Respect and a little bit of fear

There is something in the Australian psyche that craves punishment. Perhaps it is in the fact that White Australia began as a penal colony. Perhaps there is a deeper thread of inferiority and submission in the British settlement.

Whatever it is, the society we have is an orderly one – deeply so. We created the myth of the larrikin so we might feel less bad about our deference to power. He is a sort of court jester who makes the draconian more comfortable.

Elections are routinely run on law and order because the giving up of rights is broadly popular. This is a reality Australians shy from, except when they’re voting. For a country unused to good government we are enthusiastic about its overreach.

In New South Wales, police now have quotas to search people and move on others. They call these “proactive strategies”. This financial year, they will conduct 237,089 searches. Some will be strip-searches. Some will be conducted against minors. Few will turn up results.

Police set these targets. They hoped for 241,632 searches last financial year, but fell short by a couple of thousand. There is no evidence the targets reduce crime. If anything, they distract police and malign the community.

On Thursday, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, told The Sydney Morning Herald that the quotas created a “great potential for abuse of power”. The state’s former director of public prosecutions said the “natural human response will be to seek to meet the target by proper or improper means – by fudging, by exercising power where it is not properly warranted”.

Most potently, he said the targets were “a political exercise on the part of the police and, consequently, on the part of the government”.

Policing is political. An ugly triangle links the tabloid media to the police force and the police to government. All benefit each other. Powers asked for are almost never denied. Results are of little consequence. Fear is useful and perception is everything.

Surveillance is a comfort in this world. The federal government campaigns on it. While much policing is state-based, the Coalition has put bureaucrats in uniform and turned departments into quasi-military outfits. They know this is popular. It is the premise of our immigration system and the mass incarceration of First Nations people.

Occasionally the law impedes our desire to be controlled. Twenty years ago, when the country began on its fetish for drug dogs, new acts had to be written. Covenants of civil and political rights stood in the way. The dogs are hugely ineffective, but they make us feel safe. The small quantities of mostly marijuana they take off the streets remind us of the government’s pettiness and our own willingness for submission.

Ombudsmen have criticised this from various angles, and the answer has been more drug dogs. As with other searches, the targets are often marginalised. The comfort Australians feel around punishment is built on the knowledge it will be a particular class of people who are punished: the Indigenous, the poor, the mentally unwell.

An inquiry into strip-searches is yet to give its findings in NSW. It has heard traumatic accounts of children stripped naked without guardianship, of teenagers forced to bend over and expose their body cavities to waiting constables.

Police have been ignorant of the laws under which they work. Their operations have been defined by enthusiasm and incompetence. Confronted by this, the police commissioner defended his officers. He said people need to understand consequences. “They need to have respect and a little bit of fear for law enforcement.”

What he is describing are the elements that make policing a political tool: respect and a little bit of fear. It has served our leaders for 200 years and made the country thoughtless, anxious and contented.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 15, 2020 as "Respect and a little bit of fear".

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