Talking the talk on walking the beat

Tony Abbott’s “Action Contract” has always sounded like it might be a gimmick to sell tickets to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. This week, we learnt more about the plot: a crackdown on gangs.

In Melbourne on Thursday, Tony Abbott proposed an anti-gang squad (no doubt comprised of misfits and ne’er-do-wells with shady backstories) under the auspices of the Australian Crime Commission.

Law and order is an old political favourite. The Coalition is offering millions of Commonwealth dollars for closed circuit television (CCTV), a knife action plan, and a database of gang activity.

Julia Gillard, in Melbourne on the same day, promised that her government would clamp down on the importation of exotic weaponry.

They’re already hard to import; she would make it slightly harder.

It says a lot about the condition of Victoria that the two leaders launched these policies here. If Sydney voters are uneasy because there are too many people, we’re uneasy because we think too many of those people want to stab us.

That’s the aim of retail politics – to sell you more of the anxieties you already have.

But law and order is a strange topic for a federal election campaign. After all, policing is a state issue. It’s one of the few mostly state issues left. The federal government doesn’t have operational control over the forces – and without police, you can’t be serious about crime reduction.

So, we’re getting minor proposals puffed up as major policy changes, as the parties try to own an issue they cannot.

Abbott said he would seek to “work with the states” to expand police-search powers. But in Victoria, the Brumby government is already giving the police more extensive and draconian powers for warrantless body searches. So what does Abbott think the Coalition is offering?

Certainly, there are things the federal government can control, such as customs and federal police.

But all that’s really happening is the feeding of a perception that state governments have lost control of their streets. Pity there’s little either federal party could really do about it.

This week’s duelling law and order announcements by the national leaders also gave us a small peek into the banality of local politics.

In their own electorates, federal candidates on both sides obsess over the number of officers at police stations, whether certain intersections need right-hand turn arrows, and the “scourge” of graffiti. One Liberal proudly states on his website “we need to put more police on the streets”. If he gets the role in federal Parliament he is auditioning for, we can only hope he’ll write a passionate letter to his state counterparts suggesting just that.

If federal politicians really want to talk about law and order, they could always copy John Brumby – leave Canberra and move into state politics.

Otherwise, it’s just talk. No real action.