Melbourne is a safe place to live, so what's all the hysteria about?
Melbourne is a bad-ass town. At least it is according to outspoken Liberal MP Bernie Finn, who recently told his local paper that parts had become so dangerous automatic weaponry was needed.
''Places like Werribee, Sunshine, Williamstown . . . have suffered for a long time,'' he said. There are places . . . without a flak jacket and a sub-machinegun you just wouldn't go there.''
Finn was no doubt being colourful, as is his custom. But the comments underscore a growing sense of hysteria being encouraged by some political figures and members of the commentariat.
You might be forgiven for thinking Melbourne is in danger of being overrun by ''thugs'' (a word that incidentally derives from the Hindi ''thuggee'', who were members of an extinct Indian robber cult who killed their victims with knotted scarves) who have been allowed to ride roughshod by liberal-minded judges.
But, according to analyst Economist Intelligence Unit in its global liveability survey, Melbourne has once again overtaken Vancouver as the world's most liveable city. It is one of the safest places to live in the world.
In 2010-11 there were 6429 crimes committed for every 100,000 Victorians, a fall of 3.9 per cent compared with the previous year, and the lowest since comparable records began in 1993.
While it is true that the rate of so-called crimes ''against the person'' increased by 4 per cent, as new Police Commissioner Ken Lay points out, this has had much to do with the burgeoning problem of family-related violence. Crimes linked to family incidents, for example, leapt by an alarming 26 per cent in the year. In contrast, other crimes against the person increased by just 0.1 per cent (murders fell sharply).
The bottom line is that it is difficult to say whether Melbourne's streets are becoming less safe. Even if you accept they are, it is simplistic to blame hoons, thugs and louts, as if they represent a new subspecies of humanity.
The Baillieu government's populist approach to law and order has been its controversial tough-on-crime agenda, which includes the abolition of suspended sentences and home detention, minimum jail terms (except in extenuating circumstances) for 16 and 17-year-olds who commit acts of gross violence and new ''baseline'' minimum sentences.
A better approach would be to focus on ''upstream'' causes, rather than tackling ''downstream'' symptoms.
According to one estimate included in the Victorian Council of Social Service's submission to next year's state budget, it costs about $528 a day to keep a young offender locked up, compared with $52 a day for community-based supervision. As the submission notes: ''The cost of the custodial supervision would be better spent on prevention and early intervention programs and services.''
A 2008 study by Access Economics, which examined suburbs at Melbourne's fringes, found every $1 spent on early intervention tackling youth disengagement in the suburbs would provide a $24 return to society, including an extra $7.60 to the government through increased tax revenue.
In a practical sense, it is likely that the government will at some stage be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building a new ''mega-prison'' to accommodate the inevitable influx of offenders. (It plans to spend about $268 million to add 500 beds to existing prisons, although this is probably insufficient.)
Courts are already bracing for increases in delays bringing cases to trial. As Chief Judge Michael Rozenes suggests in the County Court annual report this week, the new sentencing regime is likely to stretch court resources to the limit, reversing the considerable progress that had been made cutting delays bringing cases to trial over the past year.
In one of its most egregious pieces of public policy, the state government has now completed an online survey of community attitudes about its new sentencing regime. As any pollster would tell you, the results of ''self-selecting'' online polls such as this are likely to be so skewed they could be worse than useless. This survey, conducted in tandem with the Herald Sun, was so poorly designed respondents who felt strongly enough were able to complete the online poll several times. This is hardly the basis for good public policy. The effects of such populist nonsense could be felt for years.