NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s proposed brothel reforms are doomed for failure while governments in Victoria and Western Australia get tough with rogue operators by making the police responsible for s-x industry regulation. O’Farrell wants to create a Br0thel Licensing Authority and charge legal brothels around $30,000 per annum licence fees. With these funds they are going to employ more local council compliance officers and send them to areas where illegal brothels are a problem.

It sounds simple and effective but there is one big problem with this dumb strategy and that is that councils are not the solution — they are part of the problem.

It is the councils that have allowed a seedy illegal industry to grow around four times the size of the legal industry in NSW over 15 years since pr-stitution was decriminalised in NSW.  These compliance officers, who are not much more than glorified parking rangers, are expected to take on an underbelly of shonky characters that make up the illegal industry.

I have been telling Crikey readers for years how councils have not been up to the task of tackling the problem. They are lazy, under-resourced, under-trained and do not understand the link between shady brothels and the fact they are havens for tax and welfare fraudsters, peddlers of unsafe s-x practices, s-x slaves and illegal immigrants.

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It is time NSW followed the Victorian and West Australian governments and made police the investigating authority for the s-x industry. In Victoria, municipal councils play the role of determining where a brothel is sited and ensure that brothels don’t finish up in residential areas, near schools, churches or places where children might congregate.

According to William Albon, the spokesman for the Australian Adult Entertainment Industry: “That’s how it should be.” In other words, confine council’s involvement to planning issues only.

In Victoria, the administration of the S-x Work Act has been the responsibility of Consumer Affairs Victoria and their performance draws parallels with NSW councils. “They have been a toothless tiger in terms of prosecuting the operator of an illegal brothel, having brought just one operator in 15 years of the act’s administration before a court. CAV have been asleep at the wheel for 15 years,” Albon said.

All of this about to change with the Victorian Parliament poised to pass legislation making Victoria Police the lead agency for combating illegal brothels.

In Western Australia, Attorney-General Christian Porter has recently introduced the Pr-stitution Bill 2011 that provides police with substantial powers relating to unlawful prostitution and investigating offences.

Meanwhile in NSW, it has been comedy hour down at Macquarie Street since the Liberals swept to power in March, with O’Farrell having problems getting any of his ministers interested in taking on the s-x industry.  Traditionally brothel regulation has been part of the Planning portfolio for the past 15 years but Planning Minister Brad Hazzard told O’Farrell he didn’t want to be responsible for brothels.

When Hazzard was shadow planning minister he never asked a question in parliament about brothels even though there were horror stories about deaths and other criminal activity in the industry appearing regularly in the media. Since then it was flicked to Local Government Minister Don Page, who also wasn’t keen. So then it was placed in the Premier’s Department for a short time.

As one government adviser told Crikey: “Barry got fed up in the end and told Don Page it’s his baby.”  So now it falls under the local government minister.

None of the ministers wanted it because the s-x industry is a hotbed of controversy and it usually only generates negative publicity such as s-x slaves, corruption and illegal activity. Crikey also understands that a working party has been formed comprising bureaucrats from Attorney-General’s, Police, Planning and Premier’s departments and have been meeting every Monday for the past six months trying to work out a solution to the problems in NSW.

Last year I was briefed by a senior NSW Planning executive and chair of the then Brothels Taskforce, under the previous Labor government. The impression I got from her was that it was all too difficult a job to reform the industry and that the taskforce would not be making many changes. An example of this was that they canvassed whether the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing would conduct probity checks on owners of legal brothels.  They told the taskforce they did not want to become involved.

When I asked why the NSW police couldn’t undertake the work, she replied that the then Keneally government did not want police anywhere near brothels. In the end, the taskforce recommended there be no probity checks.  The Taskforce report was so politically sensitive Kristina Keneally ordered it not to be released before the election. It has still never been publicly released. I have been told the same pack of nongs are on the current working party, so I am not getting excited about any major reform.

Let’s hope the O’Farrell government do not share the same opinion of the police that the Keneally government had because it is vital that they become involved again to rectify years of neglect by councils. In 1996, the Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police found there was a link between police corruption and the illegal industry so the government took regulation of brothels away from police and placed it under NSW Planning laws.

I think most people would acknowledge that the NSW Police Service has come a long way since those dark days of the Royal Commission and now have a reputation of a corruption-resistant force. There is a Police Integrity Commission to monitor behaviour of the force and in turn there is the Inspector of the Police Integrity Commissioner to monitor their behaviour so there are mechanisms in place that weren’t there before.

There is no reason for O’Farrell not to return s-x industry regulation to the police. He should follow the premiers of Victoria and Western Australia and have the courage to implement major reforms of the industry that are desperately needed.