At a community crime forum in Toowoomba last week, the Queensland police minister, Mark Ryan, announced the government’s new youth bail plan – an “intensive supervision” program involving police doing home checks and patrols.
It didn’t go down well. Ryan was hounded by attendees and mocked for factual comments that most people on bail do not reoffend.
Five days later, Ryan walked into the Queensland government’s cabinet room armed with an altogether different plan – to override Labor’s own Human Rights Act and charge children with criminal offences for breaching their bail conditions. Young people would face up to two years’ jail for breaches.
Most ministers were blindsided by the proposal – an idea the government has pilloried for years. Only the day before, the tourism minister, Stirling Hinchliffe, said “breach of bail is not something that has achieved any outcomes”.
Ryan brought slides to cabinet to make his point. One of his arguments to colleagues was that changing tack would neutralise attacks by the LNP.
The police minister made other arguments, including the need to respond to community sentiment, but sources say the political point was made bluntly – the government needed a lever to release the pressure from media outlets and the state opposition, which had come to focus heavily on bail matters when discussing youth crime.
As one Labor source summarised the strategy: “Every news story about another incident would come with a line from the LNP saying the solution was [for] breach of bail [to be made an offence for children].
“Now [if the LNP campaigns on youth crime at the election] we can turn around and say, ‘well, we did what you wanted us to do’.”
Searching for a circuit breaker
When Labor MPs gathered for their first caucus meeting of the new year at K’gari earlier this month, regional and outer-suburban members told colleagues they were increasingly worried about holding their seats amid blanket critical media coverage of a perceived youth crime “crisis”.
In December, the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, had released a 10-point plan, which included longer sentences for certain crimes, that was due to be brought to the parliament when it resumed this past week.
But internally it became clear the government was also searching for a circuit breaker – an additional measure that could bolster the response.
Guardian Australia is aware of one tentative proposal discussed to give police arrest powers for children who breached bail, rather than necessarily make breaches an outright criminal offence.
A whisper about those early internal discussions reached several advocates concerned about the impact of punitive measures two weeks ago. When asked at the time, senior Labor sources emphatically denied such a move was being considered.
It is unclear when the government’s plan to criminalise breach of bail for children developed, or how quickly.
Ryan said in a statement on Friday that the government had given “consideration” to the move, and that “prior to announcing this policy had been exploring legislative frameworks that would achieve this outcome”.
But very few people, even senior ministers, were in the loop prior to Monday, when the policy was brought to cabinet by Ryan and announced publicly by Palaszczuk.
“You don’t turn up with slides without the premier being behind it,” one source said.
The hard sell
Immediately outside the cabinet meeting, Palaszczuk began the government’s careful sell. She said the plan was developed “in the spirit of bipartisanship”, which appears an attempt to tie the opposition to the success – or failure – of the bail laws.
Palaszczuk said the government was listening to the community and “evidence”.
The youth justice minister, Leanne Linard, later told Brisbane Times Palaszczuk’s claim about evidence referred to other youth justice initiatives, not the bail changes.
“Responding to breach of bail, as the premier said, was about taking a bipartisan approach, and it’s about responding to something that the community has called for passionately,” Linard said.
The attorney general, Shannon Fentiman, told state parliament on Tuesday that bringing children caught breaching their bail back before a court would give the government an additional potential intervention point, to attempt to engage them in programs and address the underlying causes of offending.
This pitch by Labor ministers and MPs is clearly made more difficult by previous comments – tallied up over four years – claiming the idea of “breach of bail” for children was ineffective, and would not work.
Some are frustrated at being called out over those comments, claiming the same media outlets accusing the government of “backflipping” had lobbied relentlessly for the laws.
The government has also argued that its past criticisms were about a previous breach of bail policy of the Newman government – scrapped in 2015 when Labor came to power – which made it an offence to commit an offence while on bail. They point out say and that the new laws are now even stronger.
“What the LNP introduced … did not allow a young offender to be punished for breaching a condition of their bail undertaking,” Ryan said.
The idea of Labor claiming its policies are more hardline than Campbell Newman – who was labelled an “authoritarian” by civil liberties groups for his government’s “draconian” anti-association laws – sounds almost surreal.
Labor now finds itself in a very Newmanesque position: accused of attacking and undermining the judiciary, and of sidelining basic human rights in a vainglorious attempt to appear tough.
This week, Guardian Australia spoke to multiple experts, who each said there was no actual evidence that the new bail policies would work.
Those same policies would lead to increased arrests of children, mostly Indigenous children, and increased pressure on the state’s buckling youth detention system. Many will be kept in adult police watch houses because there is no room elsewhere – a situation observers say is becoming a human rights emergency.
‘Never up for a fight’
Already, some are beginning to question the high-risk strategy of outsourcing policy leadership to the LNP.
The opposition leader, David Crisafulli, has been unafraid to claim credit.
And almost immediately, the LNP set its sights on a new target and began lobbing grenades. The opposition now wants Labor to remove the principle of “detention as a last resort” for children – a fundamental part of international law – from the Youth Justice Act. (Legal observers say that Labor’s policies already effectively do this, even if the principle remains in place.)
“When will Labor learn they can’t win this race to the bottom?” the Greens MP, Michael Berkman, asked.
Within Labor’s ranks, there are two main criticisms of Palaszczuk’s government. The first is the way that decision-making and strategy is mostly run centrally, out of Palaszczuk’s office.
The second is the way the government has been repeatedly bullied by media campaigns, lobby groups and political opponents into policy backdowns such as freezing public sector wages during the pandemic and scrapping land tax changes after pressure from the property lobby.
One government source told Guardian Australia the premier’s office was “simply never up for a fight with the Courier-Mail”, and that concerns were growing that it was unable to govern effectively amid political pressure.
“The point has been made that every time we cave in, it just encourages the next push to get a policy changed,” they said.