One of the most limiting aspects of partisan political debate is it forces you to see things in black and white terms that aren’t up to the task of conveying the mess of reality. This can be seen in the current debate about violent African gangs in Victoria, in which apparently contradictory claims are true.
It’s true that community fears around gang violence exist. It’s true that in many cases they are legitimate, based on real experiences of violent criminal behaviour as reported in the media. It’s also true that the level of gang activity is being overstated.
Perhaps the most significant truth, though, is that real fears are being manipulated for political gain. What we are seeing is the most shameless opportunism dressed up as leadership.
I know this for a fact because more than a year ago I was in Canberra and found myself in a private conversation with a senior minister in the Turnbull government. He said, out of the blue, that he was concerned about African violence in Victoria. He said people were terrified and the Andrews government was failing to handle the problem.
Given that crime of this sort is a matter for state governments and it had nothing to do with his portfolio, I was initially perplexed as to why he might be taking up this issue. I needn’t have been. He made it clear that he and his colleagues saw a political opportunity to get involved and use the issue to help the Liberal opposition win the next state election in Victoria.
Since that conversation I have wondered when this would occur, but now that wait is over. On Thursday The Age reported on its front page that Peter Dutton had blasted the Andrews government over African crime, claiming that people were afraid to go out to restaurants at night. He said the state government had wrapped up its police force in a “politically correct” conversation and police were getting a “go soft” message from the state government.
The Liberals see an opportunity to win this year’s state election by whipping up fears over African violence and painting the Andrews government as soft on the issue. They don’t care that this strategy will promote needless community division. They don’t much care that it involves drawing on and promoting racial anxiety. It’s all about winning, at all costs.
As someone who spent several years working at the ABC TV program Media Watch, the conversation in Canberra made me sick. I knew, from critiquing the work of other media outlets, that the crime figures showed that attempts to whip up fear about African violence almost always involved a deliberate distortion of reality.
A police officer once told me that members of the public tend to think of young Africans spending time together in public as “gangs” in a way that they would not for similar groups of white youths. This is a consequence of skin colour. Young Sudanese men stand out in a way that two non-African men don’t.
Young African men do commit crimes, and Sudanese immigrants in particular made up 1.5 per cent of criminal offenders in 2015/2016, according to the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency. When you consider they make up roughly 0.5 per cent of the Victorian population you could interpret this as evidence of a problem. You might also see it as not a bad result for a group of comparatively young recent immigrants from a war ravaged country (young people from all backgrounds tend to commit more crimes).
The racial aspect of this issue is a beat-up, based on a grain of truth. But it’s a dangerous one, because while our police and state government choose their words carefully to avoid reinforcing unwarranted anxiety, the racial fears can be easily exploited.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this debate is the way our political leaders are hurting real people in the process of trying to get re-elected. There was a time when, on sensitive issues, political leaders took a bipartisan approach in the interest of social cohesion. They sacrificed their self-interest to protect the communities they serve. The Turnbull government’s sudden interest in African crime smacks of the opposite approach.