, saying: “Statistics indicate that the installation of CCTV cameras helps reduce crime rates.”

Asked for proof, his office provided two papers containing conclusions contrary to his claim. A 2009 Australian Institute of Criminology document states that there is “ambiguous evidence surrounding its [CCTV’s] effectiveness in preventing and reducing crime”. The second, a 2001 conference paper, says “there is actually little evidence as yet of the success of CCTV to combat or deter crime”. But Alexander remains adamant: “No one would question that CCTV reduces crime.”

The Jill Meagher murder case in 2013 made clear that “CCTV has played such an important role in catching criminals”, he said. 

Meagher’s case, which included CCTV footage of her being followed in Melbourne’s Brunswick by her attacker, is commonly used to argue for the cameras’ installation.

According to police court documents, however, it was high-tech police work, mobile phone tracking and tollway data analysis that proved key in solving the case. 

Following the Meagher murder, Moreland City Council faced political pressures to expand its surveillance network, particularly from Victorian Minister for Crime Prevention Edward O’Donohue, who demanded on talkback radio in April 2013 that the council “come to the party”.

However, constituents may have been less enthusiastic. A council survey of 550 residents found three in five against expansion of CCTV and most who attended a community forum were also opposed, according to Greens councillor Samantha Ratnam.

Nevertheless, in June 2013 the council voted to accept a $250,000 state government grant and to tip in another $250,000 of its own. Ratnam was one of three councillors who voted against it.

The cost is high: half a million dollars to run just nine CCTV cameras in Moreland. They begin operating this week.

Security tech consultant Luke Percy-Dove wrote in the June edition of Australian Security Magazine that “the electronic security market is forecast to experience double digit growth until 2020 and beyond”.

Local councils, faced with huge expectations to accept funding from state and federal governments to install CCTV, are a major contributor to the industry’s growth. 

Across Australia, business chambers are asking the taxpayer to pay for the set-up, and then the ratepayer to fund ongoing costs for CCTV. 

By sequestering $50 million from the public purse, the Safer Streets Programme is stimulating demand for the security tech industry – and the public is transformed into a guaranteed future customer as running costs need to be met.

Individual local councils in Australia are paying up to $600,000 a year of their own money to keep CCTV systems operational.

Back in Bennelong, Alexander says, “The strategy is to blanket the entire area.”

In Moreland, the installation cost of each camera is $55,555. Told of the price, Alexander quipped, “We’ll be looking at four cameras, at that rate.”

At least 14 local councils have been successful in attaining Safer Streets funding – all in Coalition federal electorates. 

The Saturday Paper has requested the full list of funding recipients but the Attorney-General’s Department is not yet releasing it.

We know that of the first $20 million available from the honey pot, Liberal-National MPs have revealed that more than one-quarter ($5.12 million) is going to Coalition seats.

Tony Abbott has announced that of the 150 projects, $6.45 million is going to NSW, $5.89 million to Queensland and $3.09 million to Victoria. Western Australia gets $3.1 million, South Australia $360,000 and the Northern Territory $300,000. 

What we don’t know is where the remaining $14.9 million will go, and who the other 136 funding recipients are. 

The Labor member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon, calls it pork-barrelling. And he claims that the Coalition has taken funding away from at least one council – Maitland – which had a $180,000 CCTV project approved by the former federal Labor cabinet.

Fitzgibbon alleges that the Abbott government’s handling of Safer Streets funding is “bordering on corruption”. 

The mayor of Maitland Peter Blackmore claims there is a list of councils considered “friends of the government”, which he first heard of through Fitzgibbon.

“We also made our own inquiries and we had the same story given to us,” he says.

Fitzgibbon claims “there is a list of projects promised by the Coalition prior to the election. And for any government to determine recipients of grants on the basis of an election promise, in other words on that criteria only, in my view is a matter for the auditor-general.” 

Bob Baldwin, Liberal member for Paterson, says these were “Labor promises” and there were “no contracts signed”. He says $52,000 has been approved for a CCTV program in nearby Raymond Terrace and that the Nationals had promised CCTV in Maitland, not his Liberals.

Baldwin describes the claim that there was a “friends of the government” list as a “load of rubbish”.  

Fitzgibbon said the matter “will be taken up with the auditor-general”, and that “in my experience governments will always be reluctant to release lists or any information which expose what is a very serious wrong”.

1 . Kiama cameras

Kiama, on the NSW South Coast, is more famous for its ocean blowhole – a prime attraction for tourists – than its crime rates. According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the municipality ranks 129th out of the state’s 141 local government areas for non-domestic violence. Kiama is ranked 119th for malicious damage to property.

Local police superintendent Wayne Starling told Fairfax Media in April: “In Kiama, statistics are generally so low, numbers-wise, any offence seriously impacts on the percentages.” He said that malicious damage in the main CBD thoroughfares of Terralong and Manning streets was “rare”. 

Yet most of the 20 new CCTV cameras, using $150,000 from Safer Streets, will be installed along those streets.

Kiama Municipal Council, in the Liberal seat of Gilmore, will now spend $80,000 of its own money on a CCTV program with a further $50,000 from the NSW government for installing cameras.

This is the strange thing about CCTV surveillance: it is hugely expensive, has little evidence to show that it works, and “law and order” conservatives love it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Singular vision".

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Rob Carr is a Sydney-based political historian.

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