IN criminal justice, there is a concept known as penal populism that refers to the relationship between politics and crime policy that proponents argue can make whether or not a policy works an entirely redundant question.
Oxford’s Professor Julian V. Roberts succinctly explains that “penal populists allow the electoral advantage of a policy to take precedence over its penal effectiveness.”
In short, penal populism relates to the idea that the appearance of a policy can be deemed more important than its actual outcomes, that the perception is given more weight in decision-making than the reality. For instance, academics including Dr Valerie Wright have found that “existing evidence does not support any significant public safety benefit of the practice of increasing severity of sentences by imposing longer prison terms”.
It is a long way from prison to the beach, but the underlying philosophy demonstrates little difference.
Shark nets are used at Stockton, Nobbys, Newcastle, Bar, Dixon Park, Merewether and Redhead beaches along the Hunter coastline. In 2011 University of Sydney scholar Christopher Neff laid out the history of the shark net in NSW, noting that their introduction coincided with the state’s 150th anniversary. It came, despite their approval years earlier, due to a desire to prevent attacks during celebrations. Neff also highlights the three years during World War II when nets were removed and, between 1943 and 1946, there were no fatal shark bites as a result. As they subsequently were reinstated, despite claims at the time that they were “quite valueless”, they spread to the Hunter.
The bycatch revealed in the most recent statistics is a crucial reason for the removal of shark nets, but only one among many. The question of public safety, ironically enough, is another: if the nets inspire a false sense of security, surely that alone is grounds to seek one that provides swimmers with something more concrete.
While sharks are less misunderstood as marauders in the deep than in the past, few political leaders are willing to gamble on cutting longstanding nets perceived to protect bathers, however questionable they may be. Most can imagine the outcry if their net removal decision were quickly followed by an attack, and the perception that swimmers were less safe as a result.
We must remain hopeful that, as in criminal courts, the evidence guides us.
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