How WA has ended up with what the government is touting as the toughest knife laws in Australia

How WA has ended up with what the government is touting as the toughest knife laws in Australia
  • PublishedMay 24, 2024

Stop-and-search laws might sound flash but can be problematic in practice.

That’s what the then-Labor opposition told state parliament in 2009 when the Liberal government tried to give police the power to stop people in particular areas and search them without their consent, and without having a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

It prompted lively, and at times controversial, debate in parliament.

“This legislation is not the legislation that threw innocent people into Nazi concentration camps,” one fresh-faced MP declared.

“This is the legislation that came before that legislation. This legislation started the roll down the hill.”

Almost a decade-and-a-half later though, that same MP has a slightly different view on his own version of stop-and-search laws, this time specifically targeting knives.

“These laws will make Western Australia safer,” Police Minister Paul Papalia told a press conference yesterday.

“The world has changed since 2009.

Paul Papalia speaks into microphones at a media conference outside parliament, flanked by Col Blanch and Roger Cook.
WA Police Commissioner Col Blanch, WA Police Minister Paul Papalia and WA Premier Roger Cook (left to right) announced the legislation on Thursday.(ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)

“There have been a huge number of very significant incidents related to knife crime in particular, terrorist attacks, horrible incidents like the one we recently witnessed in Bondi.

“Those laws that we were talking about then were related to stop and search for the presence of drugs. This is about … deterring people from carrying weapons that can kill people.”

Who can be searched?

The minister’s laws don’t go as far but will still allow wanding (not quite searching) without suspicion, will punish people who refuse, and will impose penalties up to $36,000 or three years in prison for carrying a knife in public.

It applies to anyone in the state’s five Protected Entertainment Precincts, which will double as ‘Knife Wanding Areas’, as well as anyone else in other areas temporarily declared by senior police officers without the public being told.

And those penalties — including up to 12 months’ jail or a $12,000 fine for refusing to be wanded — could be faced by someone carrying something as innocent as a butter knife who doesn’t have a “lawful excuse”.

That’s clearly an extreme example, but one the Police Commissioner Col Blanch acknowledged was entirely possible.

“We really need to be careful about being transparent as to why we’re introducing these laws and they need to be based upon sound evidence,” was the view of UWA Law School associate professor Meredith Blake.

Hospital admissions down

So why do we need laws to stop people taking a butter knife into a club?

It’s not because the rate of knife crime is increasing – Papalia and Commissioner Blanch said the rate was actually decreasing.

Even still, fewer incidents might still be justification if those that are happening are becoming more serious.

But go looking for evidence of that and it’s difficult to back up.

The number of patients admitted to WA public hospitals under the category ‘assault by knife’ has decreased per capita over the last 10 years.

A paramedic standing alongside a parked ambulance outside a hospital.
Hospital admissions related to knife crime have decreased in WA over the past decade.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

The national rate of homicides being committed by knives has been trending down since the 1990s and might be flattening out (although of those homicides happening, around 45 per cent are by a knife).

Professor Donna Chung, who has worked in the family and domestic violence space for about three decades, said there was lots of evidence of domestic violence perpetrators using knives to threaten women.

A woman named Donna Chung wearing a black dress and looking seriously at the camera.
Professor Donna Chung says knives are often used to threaten women in acts of domestic violence.(ABC News: Courtney Withers)

“The way it’s done is often leaving the knife in various places around the house and saying ‘I could use this against you, I could kill you’,” she said.

But the laws are unlikely to make a massive difference in that space, she said, because much of that violence happens behind closed doors.

Laws to tackle ‘high profile incidents’

The core reason for the reforms, Papalia said multiple times, was “high-profile incidents”.

“It is a small number of people who have taken to carrying knives, and as a consequence there has been some very high profile, very concerning and frightening events in the community,” he said.

“This is a response to that.”

It’s not something that cuts through with Ms Blake.

“That’s not in my experience or view a sound basis for the introduction of a criminal law, and particularly one with significant penalties associated with it,” she said.

And the government has experience with trying to respond quickly to other “high-profile incidents” with sweeping changes to laws.

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in WA’s north, for example, magnified the importance of the government’s efforts to overhaul the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage.

An aerial view of the red dirt and trees of the Juukan Gorge.
Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 under the then-Aboriginal Heritage Act.(Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation )

But in the end, those efforts were repealed just weeks after they took effect because of unintended consequences and the ultimate political cost attached to them.

Potential for discrimination

Ms Blake also raised concerns around “homeless people, First Nations people, people living with mental illness” and others who she said were disproportionately targeted by similar laws, like New South Wales Police’s proactive crime teams.

A Background Briefing investigation earlier this year highlighted an incident that began with one of those teams trying to stop a man they viewed as “suspicious” because he was wearing a hoodie on a warm day, and ended with him being shot in his own backyard.

Papalia said “operational directives” to officers and public reporting of statistics around the use of the laws addressed any concerns about even unintentional discrimination.

But Ms Blake said that didn’t resolve her key concern about the necessity of the laws.

UWA law professor Meredith Blake
Meredith Blake says the laws could discriminate against vulnerable people.(Supplied: UWA)

“One suspects that it is a tough-on-crime approach, one which tends to be popular with voters,” she said.

With an election now less than 300 days away, it’s probably not a stretch to think that might be on Papalia’s mind.

That’s not to say the goal of community safety he’s chasing isn’t important.

You don’t have to look further than the inspiration for WA’s laws – the Queensland laws sparked by the death of 17-year-old Jack Beasley, who was fatally stabbed on the Gold Coast in 2019 – to see that it is.

Jack Beasley smiling and wearing a backwards cap.
Jack Beasley was killed in a stabbing attack at Surfers Paradise.(Supplied)

Closer to home, reference has been made to the stabbing murder of Good Samaritan Petr Levkovskiy while he was helping a boy recover his stolen bike in 2022 and others.

The question is whether these laws, and the potential intrusions into personal liberties which could follow, result in that safer community.

The introduction of Protected Entertainment Precincts in late 2022 – which opponents warned could be discriminatory – resulted in 97 people being banned up to February this year.

The creation of stop-and-search powers at border crossings, airports and ports, described by some as “yet another police incursion”, had resulted in around 70 searches between June last year and March, with 5 grams of cannabis and 0.8 grams of methylamphetamine seized to date.

Queensland has seen hundreds of weapons seized and people charged under similar knife laws so far.

The question for that state, and WA, is whether that translates to making the community safer, or strays closer to the class of laws Papalia so strongly opposed not too long ago.


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