When too much law enforcement is still not enough, create a Reserve

by Allan Behm

The budget papers consolidate the Government’s fall-back position of securitising significant national problems like the pandemic, bushfires and natural disasters by throwing more law enforcement resources at them. The Government attaches a higher priority to the enforcement of national laws than it does to health policy. The confusion early in the COVID-19 pandemic was indicative of an under-resourced and under-prepared health system.

Part 2 of Budget Paper No 4 informs us that the Average Staffing Level allocated to the Australian Federal Police in 2020-21 will be 6,781, as compared with the 1,930 provided to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and the 6,300 allocated to the Department of Health and its agencies. It’s clear where priorities lie.

The Home Affairs portfolio budget statement, which addresses the AFP’s resources and planned performance, allocates an additional $300.2 million over four years for improved health and wellbeing of its personnel, and the establishment of an AFP Reserve Force to provide “a flexible pool of experienced resources who can provide surge capacity to assist in priority areas and enhance the support and guidance of permanent members”, but quite what that means is unclear.

It is evident that, as first responders, police members are often confronted by situations and scenes of considerable trauma and, in consequence, are exposed to physical and mental trauma. Additional funding is necessary.

The need for a Reserve is not so obvious. The AFP has in the past appointed Special Members, without full police powers, to perform regulatory and administrative duties and, in some particular locations like Norfolk Island and Christmas Island, perform some community policing duties.

This development is consistent with the tendency in many overseas jurisdictions to militarise law enforcement services, giving them a significantly more martial appearance (uniforms, weapons and advanced weapons training) and separating them further from the communities they serve and to which they belong. The establishment of a Police Reserve is another indication of the overall ‘hardening’ of national police forces. But there needs to be more evidence to support the need for more activist policing, including the need for an AFP Reserve.

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