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A fetish for uniforms

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Friday, 29 January 2016


The mythology of Australia contains great stories of self-reliance, suspicion of authority and larrikinism.  I love those aspects of our national story but I fear – if they were once a fair reflection of our culture – this is no longer the case. 

We are increasingly encouraged to rely on others, not on ourselves.  There are endless signs telling us exactly how to drive. Multiple products, from Christmas toys to investment schemes, are banned to keep us safe. Cradle‑to‑grave welfare discourages us from saving for a rainy day.  And rather than allow people who fear violent attacks to defend themselves, we rely on people in uniform to save us.

We ban the elderly, the disabled, the frail and women working night shifts from carrying Tasers or mace.  We ban women with violent ex-partners from keeping a gun at home for self‑defence, even though there is no better equaliser of the physical disparity between men and women.

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We ban police from carrying their pistols when they are off duty, and of course highly skilled and licensed members of pistol clubs are not only prevented from carrying their registered pistols as they go about their daily lives, but the law treats them as if they are about to go on a shooting rampage.

This thinking largely derives from the assumption that the only people who are safe with guns are people in uniform, specifically the police, security guards and the military. Former Prime Minister John Howard captured this thinking in 2002 when he said, “I hate guns. I don’t think people should have guns unless they are police or in the military or in the security industry. There is no earthly reason for people to have them. Ordinary people should not have weapons.”

There are various problems with this thinking, not least being that when seconds count, those in uniform are minutes away. In rural and regional areas, they can be hours away. The idea that police will arrive in time to prevent violent crime is fanciful.

And while deterring crime is part of the role of the police, this only occurs when perpetrators know they face a realistic chance of being caught. A far more effective deterrent is the likelihood that victims might have the means to defend themselves.

A second problem is that by only trusting those in uniform, we disregard other risks. Strangers in uniform are still strangers.  The security industry is well known for recruiting dodgy individuals. The uniform of a priest does not make him a saint, as the terrible combination of paedophile priests and misplaced trust has revealed.  Some police officers have been complicit in this abuse, ignoring reports of sexual assault from victims who have come forward. And there is no shortage of cases in which a uniform was no protection against corruption or brutality.

Having said that, it is the still the right thing to call triple zero when emergency strikes. The police, with their access to forensics, surveillance and metadata, have the tools to hunt down perpetrators. And obviously there are people who, for physical or mental reasons, could not use a Taser or mace, let alone a gun, to protect themselves. But making assumptions about people because they wear a uniform is also wrong.

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Many would be scared if cardigan-wearing paper‑pushers in the Customs Department began carrying guns, yet once these bureaucrats received scary black uniforms and were renamed ‘Border Force’, arming them became a national priority. And of course no concerns were raised.

Suggestions that the presence of someone with a gun might have changed the outcome of the Lindt Café siege, or the tragedy of the Bataclan theatre in Paris, are met with claims that guns are simply too dangerous. And yet nobody questions the capacity of uniformed police to deal with offenders using guns. And what if one of the Prime Ministers body guards had been among the hostages in the Lindt Café? They are armed and highly trained, yet they do not wear uniforms.

Our fetish for uniforms is like treating an on-duty, uniformed police officer like Superman, then treating the same person with derision when he is dressed like Clark Kent.

Australian culture once did not take taking authority figures too seriously.  We used to celebrate the larrikin, mock the cops, and loathe politicians.  Now it seems our loathing of politicians is all that remains.  It’s our loss.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.



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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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