Who needs evidence? Institute of Criminology merger remains controversial

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 30, 2016

Business background with graph, ruler, pen and calculator.

A Senate committee has recommended going ahead with merging the Australian Institute of Criminology into the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, despite nearly every submission it received advising against it.

The government-controlled committee, chaired by government Senator Ian MacDonald, received detailed objections on a wide range of grounds from a long list of credible experts from around the world, many of them criminologists to whom the AIC and its academic output are well known.

In contrast, the committee received a glaring lack of independent arguments in favour of the merger, which would rebadge the AIC as the Australian Crime and Justice Research Centre and make it an arm of ACIC, the new name for the Australian Crime Commission since it absorbed CrimTrac last year in a much less controversial change.

The government’s justification is that the merger will lead to better law enforcement outcomes and actually increase the value of the research body’s academic output, without reducing its quality or credibility in the wider world of academia. But, as the report notes:

“A majority of submitters argued that for criminological research to be viewed as being credible, it must be produced by an organisation which is independent, and has no stake in the findings.”

The mere idea of the two very different bodies merging successfully “shows a complete lack of understanding of the role of the two bodies” in the words of Peter Nordon, a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology.

The society’s current president, University of South Australia professor Rick Sarre, said it was “fanciful” to think the ACJRC could match the AIC’s work within the merged body and any research on the “accountability and effectiveness of police and intelligence agencies” would be under a cloud of suspicion.

Griffith University’s Criminology Institute director Ross Coomber stressed the importance of “perceived credibility” and argues that having any data produced by an organisation that can also benefit from that data is treated with great scepticism. This is particularly the case with law enforcement agencies, Professor Coomber contends:

“The police already suffer from having even the barest of descriptive statistics produced internally subjected to critique because of assumed bias and thus there is an almost inherent lack of credibility built into any analysis it carries out.”

Flinders University professor Adam Graycar, who served as AIC director for nine years, agreed with these arguments and suggested two scenarios were likely to play out after the body becomes an arm of ACIC:

“One is that much of what is researched will not be publicly available as it will be stamped with a security classification. The second is that it might not be believed, as coming from an intelligence agency people might always question hidden agenda and transparency of methodology and data. In short, people are less likely to take the output seriously and give it credibility. Without credibility research is hollow.”

At least two other former AIC directors, other long-serving former staff members and even consultants that had worked with the research institute also weighed in for the negative.

The report also records widespread concern among criminologists that the small institute’s research agenda might be significantly narrowed as it becomes a small branch of the much larger ACIC.

Even assuming that isn’t the intention, consultant criminologist and former ANZSOC president David Biles, who worked for the AIC for about 20 years, suggested the 20-odd research staff would “inevitably be drawn or gently guided” towards crime and terrorism at the expense of other topics, in an organisation employing around 50 times as many crime fighters.

Several other submissions from academics in the field made the same point. Another popular concern was that the merger would make the research output less open, and the inevitable predictions of a workplace culture clash also made an appearance.

The Community and Public Sector Union pointed out there was already a lot of staff turnover in the research body, since its staff were transferred to the ACC in October 2015 and seconded back to the AIC as the government started proceeding with elements of the merger before trying to cement it in legislation.

After hearing a lot of concerns, the committee could find nothing to quote in support of the machinery-of-government change other than Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s announcements about the ACIC plan, and a joint submission from the Attorney-General’s Department, the AIC and the nascent ACIC.

The ‘committee view’

Government senators ensured the committee view was that the legislation should be passed, on the basis that their parliamentary colleagues would never let the fears of the various submissions come to pass:

“The committee notes concerns that have been raised regarding the quality of AIC output following the merger but are of the view that the government would not jeopardise the safety of Australian citizens or the efficacy of Australian law enforcement by diluting the utility of this critical resource.”

In response to concerns that the merger could jeopardise the independence of the AIC’s research, the government members of the committee cite “legislative and non-legislative safeguards” including the input of a research advisory committee, questioning at Senate Estimates and “the scrutiny” of publishing an annual report.

The same mechanisms will prevent its research agenda being narrowed to focus mainly on law enforcement priories, they claim, and even mediate between the “different working cultures of [the] criminal intelligence and criminology research communities” when required.

Several of the concerned academics pointed out the police-dominated ACIC board would always have the final say on research priorities, not the proposed research advisory committee, which they also fear will be influenced by the presence of several law enforcement members in any case.

Again the only justification makes little reference to any actual submission to the Senate committee, which held one hearing on the matter last year and none this year. It simply asserts the concerns are misplaced:

“While the ACJRC would be a relatively small wing of the proposed ACIC, that does not mean that the research wing would necessarily be subsumed into the culture of the broader organisation. Again, regular scrutiny would help to ensure that while a research wing operated as part of a broader criminal intelligence organisation, and actively participated in improving the research capabilities of that organisation, the wing itself would be engaging in a related but separate endeavour.”

In a classic reversal of meaning, government senators present the chorus of opposition to the merger as a good sign, suggesting the organisation will be “subject to scrutiny by the national and international fraternity of criminologists and associated professionals” — providing more assurance that its important work won’t be derailed.

Give me one good reason…

So one-sided was this committee inquiry that its report includes a chapter on the notable lack of clear benefits or support from anyone outside government for the merger. While the submissions heaped plenty of praise on the AIC in its original form, and plenty of reasons to keep it the way it has been since 1973, many noted the absence of a compelling public interest in bolting it on to the shadowy criminal intelligence body.

Of course, the “committee view” really only reflects the government’s view in this case. The other committee members issued dissenting conclusions where they recommend the Senate reject the bill. Greens senator Nick McKim found:

“The government’s stated aim of providing Australian law enforcement agencies with central access to criminological research could have been achieved by administrative changes which would not require merging the AIC into the ACC.”

Labor’s Louise Pratt and Murray Watt argue the amalgamation “will not save any significant amount of money” and is unnecessary in any case:

“There are better ways to improve information sharing between the AIC and ACIC. Access to classified data can be secured through legislation or inter-agency agreements. A merger is not required.”

The crime fighters could easily have much more access to data or reports from the AIC just by asking, Professor Biles points out. Again, all the committee can report in response is assertions from Minister Keenan that it’s a good idea and his doubtful claim that the criminologists would get more access to classified information, making their conclusions more valuable and relevant to policymaking.

The specifics of what Keenan means aren’t clear, but the AIC having access to top secret information would not be a new development and this supposed benefit was not mentioned in any of the submissions of those with close knowledge of how the AIC works. The bizarre inquiry also brings to mind a certain Bill Murray film; these events transpired in almost the exact same manner last November, but the legislation lapsed when the last parliament was prorogued in May this year.

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