Transnational, serious, and organised crime: Fighting a losing battle

Australia’s approach fails to learn from past lessons

John Coyne

Government and governance, National security | Australia

6 March 2019

Australia’s new National Strategy aims to prevent, disrupt, and protect Australia against transnational, serious, and organised crime. The principles underpinning the plan are good, John Coyne writes, but the strategy is light on details and may not deliver the results policymakers want.

In mid-December 2018, while most Australians were focused on preparing for the Christmas break, the Federal Government inexplicably released its inaugural National Strategy to Fight Transnational, Serious and Organised Crime with little fanfare.

The report was new, but the focus on transnational, serious, and organised crime (TSOC) was not. In August 2017, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) released the sixth edition of its biennial Organised Crime In Australia report. That edition estimated that the annual cost of organised crime to Australia had doubled since the last report: from approximately $15 billion to $36 billion a year. These figures painted the clearest picture to date that the Commonwealth’s law enforcement agencies are losing ground in the fight against TSOC.

On 1 May 2018, in response to the rising cost of TSOC, the Federal Government announced plans to leverage the benefits of the newly formed Home Affairs Portfolio to establish a Commonwealth Transnational, Serious and Organised Crime Coordinator. The coordinator, Deputy Commissioner Karl Kent, was tasked with better integrating and unifying the country’s various TSOC enforcement efforts. Over the next six months, Kent set about developing and negotiating a national TSOC strategy.

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The new National Strategy provides a four-pillar approach to preventing, disrupting and protecting Australia against TSOC. The first pillar focuses on ‘integrating’ Australia’s available tools to disrupt criminal business models. The second pillar is concerned with building strong domestic and international ‘partnerships’. The third, strengthening national law enforcement ‘capability’. The fourth is a commitment to strategy ‘evolution’ through agility.

It’s hard to argue against the importance of all these pillars, although it’s easy to be cynical about a principle-based strategy that’s short on details and pushed out the door when the public wasn’t paying much attention.

Regardless, this is an important document, it establishes a much-needed foundation stone for agreement between Australia’s governments, the private sector, civil society organisations, academia and the community on how to work together against TSOC.

It was no doubt a tough job getting agreement from the members of the Council of Australian Governments, and many a compromise was likely made.

But, in the interest of accommodating all of the stakeholders Kent’s team may have not paid sufficient attention the lessons learnt from the implementation of similar Commonwealth law enforcement strategies like the National ‘ice’ Action Strategy 2015.

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On the 6 December 2015, Australia’s National Ice Task Force released its final report to the Prime Minister. Nine days later, the National Ice Strategy 2015 was released – a strategy later modified in December 2017.

Predictably, the strategy’s four key pillars  better intelligence, improved border security and law enforcement cooperation, targeted international law enforcement capacity and capability development, and maximizing advocacy and political engagement  were straight out of the police best practice playbook.

This Ice action strategy continues to be successfully delivered but the impact on the nation’s ice problem has been negligible.

The evaluation report for phase seven of the national drugs campaign, released on 21 May 2018, states that ‘there was also little evidence for any campaign impact on attitudes to drugs at this stage’. Worse still, despite all the public discourse and demand reduction efforts, including marketing and education, ice consumption by weight has increased by 17 per cent over the last two years.

With this experience in mind, I would argue that those implementing the National Strategy to Fight Transnational, Serious and Organised Crime ought to consider three issues.

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Firstly, they need to revisit the assumption, and lexicon, that TSOC can be fought and defeated.

Arguably, while syndicates can be dismantled and supply chains disrupted, reducing the cost of TSOC is predicated on denying criminals the opportunity to commit offences. Those responsible for implementing the strategy ought to focus on applying further efforts to identifying and mitigating Australia’s vulnerabilities to TSOC.

Secondly, while the strategy uses the terms disrupt and dismantle, there is little in the way of explanation of their meaning. My personal experience is such that these words, especially for law enforcement, are simply synonyms for arrests and seizures.

While I don’t deny the importance of traditional law enforcement techniques, nor the benefits of better coordination of existing strategies, further efforts need to be made to explore new disruption or dismantling methods.

For example, 40 years ago, some 100,000 hectares of farmland in Thailand was being used to cultivate opium. By 2007, the country was declared opium-free by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This was made possible by the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in 1969 established the Royal Project, which provided alternative livelihoods for those involved in growing and refining opium. The ambitious project was underpinned by rigorous research on alternative crops. The Thai government and international partners then developed critical infrastructure that gave farmers growing new crops access to markets.

Finally, in measuring the performance of the strategy, the focus must be on reducing the cost of organised crime in Australia. There can be no doubt that the arrest of criminals will resonate with the Australian public, but this is pointless if the cost of organised crime has doubled again in 2019.

Over the last 12 months, the Federal Government has made all the right moves in terms of responding to Australia’s spiralling cost of organised crime. The real challenge now is getting agreement for actual measures that bring down this cost. To do this, the office of the Commonwealth Transnational, Serious and Organised Crime Coordinator must encourage new thinking while promoting greater national and international cooperation.

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