House:LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
Date:12.17 PM WEDNESDAY, 16 June 1999
Member:Roberts, Mrs Michelle
Subject:APPROPRIATION (CONSOLIDATED FUND) BILL (NO 1) 1999 - ESTIMATES COMMITTEES A AND B REPORT AND MINUTES
Page:9113 / 1

My principal concern with the police budget is that effectively budget funds to operational policing have been cut. The front-line police officers who are located at suburban police stations and throughout rural Western Australia are finding it more difficult to do their jobs and to make ends meet. Contrary to what the Government has suggested, I hear of more and more cases where staffing at stations is brought down to lower levels. I understand that some nine police stations in remote locations in Western Australia have only one police officer. The Opposition has certainly raised the case of the Yalgoo Police Station, which has only one police officer. Although the argument might be able to be mounted that some country towns in the south west need have only one police officer because someone is on call from nearby, in the case of a station like that at Yalgoo there is no other police station for a large number of kilometres. Northampton Police Station no longer has a sergeant in charge but a senior constable. That sort of practice has occurred throughout rural Western Australia. Sometimes the number of police officers in a station has not necessarily been decreased but the most senior position has been removed and allocated elsewhere. In the case of Northampton, I think the sergeant's position was allocated to Geraldton where it is needed. Although I have absolutely no argument with the need for the position in Geraldton, it should not be at the expense of police stations like Northampton.

It is interesting to note the expressed concerns of the Government, the Office of Road Safety and people in the community at the road toll and that many of the road fatalities are occurring in country Western Australia, yet at the same time the reports I get from police officers and others in country areas indicate that they are under-resourced and cannot do the necessary road patrols. Fewer patrol cars are on the road because of the structural changes that have taken place in the Police Service. We now have policemen who are generalists and are required to do a wide variety of duties. Although this maximum flexibility allows them to target on a needs basis, it can mean that some of the more routine matters are overlooked. It is of even greater concern to hear that when officers are part of the Delta reform and devolution process and in charge of their local budgets, someone from the senior command group may point out that they must look at their electricity budgets and be mindful to switch off the lights and be aware of those kinds of things. Indeed, in some police stations petrol is being rationed. Cars are garaged because the funds are not available to put fuel in them and send them out on the roads. If that is the case, bearing in mind the number of road fatalities in Western Australia, it is of great concern. It is all very well to have police officers focused on balancing their local budgets, but they need to be focused on community priorities and areas of need.

The Government professes to be strong on law and order and to have some comprehension of the community's desire for effective policing, but it is failing to deliver. When we look at the Police Service budget in isolation from the Justice budget, we find, once we take into account the consumer price index and population growth, there is an effective 4 per cent cut. It is of further concern that effectively the cut is even greater because of the enterprise bargaining agreement. The Opposition has been fully supportive of the wage increase as part of that EBA. We have been critical of the Government because it has been slow to put it in place. The figures put forward by the Minister for Police and the claims of the Police Union (WA) vary, but, from what I can gather, the budget needs an additional $15m or $20m to fund that wage increase.

As is the case with many other government departments, the staffing cost of the Police Service is the biggest part of the department's budget. If an enterprise bargaining agreement increases the cost of wages, the budget needs to be topped up by that amount. An additional $15m or $20m should have been added into the budget. If it is not added to the budget to pay for the wages of existing police officers, it must come from within the present budget. If it is taken from the present budget, it means that it will be taken from the coalface of policing; that is, from local stations and various police divisions. That is an alarming state of affairs. Previously I have documented in this place the effective cuts to the operational budget of police in this State over the past few years. I do not think that is acceptable. Most people in Western Australia have the highest regard for police officers and the job that they try to do. Like us, they are becoming more and more aware that police stations are short-staffed, and in many cases ill equipped. Budgetary constraints are preventing police from doing the effective job they could be doing. It is interesting to note that in the context of some of the issues raised at the police conference in the past couple of days there seems to be a cost-shifting arrangement with the Government now allocating to local government $4m for law and order and crime prevention matters. We have also seen the engagement of private security firms by local governments. Although security firms are ostensibly paid for by local government, they are ultimately paid for by the ratepayers. Those people are paying twice, through state taxes and again through local government taxes.

On talkback radio recently a couple of callers made the point that if the police responded more quickly we would not need that service. That is exactly my point. In the past few years due to the under-funding of the operational side of policing it has been difficult for patrol cars to respond sufficiently quickly to cases of need. The City of Bayswater instigated its security patrols some years ago because the response times by police were poor, particularly at night. Only about two police cars were available between the City of Bayswater and areas as far away as Scarborough. On occasions one or both of those police cars could be called to problems at Scarborough beach or wherever and residents of the City of Bayswater were left without a local patrol vehicle that could respond in a timely fashion. That being the case, the City of Bayswater stepped in to fill the vacuum. However, generally people want to have real police officers doing a real job. It was interesting to note that the American commentator, Ron DeLord, brought here for the policing conference, said that security guards would not put their lives on the line for anyone; and that we must have real police officers to do that.

It is all very well to say that these people can be the eyes and ears but the experience from overseas appears to be that private security guards do not fool anyone. Someone who is intent on committing a crime will not be put off by a couple of people wearing flash uniforms who do not have the powers of police officers to deal with offenders. As was confirmed in the Estimates Committee hearings by the senior police who were present, private security guards do not have very much power to deal with people, even to detain them or to use citizen's arrest. With reference to a security company that was promoting the idea that it could undertake citizen's arrest, I think one of the senior officers said that the position was nowhere near as clear-cut as it thought and was fraught with danger.