Hate ‘cancel culture’? Stop spending so much on prisons then, Liberal says
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If Liberals truly hate so-called cancel culture it’s time to ditch tough-on-crime policies, one upper house MP argues, urging the party to embrace rehabilitation rather than allowing billions to be spent jailing people who pose no danger to Victorians.
Upper house MP Evan Mulholland made the case for reducing prison rates and targeting the causes of crime in a chapter published this month in the book of essays Markets and Prosperity, making sure to emphasise that the Liberal Party had a proud record on community safety.
Upper house Liberal MP Evan Mulholland.Credit: Justin McManus
“However, we should also be honest enough to learn from previous elections that sometimes ‘tough on crime’ can go too far,” Mulholland wrote in the book, edited by former Liberal staffer and business analyst Harry Stutchbury.
While the opposition is yet to formalise its position on Labor’s law and order reforms to solve increasing incarceration rates, Liberal MPs have signalled a mood for change.
Brad Battin, appointed in December to the newly created portfolio of criminal justice reform, is working on policy to invest in people rather than prisons and to divert youth away from the system.
Mulholland, who represents the Northern Metropolitan Region, mounted the argument that reducing prison rates should be the domain of conservatives as a social and economic good.
“Finding good in people, rehabilitating them towards a better life, is not a progressive idea. It is a conservative one. We cede ground over compassion to the left at our peril,” Mulholland wrote.
“If we abhor ‘cancel culture’, which we should, we should also apply those same principles to our justice system.”
Opposition Leader John Pesutto last week told The Age the party must reform itself to be competitive in the 2026 election.
While Pesutto has the unenviable task after two horror elections of uniting conservative branch members behind him, the party does have a history of social reform.
Former premier Rupert Hamer led a reformist government in the 1970s that abolished the death penalty, decriminalised homosexuality and outlawed sexual discrimination in the workplace.
Mulholland also repeated his view – first made in his maiden speech to parliament – that Victorians should not be jailed for low-level drug possession, defaulting on fines, and some white-collar crimes.
“If they are not a threat to community safety, then they do not belong in a prison.”
Mornington MP Chris Crewther has also advocated for drug possession to be decriminalised and for a “better and fairer” justice system.
The Justice Reform Initiative in March declared “jailing is failing” and hoped politicians would seize the opportunity to stop the revolving door prison system that costs the state $1 billion a year. Thirty-seven per cent of people who leave prison are back inside within two years, and more than half have been jailed at least twice.
Victoria spends about $150,000 a year on every person in prison.
Mulholland said that money would be better spent on rehabilitation, substance treatment and educational programs when a person first interacted with the system. In his book chapter, he credited federal Labor MP and Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh for making the economic case for reducing ballooning prison rates.
“The easiest thing to do as a conservative is just to accept that anyone who critiques the current trajectory of the justice system in Australia as ‘soft on crime’. What might be more difficult for some is to acknowledge that Dr Leigh has a point.”
After two decades of tough-on-crime policies, the Andrews government is overhauling strict bail laws it introduced in 2018, has decriminalised public drunkenness, and will raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 by the end of next year. Labor will wait until 2027 to raise the age to 14 with carve-outs for serious offences.
Shadow attorney-general Michael O’Brien said in April that the opposition wanted more detail about the proposal. He said raising the age meant 10 and 11-year-old children who knowingly commit crimes, including against other children, would not be held accountable for their actions.
Mulholland believed powers to charge young children should remain for serious offences but that Liberals should be reluctant to support mandatory minimum sentences, which he said stripped power from judges to be proportionate.
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