The New Face of Police Governance in Australia

By Dupont, Benoit | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The New Face of Police Governance in Australia


Dupont, Benoit, Journal of Australian Studies


Over the past twenty years, Australian police services have been exposed to the scrutiny of royal commissions, which have uncovered a disturbing pattern of corruption and inefficiency. The media have also introduced the public to the most unpalatable aspects of police culture. At the same time, many liberal societies have experienced a political and social paradigm shift: the welfare state has become discredited as the preferred form of government and has been replaced by a more streamlined model, which has in turn fostered a new form of governance. The polymorphous concept of governance encompasses various meanings, which are all concerned with the capacity of the state to govern society. The effectiveness and efficiency of traditional forms of governance relying on hierarchical public structures have been questioned, and alternatives relying on market forces, policy networks and local communities are being advocated. (1) In terms of process, this new governance is characterised by the adoption of managerialist reforms, which are characterised by a belief in the superiority of the market over the state, the introduction of competition between government departments and agencies, a simultaneous process of centralisation and decentralisation, and the fragmentation of public services providers. (2)

Because of public preoccupations with such issues as corruption and a tainted organisational culture, the implications of managerial reforms for police functions and the governance of law enforcement have largely been neglected. I will argue that, far from being trivial, these changes have far-reaching repercussions. They redefine how Australian communities are being policed, discarding the legal obligation to enforce the law and maintain the peace for the public good, and replacing it with a more pragmatic approach, which consists of managing the risks posed by the 'dangerous classes'. This trend is reinforced by the politics of law and order that are being played in Australia by all parties during election campaigns. Before we can see how the new discourse of police managerialism has lead to substantial reforms in the fields of budget allocation, performance evaluation and contractualisation, it is essential to contextualise these changes at the international and national levels, and to highlight their political and social significance.

International and national public sector reforms

The reform of Australian police services since the early 1980s is part of a broader phenomenon that has engulfed the majority of public services in the western world. The dominance of the neo-liberal ideology triggered a movement of public sector reform focused on cost-cutting and downsizing. The underlying postulate was that centralised administrative interventions in the social and economic domains were inefficient and needed to be curtailed. In Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and Great Britain, the notion of public administration was replaced by the concept of public management, and private sector recipes were deemed to be the solution to this crisis of confidence. This transformation in the perceived role of the state resulted from the convergence of economic, political and ideological factors.

The energy crisis of the 1970s and the incapacity of public administrations to shelter the population from its destructive social consequences clearly showed the limits of the Keynesian welfare state. High inflation and unemployment rates led to the election of conservative politicians such as Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain; their terms in government are considered the starting points of a wave of market deregulation that accompanied the demise of the welfare state. Think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute in Washington, the Adam Smith Institute in London and the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia were instrumental in expressing this new policy of minimalist interventionism, under the intellectual patronage of political economist Friedrich von Hayek. …

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