Saturday, 4 January 2014

Consistent Absurdity

The Thin Blue (and fluoro) Line, Parliament House, Melbourne from Wikimedia Commons
The recent story about a Brisbane* man fined for leaving his unattended car window down speaks volumes about this country, regardless of the circumstances of the "offence". If you didn't know already, it's an offence be more than three metres away from your vehicle without it being "secured" - that includes doors locked, engine off and windows up etc. Who does this offence offend? Well, no one really. It's apparently crime "prevention", but like many laws on the books, they form part of a menu of possible revenue sources that aren't really an offence to civil society.

Spreading like wildfire (I'll come back to "fire" in a minute) on Facebook, the story sparked predictable responses from internets participants from "OMG TOTES CRAY" to "the stupd fuking goverment shuld stop doin dis shit" to "its only a $44 fine get over it" and "its the law whats so hard about that to understand". The only thing the comments had in common was theyre totes consistantly poor grammer adn spelling.

Ian Stewart, Queensland Police Commissioner says the officer did a good job, exercised his discretion and issued the fine because there had been "a number of thefts from motor vehicles" in the area. The man who was fined was allegedly also parked on the "incorrect" side of the road and on the footpath.

Now if we are to take the role of law enforcement to be that of protecting and serving, Queensland Police - and most other law enforcement agencies around the country and the world - fail miserably. In our liberal-democratic society, there is not really any societal harm in parking on the "incorrect" side of the road. The only offence is one against the man-made strictures of statutes and legislation, some of which are vital to a functioning society, but many of which are absurd. Some people consider these more arbitrary and and punitive laws to contribute to "nanny state" of over-regulation and over-policing.

If we instead reconceptionalise the role of law enforcement agencies as literally enforcing written laws (and "preventing" possible crimes which may or may not occur by arbitrarily fining people for unwound windows) then we arguably stray into territory where the autonomy of the individual is severely limited. An individual is unable to consider the consequences of their actions and thus take no responsibility.

The voice of the online masses also raised some interesting points (grammar and expression notwithstanding) such as: what about motor bikes? What about convertibles? Should the states' police ban these vehicles to prevent their theft?  

These laws seem particularly absurd when we look at natural disasters in Australia. Almost every summer of every year, a major bushfire breaks out somewhere in this sunburnt country, sweeping through the the plains, rugged mountain ranges etc. While Victorian police, like their sunshine state colleagues can "prevent" car theft by fining someone for having a window down ($141 in Victoria), they cannot prevent massive injury or save lives through mandatory evacuations in bushfire affected areas.

Even as massive fire fronts bear down upon them, residents are given the choice of evacuating to safety or remaining to fight infernos with little more than a sprinkler and a Nylex garden hose from Bunnings. Notwithstanding the 117 deaths on Black Saturday that occurred at homes, "stay or go" remains the fundamental policy response in Victoria. Even though I (probably) support the philosophical underpinnings of "stay or go", it doesn't sit well with other laws where life and property are at far lesser risk, yet open to massive fines. It seems police have the power to possibly prevent the theft of your GPS or iPod, but not the loss of your life.  

I've always been careful when describing our society as a "nanny state", because like that other great local pejorative "un-Australian", it can be used for any purpose by anyone with a grievance about a law or regulation they dislike i.e. Compulsory super, fair workplace regulations, plain cigarette packaging, child pornography, throwing glass bottles at people. It is in these arguments, when people start to talk of bans and of regulations, that the underlying complexity of rights and of responsibilities becomes apparent. One person's regulation is another person's freedom.

But never fear, Australia. At least we have this guy watching our (human rights) back.

*Queensland in general and Brisbane in particular is fu©king batshít crazy when it comes to telling people how and what to do. It's as if Sir Joh never stopped leading the most corrupt, homophobic and racist government this country has ever seen. Last time I was in the sunshine state, my visit came barely two days after returning to Australia from Europe. The difference between Europe and Queensland could not have been starker. It has contributed to my general love for the European way of life and antipathy towards Australian culture since. Here is a summary of the massive adhesive signage on every panel of the train I took from the airport to the city, accompanied by a really bad sketch of the doors. My drawing skills are why I use a camera.

I think for even the least intelligent member of Queensland society, most of this would fall into "no shit, Sherlock" territory. The doors remind me of the signage used by Wesfield as you approach escalators in their shopping centres. Next we'll need to buckle up for the privilege of riding them.

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