A new research paper explores the benefits to businesses, government MPs and Councillors who foist public CCTV cameras on small communities, despite large ongoing costs to local ratepayers and no good evidence to support them.
Writing in the public journal Surveillance and Society, political historian Robert Carr explores how “politicians have cultivated support for CCTV at the local level and pressured councils to install these systems despite a lack of evidence they reduce, deter or prevent crime” and examines the factors driving the rapid expansion of public surveillance.“You can sort of hoodwink the public, when an assumption is so widespread.”
Carr’s case study is the $50 million Safer Streets program, which funds cameras and other infrastructure via local government and has been widely criticised as pork-barrelling. Nearly all of the funding — which councils were selectively asked to apply for — has gone to seats held by the government and the administration of the grants by the Attorney-General’s Department has been strongly criticised by the Australian National Audit Office.
The research paper aims to illuminate the “complex relationship between political motivations and economic outcomes” that really drives the installation of public CCTV, regardless of whether the electorate wants it and in spite of the lack of evidence to support it, Carr told The Mandarin.
A second round of Safer Streets funding opened in December and at least one funding announcement has been reported in the election campaign so far: Western Australian Liberal MP Luke Simpkins has announced $207,000 for the seat of Cowan.
Now, according to Justice Minister Michael Keenan, “the crimes of yesterday are helping to prevent the crimes of tomorrow” since Safer Streets is funded via confiscated wealth. Carr says this widely accepted myth that security cameras reduce crime is what makes them a powerful “electoral tool” — particularly for government MPs.
“I think on that basis you can sort of hoodwink the public, when that assumption is so widespread,” Carr explained. “This isn’t new. This idea that there’s no evidence for cameras … isn’t a new thing but what’s striking is that even though all these studies have shown that, this isn’t resonating in that public discourse or the public mindset.”
As well as the totemic political value of cameras in public spaces, the article looks at how the images they capture are distributed, with their meaning and public value “mediated” by “political and commercial groups” whose interests align in their proliferation. Rather than the general public, Carr sees the main beneficiaries of government-funded CCTV systems as federal government MPs, Councillors, local businesses and members of the security industry to whom the funding eventually flows.
Rational advice ignored
One of Carr’s examples is Ryde City Council, where lobbying from a local business group in collaboration with federal government MP John Alexander overcame the advice of the council’s community safety officer, who recommended not to apply for the Safer Streets funding. The report from the council’s staff found no evidence the cameras would provide any benefit to the town centre despite “a significant ongoing cost to Council” and noted they were not recommended by the police.
Carr argues that the “selective” awarding of Safer Streets grants “creates a patron-client scenario” between councils and federal government MPs:
“This scenario signifies the politicisation of the Safer Streets funding scheme which allows politicians to position themselves as the deliverers of community safety and cultivate support from local interest groups particularly business chambers.”
The Ryde City Councillors all got on board. Carr thinks the Safer Streets grant process lets councillors leverage the symbolic value of CCTV for their own electoral benefits. At the same time, government MPs are able to pressure them, relying on the popular mythology, as Alexander did in Ryde by circulating a petition to local businesses. “It ends up being a mutually beneficial political relationship,” he said.
In the article, Carr writes:
“The structure of the Safer Streets scheme offers Coalition MPs significant opportunity for cultivating endorsement of Federal Government ideology in local communities. Coalition MPs personally control access to Safer Streets funding while making the delivery of the grants contingent upon acceptance of the Federal Government’s policy and all of the assumptions implicit in it.
“Local councils are invariably required to acquiesce Coalition propaganda which depicts CCTV spending as an ‘obvious’ solution, as normative, and the presumption that the [Coalition] Government’s policy is ‘common sense’.”
Costly cameras on the safe streets of Kiama
Carr’s main case study is the seaside village of Kiama on the New South Wales South Coast. Thanks to Safer Streets funding, 20 CCTV cameras now keep watch over the quiet streets, which were already very safe.
Kiama’s crime rates are so low that fluctuations are more meaningfully expressed in terms of actual numbers of incidents than the usual percentages. The majority of the installation costs — $150,000 — came from Commonwealth coffers, while the NSW government kicked in $50,000 and Kiama Council ended up with an $85,000 bill.
The council’s claim of “strong support” from the community was based on only 37 survey responses in an area with about 20,000 residents, or about 0.185% of the population. Five more locals emailed in their feedback, and overall, just 30 submissions supported the cameras.
Despite no real evidence showing the majority of the council area’s ratepayers even want the cameras in Kiama, they have to pay the ongoing costs. And they aren’t cheap, Carr writes:
“The cost of operating camera systems has been exorbitant and unforeseen by councils across Australia; at one local council the federal government has paid approximately $83,000 per camera while local councils were paying up to $600,000 per annum out of their own budgets to keep a CCTV system operational.”
Evidence be damned
The journal article also considers “why evaluations aren’t wanted” when it comes to CCTV, which has become “a mechanism allowing government to facilitate the flow of public funds to private companies through arrangements that are virtually unchecked and non-evidence based” according to Carr. His research reveals shifting, inconsistent justifications with the unfounded idea that street cameras enhance public safety generally giving way to the much lower standard of reducing the public’s fear of crime. He reflects:
“The potential for being discredited by objective evidence may explain why there is no strong desire expressed by politicians for local councils to produce regular CCTV evaluations. Notably, the Safer Streets Programme prohibits local councils from using CCTV funding for evaluations in the first round of funding.”
Carr notes that one of the most popular and powerful myths used to push Safer Streets — including by John Alexander in Bennelong — was that CCTV was crucial in solving the high-profile murder of Jill Meagher. Though a chilling video was a big part of the extensive media coverage, the police said mobile phone tracking and tollway data analysis was in fact the key to solving the case.
When he asked Alexander to provide evidence to support the claim that “statistics indicate that the installation of CCTV cameras helps reduce crime rates”, the federal MP sent back two research papers that actually contradicted it.
Carr argues “councils are exposed to the risk of diminished credibility and independence from police” due to the lack of evidence-based evaluations:
“This is particularly the case as local councils are increasingly held to ransom by commercial media working to galvanise the attentions of the public which often perceives crime to be ‘out of control’ even when it has significantly declined.
“Within such a context the ‘fear of crime’ is given as a primary justification for federal CCTV funding and the phrase is enshrined in the NSW Government’s and many local council CCTV policies. This scenario highlights why CCTV funding for local governments is a populist response to largely unfounded fears.”
The allure of CCTV is not exclusive to conservative politicians; Carr suggests it is particularly useful as a political tool for incumbents. But he notes it is “a mechanism for the mobilisation of public support” in the communications strategies of current Liberal MPs and describes how they have attacked and belittled attempts to present rational arguments against the costly, politicised and often unnecessary devices.
Not that he expects that to change for this election campaign:
“The powerful anti-crime ‘dog-whistle’ that comes with pro-CCTV discourse is entwined in the construction of local Liberal Party politicians’ credibility and their public identities. Challenging these political commitments to CCTV with an evidence-based perspective is unlikely to sway their efforts.”