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Insitute of Criminology sacrificed on altar of bureaucracy

Since its establishment in 1973 the Australian Institute of Criminology has acquired a national and and international reputation for its high-quality research and for its focus on policy-related issues.

It was the only research body that routinely pursued a national/comparative approach to data collection and criminal justice practice in each of the Australian states and territories. This approach can be seen in the AIC monitoring of gun crime, drug use, prison trends, deaths in custody, police pursuit fatalities, juvenile detention, and so on. The AIC also conducted many national conferences that had enormous impact. For example, early in its history its conference on domestic violence was held at a time when many police, some at senior levels, were not sure domestic violence was really a crime!

From its foundation, the AIC had the full support of all of the states (who then as now carry the overwhelming responsibility for all aspects of criminal justice) and whose representatives served as members of the AIC board of management and the associated research funding agency, the Criminology Research Council. Notwithstanding this, the AIC has, from the start, been under constant pressure from the federal Attorney-General's Department to surrender at least some of its standing as an independent statutory authority and encouraged it to conform to the expectations of a public service agency.

Since 2013, AIC staff became subject to new legislation that in effect gave them public service pay and conditions, except for those who had been engaged for specific projects. Two years later, Justice Minister Michael Keenan announced that the head of the Australian Crime Commission, Chris Dawson, was to be the newly appointed interim director of the AIC. A little later he also announced the AIC would be placed within the ACC "to boost research capacity at the nation's criminal intelligence agency".

Keenan stressed the merger was "not about cutting costs or personnel from either agency but about creating a unified workforce" that would "significantly enhance support for law enforcement in counter-terrorism efforts and in bolstering Australia's response to serious and organised crime".

In other words, the AIC would lose any semblance of independence and AIC criminologists were to become little more that assistants to police officers working in a narrow area of criminal justice, albeit an important area. It is little wonder that almost half of the research staff reacted by seeking employment elsewhere.

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In October 2015, the House of Representatives passed legislation that formally merged the AIC with the ACC, but this was not considered by the Senate because Parliament was soon after dissolved for the federal election. Nevertheless, a quasi-merger proceeded fairly quickly; the AIC building was closed and the remaining staff either moved elsewhere or were physically housed in the ACC high-security premises. The institute's highly regarded J.V. Barry Library was reduced in size, some services were curtailed, and the collection was no longer readily available to scholars and practitioners.

Until about three weeks ago, there were only hints of these developments, with information coming from other criminologists. But then I was told the government was still intent on introducing legislation to finalise the incorporation of the AIC within the ACC. This was to be achieved by the introduction of the postponed Australian Crime Commission Amendment (Criminology Research) Bill 2016. At short notice, the public was advised it could make submissions to the Senate's Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

In spite of there being little time to make submissions, I forwarded a statement advocating retention of an independent Institute but was advised the committee would not be holding any public hearings into the matter and individuals would not be able to elaborate on their submissions.

There were 20 submissions to the committee (now available online) with 19 clearly opposed to the idea of a merger and only one, from the Attorney-General's Department, in favour.

The committee staff told me that the final report would be published on November 10, less than a fortnight after the closing date for submissions. The final report turned out to be an enormous disappointment: its single recommendation was: "The committee recommends that the Senate pass the bill". It makes no argument nor gives any reasons for this conclusion. Two dissenting reports, from the Labor Party and the Greens, both recommend that the bill not be passed.

The whole experience makes a mockery of parliamentary committee procedures, and I can only hope that rationality and reason will prevail when the Senate considers this bill as a whole, and that they vote it down.

David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra. He spent 20 years in various senior positions at the AIC.