There had of course been rumours, but the reality, jointly announced by the police chiefs of all Australian states and territories, was more bizarre than the wildest of them. Their statement, issued at ten o’clock on the morning of June the nineteenth, read: ‘No instances of any criminal activity occurring after midnight on June 15th have been reported to any Australian police force. The matter is under investigation and the public will be kept advised.’
However, news of the next development did not come from the police chiefs. Headlines in the following morning’s papers proclaimed ‘CRIMINALS ON STRIKE’. Another document had been released to the media, this time by an organisation claiming to represent the nation’s lawbreakers and calling itself the Federated Burglars and Allied Villains, or FBAV. The communiqué stated that members, in a majority decision, had decided to withdraw their services until they had achieved the goal of getting a ‘fair go’ for crime.
What sort of ‘fair go’ were they demanding? Perhaps not quite what might have been expected. There were no references to police brutality, no demands for shorter prison sentences or for coffee percolators in every cell, no log of claims based on unusual working hours. Indeed, the language was both literate and mild: they seemed to be seeking a better public image rather than greater material rewards. Criminals also, it seemed, yearned for respectability.
The document went on to develop their case. The key argument was that, especially in times of high unemployment, criminals not only employed themselves but provided legitimate employment for tens of thousands of others — attorneys-general, academics, judges, magistrates, tipstaffs, police, warders, social workers, lawyers, articled clerks, insurance salesmen, secretaries, breeders of Alsatian dogs, security guards, armoured wagon crews, alarm systems manufacturers, locksmiths and crime reporters. The benefits flowed through to suppliers of goods and services: police need cars with flashing blue lights, and guard dogs need cans of Woofo. When these were included, FBAV research had shown that 3.17% of all legal employment was parasitic on the crime industry.
It was further argued that the relative costs and benefits of legal and illegal industries were grossly misunderstood. In its contribution to national prosperity, property crime was much like other redistribution industries — Tattslotto or stockbroking, for example. It was, of course, regrettable that, by definition, some categories of crime resulted in personal injury and death, sometimes to persons outside the industry. These things, however, must be kept in perspective: murder and illegal drug deaths were, in total, less than one twentieth of the 20,000 or so deaths per year resulting from the advertising, manufacture and sale of alcohol and tobacco.
It was claimed that some social benefits of crime went unrecognised. Surveys commissioned by the FBAV had shown that people at suburban dinner parties spent more time discussing burglaries and security systems than almost any other topic. Only two other subjects had higher ratings — the gratifying prices realised at recent neighbourhood property auctions and the laziness of the unemployed. FBAV members, it was also stated, were justly proud of their essential role in the creation of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme, which had done so much to alleviate suburban loneliness and foster local community spirit.
The statement concluded with a call for an immediate conference to negotiate settlement terms which would ensure due community recognition for the members of one of the nation’s most important industries.
Public reaction to the strike was lighthearted at first, mainly because nobody thought it would last. In this they were wrong. It dragged on for weeks. Not only did it continue, but it did so without any instances of strikebreaking. This was the more surprising since discipline could not be maintained in the traditional underworld way: any violence inflicted on scabs would in itself constitute strikebreaking. Clearly this was one strike in which the rank and file were solidly behind their leaders.
It was the barristers who first took the strike seriously, perhaps because they were the most percipient, perhaps because it was their incomes that were most immediately affected. In any case it was not long before their calls for negotiations to be opened with the strikers were being widely supported. Insurance companies, for example, had at first, welcomed the cessation of claims, but they began to waver when it became clear that policies were not being renewed. Film and Television industry people were also upset: ‘How can we compete internationally,’ they complained, ‘with no local source material for half our programmes?’
Eventually even the judges wanted the strike settled, not so much to protect their incomes as for fear that their status in their clubs would suffer if their contributions to the luncheon conversation were permanently confined to offering opinions on the mulching of roses. Academic economists confirmed the FBAV’s estimates of the job losses that would follow: it was apparent that unemployment rates would exceed even those in Thatcher’s Britain unless something was done. The government agreed to negotiate.
Talks, once started, reached a satisfactory conclusion surprisingly quickly, not even requiring prime ministerial intervention. The settlement terms provided for the introduction of Criminal of the Year awards and the inclusion of industry leaders in both the Australian and Queen’s Birthday honours lists. It was also agreed that FBAV should be affiliated with the ACTU.
But the most important and popular innovation was undoubtedly the introduction of commercial sponsorship for criminal events. In court proceedings, each side was to be permitted to wear its sponsor’s insignia. Strict rules governing the size and brightness of the markings preserved the decorum of the court. Commonly, the prosecution would be supported by banks and insurance companies, while organisations seeking a more macho image competed fiercely for the rights to sponsor the more notorious lawbreakers.
Under these terms, together with provision for workers’ compensation and superannuation, the FBAV agreed to a resumption of work as from 8 a.m. on August 5th. At 9.37 that morning there was a hold-up at the Queanbeyan branch of the ANZ Bank. The nation breathed a sigh of relief.
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