Neil Mitchell talking about Melbourne's crime wave. Picture: Stuart McEvoy.
NEIL MITCHELLThe Australian12:00AM March 8, 2018
Let’s cut through the political spin here, and the defensiveness of the police, and do-gooder lawyers who think the best way to rehabilitate a young criminal is to take them to a long lunch.
Let’s listen to the frightened and worried Victorian public. That’s what matters in this law and order debate: the public’s perception of its safety.
I doubt it has been lower. In almost 50 years in journalism I can remember such a concentration on this horrendously intrusive crime only once. That was in the 1990s and the “crisis” lasted a few weeks.
The police assured us all it was a passing trend and they were right. The crimes mostly stopped and nerves settled.
Two years ago the trend returned. In 12 months to the middle of last year there were 4280 aggravated burglaries in Victoria, an unacceptable increase of 28 per cent.
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It settled a little as police arrested and locked up repeat offenders. But in the past two weeks something unnerving has happened — violent middle-of-the-night attacks are back.
Curiously, not all are given publicity by police. In the past week I have interviewed an 88-year-old man and a young couple. All woke in their bed with people threatening and robbing them. The two men responded with baseball bats, which in one case, it is claimed, police advised them not to admit had been kept for self-defence.
Neither case was reported by the police media office until I asked questions. They claimed no operational reason for that. So was it an attempt to manipulate information to calm the public? Was it ignoring reality for the sake of spin?
Elsewhere, a woman, 96, was frogmarched around her own house. There were others, woken by a torch in their face and thugs screaming. Is anything more frightening? These victims are not risk-takers down dodgy alleys at 3am. This is why people are scared.
What are the reasons and the answers? It hasn’t surged like this interstate. Why not? And, as politicians fight out an election-year game of who’s the tough guy, can we look seriously at sentencing? Police believe the recent outbreak comes from thugs with a taste for this type of crime being released from juvenile detention, which has developed into a networking ground for dangerous idiots. These “gang” members met in detention, not the local skate park.
Judges rightly argue that no thug smashing down a door at 2am stops to think of how long he could spend in jail. But sentencing must be about more than deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation. It must also give the community a sense of confidence that wrongdoing is being properly punished and decency stands for something. It must also be protected.
The strongest pointer that Victoria is soft on crime is the incarceration rate. Arie Freiberg, chairman of the Sentencing Advisory Council, says that in the Northern Territory 900 are in jail for every 100,000 of the population and that in NSW it’s 215. In Victoria it is 145, although in fairness he argues that jail increases rather than reduces crime.
Then there is the ethnic link. It is inescapable and it is African in appearance, even if most African migrants, refugees and their Australian-born kids are decent and honest and it is a delight to have them as Australians.
But look to my program diary, it says much: Two years ago, March 7, 2016, assistant commissioner Steve Fontana was in the studio discussing the emergence of something called the Apex gang. We discussed the thread — youths of African appearance committing aggravated burglaries. March 12, a few days later, African youths rampaged through the streets during Moomba. There were 24 arrests and the Apex gang was in the middle of it. This obscene style of behaviour was repeated over summer at St Kilda.
In the two years since this began my program has reported specific aggravated burglaries 38 times, carjackings 24 times, violent jewellery store robberies 18 times. I have spoken to almost 50 victims and discussed the issue with police at least 20 times.
And the African link has been central to it. It is difficult to assess the figures because many of the youths involved are Australian born, making nonsense of the demands to deport them.
But Sudanese-born people make up 0.1 per cent of Victoria’s population — about 6000. In 2016 Sudanese-born youths were responsible for 7.44 per cent of alleged home invasions, 5.65 per cent of car thefts and 13.9 per cent of aggravated robberies.
The police are keen to establish Sudanese community influence to fight the problems, but a much-promoted community taskforce has been split by tribal divisions and has achieved too little.
As always, there are those who blame the media and this week Freiberg criticised this newspaper for supposedly exaggerating the level of Victorian crime. This misunderstands media. I reflect as much as lead my audience. They ring. They tell their stories as victims, and in some cases they cry in fear as they wait to be victims.
The elites can say that is illogical, and statistically perhaps it is. But the fear is real and if we try to suppress or twist the discussion and public outpouring it will only grow as people sense they are being patronised and ignored.
In the 90s Victorians smarted as the rest of the country laughed while we looked increasingly like an economic rust bucket. That changed with the energy of Jeff Kennett. At times it was misdirected but things soon improved.
Now, those same Victorians wince when the rest of the country asks whether it is safe to sleep in your own home without a weapon.
It is not all the fault of Premier Daniel Andrews, though he has been slow to react; Opposition Leader Matthew Guy campaigns hard but doesn’t have all the answers. It is quite likely whichever leader is best able to convince the public that he has a plan of action with some hope of success will be elected premier in November. Through this year, more than ever, perceptions are crucial. Eventually the public will be heard.
Neil Mitchell hosts the morning program weekdays on 3AW in Melbourne.