Comment

Community and business need to ask hard questions about organised crime

Some Australians will be shocked by recent revelations about the penetration of organised crime into Australian society. But the revelations of mafia crime and influence by the ABC and Fairfax are only one such source. 

These investigations add to recent Australian government reports showing that organised crime – whether domestic or transnational – imposes a wide and growing range of harms upon Australia's people and community, our economy and government, and our international interests.

The harms to individual safety and community harmony are well known. Most understand that illicit drugs, for example, have serious health risks and that the drug trade creates violence and corruption. Perhaps around 1000 die each year as a result of these drugs. Still, about 15 per cent of Australians over 14 years took illicit drugs last year. And drugs are involved in about 11 per cent of car fatalities in NSW alone. These major harms are produced through interactions between everyday Australians and organised crime, every day.

Serious and organised crime harms the community in other ways too. They are players in firearms trafficking, "modern slavery" and people-smuggling. Organised criminals are a source of violence and intimidation. These activities affront our safety and human rights.

While you may not have encountered organised crime personally, it still costs you individually. 

Agencies are now warning that criminals are targeting Australia's superannuation wealth. We've already seen how "Trio Capital" lured investors into a sham scheme, while less-sophisticated "boiler room" frauds can convince people to part with their savings too.

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Identity fraud – a growing crime – is becoming easier and cheaper to perpetrate. Sometimes, that involves using someone's stolen identity or personal details to access banks accounts or obtain credit. Identity fraud victims might not lose much individually – usually less than $1000. But it takes time and sometimes stress to restore integrity to your identity, and the burden is one you to attempt to repair your credit rating history. That's is not always easy.

Another dimension of identity crime involves obtain false identities. And it's not as hard as you might think. About $600 can buy a fake Medicare card, driver's licence, credit card and phone bill. That's enough proof of identity to get a loan or open a bank account. 

The use of the internet for crime is one factor that's creating new conditions. Cyber-enabled criminals can reach into homes, or break into company systems and exploit what's there. This activity costs the Australian economy about $1 billion a year, and about 108 cybercrimes are reported each day.

The cyber environment also helps other crimes. During the past few years, authorities have been struggling against "dark web" markets sell drugs, weapons, identities and highly exploitative, violent and degrading porn. This trade is supported by crypto currencies like "Bitcoin'.

Perhaps the main impact of serious and organised crime is felt in the economy. Many businesses might only encounter organised crime indirectly, perhaps as they lose competitiveness to others using standover tactics or tax evasion. Other businesses might be affected by counterfeits or digital piracy. 

And community safety is at risk when organised crime introduced fakes into the market place. We've heard of numerous instances: fake brakes that caused a car crash, major aircraft components that came loose because of fake bolts, and people who've taken worthless or harmful medicines because they bought fakes. 

So there's more at risk than just a poor-quality DVD here. 

At the same time, organised crime imposes costs and losses upon governments. In addition to lost revenue, the nation spends significant money on police, customs, intelligence, court and corrections to deal directly with serious and organised crime. Governments also impose regulations to stop crimes such as money laundering and identity theft, which adds to business costs in some way.

Serious and organised crime also affects Australia's overseas interests. While the Australian government builds partnerships with and provides aid to various countries, organised crime works at the same time to undermine human rights and development. 

This problem is so severe that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime now argues that organised crime in developing countries could overshadow the benefits of future economic and social integration.

That means even more places in the world could become havens for organised crime, which would be very likely to add to the impact of serious and organised crime here. This impact was estimated at $15 billion a year some time ago. That figure is under review by the Australian Crime Commission, and it's sure to be much more now. 

That's a cost we could reduce if we asked ourselves a few questions.

The first must be asked of the Australian public: do you understand the damage that's done by using illicit markets? While purchases might seem to affect only that consenting adult, the damage is far-reaching. It extends to the harms caused through crime-related violence and corruption, to unfair competition for legitimate businesses. Broader harms damage societies along the supply chain for drugs and human trafficking.

Do community members, businesses and law enforcement have trusted ways to share information? There are numerous mechanisms for reporting crime, such as Crime Stoppers, but are there better ways? This is especially important for businesses, who need sound advice about specific threats to them – and they could give police better information about what's happening too. 

Are all our national policy settings optimal? Is it time to review drug policies, perhaps so we can focus law, health and education efforts against illicit drugs according to the harm each causes?  

There are significant inconsistences in laws – for instance, South Australia wants to proscribe some "listed' gangs, just as Queensland's thinking about abolishing laws with similar effects. Isn't it time that the nation's governments agreed to an effective approach to seizing unexplained wealth? And are cryptocurrencies unambiguously good?

Given the revelations contained in the Fairfax-ABC investigation into the way the Calabrian mafia has allegedly corrupted some in Australia, isn't it time we established a national anti-corruption commission?

There's never a politically good time to raise these questions. That's why the community and business need to bring these topics onto the agenda – because it's in everyone's interests to have the best possible system in place to counter serious and organised crime.

David Connery and Clare Murphy are analysts with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute