Address to the Australian Intercultural Society

Good afternoon members of the Australian Intercultural Society, guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we gather and pay my respects to your elders, past and present.

In 1829, British policing designed the principles of policing that shaped much of the way we still see modern policing. They became known as the Peelian Principles after UK Home Secretary of the time, Robert Peel – but in truth they were likely the product of a few others as well. All of the principles are worth reflecting on............... but one in particular for today.

To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

It is an undisputable fact, that most of the best work of police will rarely be seen, won’t attract media coverage, and won’t get public accolades. It is the work we do to prevent crime, mostly via our community involvement, that will have the greatest impact............... And this is what I want to discuss a little more today.

I speak today, not only as Commissioner of the AFP, but also as member of the Australian community, and I want to talk about how police – the AFP in particular – play our part in the shared goal of social cohesion.

We all have a vested interest in greater social cohesion, described by the Scanlan Foundation as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.”

I’m sure you all agree with me that a cohesive society is critically important, but its achievement is easier said than done. Increasingly we are seeing outward signs that challenge cohesion, so why is that, and what can we do about it?

People need to feel that you understand them, that you listen to their concerns, and that you care about the problems they face. I suggest that the key to achieving this lies in building and maintaining relationships of trust so the community will engage with us, and work with us to tackle the current and challenges. Without engagement and trust, disaffection and alienation have an opportunity to flourish.

Rapid change brought about by globalisation continues to impact and shape Australian society.

The Australian community is comprised of many diverse groups – be they cultural, geographical or religious – and each has a shared role and responsibility to help achieve unity and trust by fostering the ingredients of a cohesive society.

Mr Herman Ousley, Chairman of the UK Commission for Racial Equality, put it this way: “Social cohesion must encompass the basic principles of justice, fair treatment, equality of opportunity, equal participation, and self-determination from all the people of diverse backgrounds in these societies if we are not to have social chaos, breakdown and even disorder”.

I like that description. These foundation blocks are necessary to reduce the risk of marginalised communities, disengaged individuals and, in the current context, the associated risk of radicalisation.

Australia is considered a success story of multiculturalism and cohesion - in 2015 the Scanlon Foundation survey reported ‘Australia remains a stable and highly cohesive society’. The Australian Multicultural Council reports that social cohesion at the national level is strong; however there is not a trickledown effect to the local community. While many people enjoy and celebrate diversity and difference, and their positive effects on society, there are also people who see this as a threat.  This can lead to an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

We see this where communities are isolated and distrustful, where young people turn to radical interpretations of faith, and in events like the Reclaim Australia rallies. And it is at this level where community engagement and effective law enforcement are connected and most crucial.

The AFP currently operates in a complex environment which reflects the growth, development and prosperity of multi-cultural Australia. An environment which requires our understanding and adaptation to new social challenges, community threats and technologies.

For Police, our role lies in increasing public safety, protecting the community, and preventing and disrupting crime through a clear understanding of the community environment. In short, our objective is to support and build social cohesion, not undermine it.

We achieve this by building relationships of trust with the communities we serve. We have a responsibility to identify opportunities and develop programs to strengthen this trust. It isn’t an easy job – it requires a proactive approach to community engagement that pre-empts reactive investigation and prosecution. This is understood by Police, including the AFP, who are actively working to enhance community engagement.

AFP initiatives complement Australian Government programs which invest in social cohesion, such as the Living Safe Together’ initiative and early diversion programs of the Attorney-General’s Department.

We meet regularly with a number of key stakeholders and community leaders to build relationships of trust in our communities and keep abreast of community sentiment. As part of this we undertake a range of community engagement activities, not all of which are associated with the traditional image many in the community have of Police. For example:

The Unity Cup football round robin has been held between Muslim teams of local community members and representatives from the AFP and Victoria Police since 2008.

The Unity Cup strengthens ties between Police, Muslim and other culturally and linguistically diverse communities through a mutual appreciation of AFL and has grown to include Indigenous and Jewish teams. It gives community members a chance to interact with Police in a different setting, acknowledge commonalities and build positive relationships.

Another activity is the combined federal and state Police ‘ThinkUKnow’ cyber security online awareness programs – which aims to encourage young Australians to embrace technology whilst thinking about the threats and dangers they may encounter online – particularly people who may seek to harm or negatively influence them. These programs engage parents, carers, teachers and young people.

Further, AFP Community Liaison Teams around the country undertake a range of outreach activities to build positive and trusting relationships with communities.  Working collaboratively with community groups the teams seek to support community efforts to enhance resilience to extremist behaviours, and reduce the likelihood of vulnerable individuals becoming radicalised.

This support includes encouraging leaders to discuss sensitive issues such as radicalisation within their communities. I am pleased to say this has resulted in circumstances where students who may otherwise have become radicalised have taken part in diversion activities.

It is through these teams and a broader Countering Violent Extremism Strategy that we communicate the message that a key priority for the AFP is crime prevention and public safety. This was demonstrated in September 2015, when an AFP community liaison team organised a program to educate interested members of the community on changing security practices at Sydney Airport. The objective............... to create understanding, enhance existing relationships, and build trust.

However these Police initiatives are not enough. In fact, what is obvious is that these are our ideas that we are investing in. We need to do more to be a part of your ideas.

Social cohesion must also be driven by communities and involves many parts of Government, beyond policing. Success is dependent on citizen support and involvement.

Communities can take meaningful steps to enhance cohesion such as:

  • countering public narratives of extremism and criminality by providing positive alternatives;
  • creating dialogue, similar to today’s luncheon, so authorities and experts can speak with members of the community and discuss issues of concern;
  • helping people who are feeling lost or isolated and perhaps heading down the path towards criminality to reconnect with their families and community;  and
  • being willing to engage and cooperate with police and find common ground, rather than those things that invariably create tension.

This collaboration must extend to broader partners including social service departments, local government, municipal groups and Non-Government Organisations, who service the community through dialogue, education, program delivery, recreation and social justice. Each has a role in creating social cohesion – that environment where we cooperate to not only survive, but to prosper.

So what are the impediments to effective collaboration?

One is the community perception of Police. Some communities feel targeted, or harassed, or marginalised. In part this perception is reinforced by media reporting on the ‘hard’ response of law enforcement – the increasing amount of counter terrorism related operations and tactical policing squads, control orders, border control measures and so on.

Police are mostly portrayed as the enforcers, rather than part of the community. This portrayal is played out in the media also affects community groups themselves, erodes social trust and can contribute to the backlash effect we are seeing, particularly against Islamic communities.

Unfortunately, there’s not nearly as much recognition of the ‘softer’ engagement and community activities the AFP and our state and territory partners do, including the activities I have mentioned and our community policing role.

We need to continue getting the message out that Police are here to help, that we would rather prevent crime, and that we draw no particular satisfaction from having to occasionally take such a hard approach to our role.

And this leads into a second factor; law enforcement needs to balance the requirement to provide community safety and law enforcement whilst maintaining the rights of the individual within our democracy.

Over several years we have seen an increase in legislative reform and new Police powers. For instance, changing technology has seen Government adopt Data Retention legislation, which requires telecommunications companies to collect and hold data for a consistent amount of time. These reforms have unfortunately attracted a lot of negative, and often inaccurate, attention in the media and some segments of society. I’m sure you have all heard of meta data now!

Without these reforms, the ability of the AFP to investigate serious offences such as child protection or terrorism would be limited, simply because the evidence we need would no longer be there for us to access.

Likewise, the AFP has applied the Control Order regime to prevent the movement and limit associations of individuals in the context of counter terrorism investigations.  These powers also attract negative attention.

We apply these tools as a last resort, and only because they are necessary to ensure public safety.

There is a tension between the freedom of an individual in a democracy and the community right to safety. Unfortunately, in some instances the freedoms of individuals do need to be limited in order to ensure the safety of the community as a whole which, it has to be said, applies across all crime types and is not limited to terrorism investigations.  Our role as Police is to try to balance that tension as best as possible, acting within the law.

A third factor for the AFP is to balance and appropriately reflect the needs of the community we serve.  Workforce diversity has been a significant focus for me personally since becoming Commissioner.

The AFP’s workforce does not currently represent the diversity of the community it serves.  A homogenous workforce limits the AFP’s ability to understand and serve the community and ensure that policies and programs are tailored to meet community experiences and needs.

Diversity is not simply a human resource ideal, it is a fundamental policing capability.

Something as simple as being able to speak with members of a community in their language impacts enormously on the relationship that is built.

A diverse workforce also provides access to a broad range of skills, experience, education and culture, maximising the ability to deliver a variety of local solutions to local problems.

These issues are of course are interconnected - where there exists a significant divide between communities and Police it increases the challenge of recruiting from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

All of this is occurring in an environment where our priorities are many, and the crimes varied. For this reason we concentrate our efforts on the most vulnerable groups.

We would of course prefer to engage broadly, so we must leverage relationships with other law enforcement and civil society partners to achieve that goal. This reinforces my earlier point that working collaboratively is critical.

Australia is not alone in facing challenges such as these. Many countries around the world grapple with similar issues, particularly multicultural societies and societies which are feeling impacts of globalisation.  The Council of Europe has developed an action plan for social cohesion and the UK has implemented social cohesion strategies in many areas. Themes such as cultural diversity, equality and civic engagement are common, which resonate with what we are doing here in Australia.

So what does the future need to look like?

The relationship between Police and the community is not static. We all need to be progressive, flexible with our strategies and considerations, and adapt to change.  In order to effectively enhance cooperation with the community, we need to continue strengthening our relationships and further cultivating trust.

As police, we need more proactive media engagement to ensure the community understands what we are doing and why. We need to work with the media as a means to assist with engagement, not see it as an enemy.

This includes interviews by AFP officers and the use of social media tools which allow for interactive discussion - allowing the community to engage us directly to discuss issues which affect them.

As Commissioner, it is my aim to ensure the AFP is viewed as an organisation that is professional and trusted, not one that is feared or misunderstood.

We must expand law enforcement networks to better link with community groups such as the Australian Intercultural Society, who can contribute to positive communication and sustained changes in the way the community perceives Police.

I want to continue to build on the community liaison programs currently underway and work closely with community leaders, families, parents, teachers and youth. This creates dialogue, increases trust between communities and Police and challenges the assumption that we are targeting ethnicities rather than crime.

I also want to continue promoting community leadership in encouraging civil participation, preventing criminal activity, and supporting public safety. Respected community leaders, at all levels, are effective voices to counter propaganda, turn people away from violence or radicalism and encourage shared responsibility.

The AFP already works collaboratively with many agencies whose programs are complementary to ours.

Police responses cannot solve every problem - accepting issues as multi-faceted rather than monolithic gives us a much greater chance of success. I would much rather people are diverted to early intervention mechanisms, than to arrest them after they have committed a crime.

Finally, as AFP Commissioner I have committed to building a workforce that better reflects the diversity of society. The Australian community needs an AFP that is flexible, dynamic and able to best reflect the changing operating environment and the diversity of the community, in order to respond effectively to the dynamic environment.

To do so, we need to improve the balance of cultural diversity and also women in our workforce. I have recently appointed the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Elizabeth Broderick, to assist the AFP in improving diversity in our workforce. Ms Broderick has significant experience in this area, having previously worked with the Australian Defence Force on inclusion issues. I look forward to working with her on concrete strategies to increase participation and build capability and skills to best reflect community needs.

I have also initiated a future directions project that will evaluate the capacity and capabilities the AFP needs to position us for the future. This project will report back shortly and I look forward to examining its recommendations.

While we cannot predict the future we can make sure that we are flexible, and as well positioned to respond to a dynamic environment as possible.

And I ask you, the community, to consider what you can do to work with us – but not just consider it, let us know.

How can you get involved; how can you build bridges within your community and with police and other groups; how can the police become involved in your objectives; how can you be a positive voice?

We recognise that the world is constantly changing, society is changing. Police must adapt and respond to this change. We must be creative, we must be flexible, and we must work together.   Only through this approach can we be successful.

We are seeing real success, real relationships being built, and real progress being made. But more is needed and events such as this are critical in continuing the dialogue and exploring new ideas.

I started with a quote from the 1829 Peelian Principles, so I would like to close on a similar note. In the nearly 200 years since they were promulgated, they have been re-written and re-interpreted many times – and this one has been shortened to read:

The police are the public and the public are the police.

We are in this together, and, like any good team, we have different roles to play. Providing all of our objectives are heading in the same direction, a direction that finds social cohesion at its core, together we will give our team the greatest chance of success.

I’d like to sincerely thank the Society for the invitation to speak today and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Have a wonderful afternoon.

Commissioner Andrew Colvin

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