Over the past year, barely a day has passed without a politician somewhere in this nation bemoaning public drunkenness and street violence. Naturally politicians think they can solve these perceived problems, but so far their solutions have been misguided and populist.

Take for example, the announcement yesterday by Victorian Premier John Brumby, that he is making his planning minister Justin Madden the minister for the “respect agenda”.  This is not an original idea — former British PM announced his “respect agenda”  in 2006.

Brumby thinks that the key to tackling binge drinking and crime is to infuse people with a sense of respect for themselves and others. “We have got some challenges in our community, particularly based around what I call respect.  If you respect yourself, you don’t go out and binge drink, if you respect your community, you don’t go out and vandalise it, if you respect people around you, you don’t go out and beat them up,” told The Australian this morning.

The Victorian government’s “respect agenda” is all well and good, but it is unlikely to have any real impact.  For starters, on the day that Brumby was announcing details of his “respect agenda”, he accused former military chief Peter Cosgrove of being “factually inaccurate” for daring to suggest what most Australians should assume to be the case, that is that racism is alive and well in this country and is the likely cause of at least some of the attacks on Indian students in Victoria.

But more importantly, if Brumby was serious about ensuring that there was a greater sense of respect in the community, he would never have allowed the introduction of new powers only a month ago, which give the police the right to stop and search people without a reason.  A similar power in the UK has been described as being the cause of racial tension because police unfairly target certain communities.  And speaking of the UK, the “respect agenda” in that country has led to tension between police and communities because of the power of the former to levy on-the-spot fines for petty “anti-social behaviour” such as wearing a T-shirt with an offensive logo, and for the evictions of “nuisance neighbours”, generally public housing tenants.

But Victoria is not the only state failing to think laterally about improving public safety.  In Western Australia with Australia Day looming, the Liberal government of Colin Barnett is allowing police to enforce a law that bans drinking in a public place.  Anyone caught with a glass of chardonnay while they enjoy a picnic with their family at the beach will run the risk of being turned into a criminal, say police.

And shortly before Christmas, the Barnett government announced plans for the introduction of prohibited behaviour orders that will ban people from going to certain places and which could see them land in jail for something as harmless as spitting in the street.  Again, similar laws in the UK have disproportionately targeted those with mental illness and the homeless.  Porter’s proposed law will allow for the public naming and shaming of offenders as young as 14 — a proposition that will delight vigilante groups and that will unfairly target young people at risk.

These heavy-handed incursions on liberty are the antithesis of respect.

Peter Fray

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