Attorney-General Robert Clark: cracking down on violence.WHILE Melbourne has become a thriving international metropolis where one can down a creme de menthe at midnight after a night at the theatre, drill down and it remains a village in which everyone seems connected.
And here is where we must make a confession.
The subject of this column, state Attorney-General Robert Clark, and your correspondent have a vague link.
His daughter was a guest at our favourite daughter’s 21st birthday, and we are happy to report that Ms Clark was perfectly well behaved and, unlike others, neither vomited nor stole family artefacts – for which we are grateful.
We learnt two very important lessons from this function: speeches should be done and dusted early, and Jagermeister shots should be banned by United Nations decree. (Strong drink, we found, is to young ladies what myxomatosis is to rabbits: it leaves both species weepy eyed and with an overwhelming desire to lie down in long grass.)
However, we are not here to discuss family matters but to examine the performance of the Attorney-General since he came to power in December 2010.
It is a job in which you make few friends. To the law-and-order lobby you are always seen as a closet Marxist. To the civil libertarians you are a Ku Klux Klan-sympathiser. By any definition, Clark has been busy – and a politician who does anything more energetic than playing Angry Birds on his mobile during parliamentary debates will always make enemies.
That is the sad truth. We want ministers to make decisions and then want to spit on them when they do. Clearly it is much easier to sip muscat and doze fitfully during late-night sessions in the house than actually push through legislation.
Clark, one of the longest-serving members of Parliament (nearly 25 years) is a key figure in the Baillieu cabinet, partly because he is responsible for rolling out a raft of reforms that make up the government’s ”Tough on Crime” pre-election policy.
This, of course, is a nonsense as no political party has ever gone to the polls with a soft on crime policy. That is why Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, whereas Gandhi would not have won a Broadmeadows byelection.
But Robert Clark is no political opportunist. He is a true believer who started to contemplate a parliamentary career while still at high school. And there was never any doubt on which side of the fence he would land.
”It was during the Whitlam era when the country was going to the dogs at a great rate,” he recalls.
And Clark is no silver spoon Liberal. He was raised by migrant parents in St Albans in what he says were simpler, safer times.
His mother, Peggy, migrated from England to Australia with her family as a child. During World War II, his father Jack, then serving in the RAF, was on his way to a new posting via Melbourne when he met her at a dance. At the end of hostilities he returned to Melbourne to marry her.
”It was a very open and safe society,” Clark says. ”Many of the families came from war-torn Europe determined to start a new life for their kids.
”Kids from all different backgrounds mixed together in the playground long before the word multiculturalism was invented.
”I grew up in an optimistic household. We didn’t feel we were deprived or that we missed [out]. We didn’t have a TV until I was eight or 10, and my folks were keen to make sure we didn’t spend too much time glued in front of the box.
”My folks were big on education and I was lucky enough to pass the exam to go to University High in form three.”
(Another coincidence. Your correspondent followed a remarkably similar path in another working-class suburb. Indeed we sat the same University High exam, although that path was blocked to this reporter on a technicality – chronic stupidity. So while he went on to try to right wrongs, we went on to write about nongs.)
His mother, who regretted that her education had been cut short by the Depression, returned as a mature-aged student to complete her HSC (today’s VCE) at night school in the same year as her son.
Infused by his parents with a sense of public duty, Clark became politically active at university and was elected to Parliament in 1988 at the age of 31.
Now in a government sometimes criticised for a lack of urgency, he is making broad reforms to a court system notoriously resistant to change.
The abolition of home detention and suspended sentences, plus the introduction of a mandatory minimum four-year jail sentence for serious assaults, means more Victorians than ever will end up in jail.
At present, the jail population sits at around 5000, but capacity will increase by more than 1000 over the next few years. This will include a new, privately run 500-bed prison to be built near Deer Park, not far from where Clark grew up.
There is no doubt the government’s tougher sentencing philosophy is in line with community expectations, but many experts say more prisoners just means more recidivists.
We reflect on the thoughts of another working-class kid, former Supreme Court judge and chairman of the Parole Board Frank Vincent.
Big Frank is no kaftan wearer (although as a former long distance runner he has the legs for it) but he believes every effort should be made to keep young offenders (17 to 23) out of prison.
”If you keep individuals in custody for too long it becomes very difficult for them to be reintegrated into the community later,” he once told us.
”The question has never been about hard or light sentencing but appropriate sentencing. There will be cases where it is in society’s interest to extend as much leniency as we can. But it isn’t always the case.”
Clark makes no apologies for the changes, saying suspended sentences have failed.
”I would think most crooks would walk out of the court [having received a suspended sentence] thinking they had got away with it.”
He says the recently introduced community corrections orders give courts more flexibility. Options include curfews, no- go zones, bans on associating with certain people, and alcohol-exclusion orders. ”So they can draw on those to protect the community and send a message to the offender that their crime has unpleasant consequences.”
He says the mandatory minimum laws will include an exceptional circumstances clause to ensure courts still have some discretion, although he believes this will only be used in rare cases.
”If offenders commit assaults on people which are gross, both in degree of injury and culpability, we want them behind bars for at least four years, be they young, old or middle-aged,” he says. He expects the tougher penalties, coupled with the promised 1700 extra police, to ”deter likely offenders in the first place”.
Clark is a straight, decent man whose conservative values don’t blind him to alternative opinions. Within the legal fraternity even his opponents say he is prepared to listen, but not to the extent of doing nothing.
His greatest frustration, he says, is over the time it takes from formulating a policy until it becomes law.
In politics, he says he has ”a few” friends on the other side of the house.
”When you are in the Parliament you have the opportunity to assess people as individuals. Some you warm to and can work with, even though you passionately disagree about things. Others you would never socialise with and would have no interest of ever doing so.”
In many ways he is using new laws to try to enforce old standards.
One is the anti-bullying ”Brodie’s Law” (named after Brodie Panlock, the 19-year-old waitress who took her own life after being relentlessly bullied at work).
”We want to send a very clear message that all bullying is unacceptable, and serious bullying is a serious crime that can result in you being sent to jail,” he says.
And while no one has been charged under the law, he reveals that police are examining several cases where charges may be laid.
Clark, 55, wants a criminal justice system that is more efficient, less cumbersome and more transparent – and more in touch with community expectations. ”Statistics show we are far less safe than we used to be, and people feel less safe.
”When I was growing up we didn’t even lock our back door. Now you go to St Albans or Deer Park and every second house has roller shutters on the windows because of concerns about crime,” Clark says.
”It has been a huge change. When my mother was growing up she could take the last train to Altona and walk home without thinking twice about it.
”Now most parents are concerned about their kids’ movements at night.”
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