PM’s bail comment of dubious value

PM Tony Abbott is pushing the boundaries of his legal duties as a citizen in some recent comments on arrests. His bail comments in particular are of dubious worth.

PM’s bail comment of dubious value

By Rajan Venkataraman*

In Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s National Security Statement on 23 February, he said that the Martin Place gunman Man Haron Monis received bail “when there should have been jail” and that steps were already being taken to remove “the benefit of the doubt” when considering bail and other applications.

These comments echoed those he made a few days earlier at the release of the joint federal-NSW review of the siege at the Lindt Cafe. This was despite the fact that the review itself found no fault in the decision-making process in relation to Monis’ bail application and recommended only modest changes to the process for considering bail applications.

meagherBail always comes under scrutiny in such circumstances, as it did in 2012 following the rape and murder of ABC Melbourne reporter Jill Meagher by Adrian Bayley, who was on bail and on parole from a previous crime.

It is of course entirely appropriate that our practices in relation to bail are subject to regular review. However, in doing so, it is important to remember that bail applications apply to people who have been accused of a crime but who have not yet been – and perhaps never will be – convicted of that crime.

Australian courts consider hundreds of bail applications every week. Adopting a tougher line and denying bail in a greater proportion of cases may remove some potentially dangerous people from the community, but it will also mean that more innocent people will be denied their liberty for weeks and possibly months.

This is why the Prime Minister’s commitment, in his National Security Statement, to change the balance “between the rights of an individual and the safety of the community” needs careful scrutiny to say the least.

It should also be remembered that each time an accused person is denied bail and kept in prison awaiting their trial, the cost to the tax-payer is around $330 per day which, when applied to the system as a whole, soon amounts to millions of dollars. This is money that could have been spent on community policing or programs to prevent crime or reduce recidivism (or for that matter on health, education or other services).

Before we respond in haste to particular horrendous crimes that capture all the media attention, we need to think carefully about whether our money is best spent keeping more people in jail or whether there are more cost-effective – and just – ways to improve our security.

* Rajan Venkataraman is a CLA member from Hobart, who worked for twenty years in the federal public service and in ministerial offices in Parliament House, Canberra.

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