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Wednesday, 16 February 2000
Page: 11933


Senator LUNDY (6:57 PM) —The death in custody last week of a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy on mandatory sentencing for a petty theft tragically highlights Australia's youth suicide problem. In particular, it highlights the problems faced by indigenous young people. It highlights government policies which provoke, rather than alleviate, the despair of many young people. Tomorrow, outside Parliament House, many decent Australians plan to protest against policies that cause the unnecessary death of young people.

Australia's youth suicide rates highlight the inadequacies of government actions and policies. It has long been acknowledged that, if we are serious about reducing youth suicide rates, we must identify and address the problems of the young people at risk. Action must include: educational and employment assistance for disadvantaged young people; social and community support, and programs for troubled or risk taking youth; and an attack on discriminatory policies. Teenagers and young people face problems of feeling and being undervalued and dispossessed. What white middle-class parent has not at some time had to intervene to save a teenager or youth from the consequences of risk taking behaviour? Sadly, the 15-year-old Aboriginal boy had no-one with the clout to save him from mandatory detention.

A recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare entitled Australia's young people: their health and wellbeing, shows that male youth suicides in Australia have increased by 71 per cent in two decades. Tragically, Australia is ranked fifth among Western countries in terms of its high male youth suicide—an unenviable achievement exceeded only by Finland, New Zealand, Switzerland and Austria. The Australian female rate for youth suicide is ranked 11th of the Western countries.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that, of the deaths of young men aged from 15 to 24 years in 1997, nearly 30 per cent were suicides. In 1998, 26.5 per cent of the deaths of young men in this age group were suicides. Overall in 1998, there were 446 reported suicides of young men and women in this age group. Suicide accounted for 23.8 per cent of all deaths of 15- to 24-year-olds.

The tragedy is that many of these deaths were preventable. Since the 1970s, rates of suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been increasing. The majority of Aboriginal people who suicide are aged under 29 years. According to the government's draft National Action Plan for Suicide Prevention issued in 1998, suicide did not even exist in traditional indigenous communities. Now the suicide rate in indigenous communities appears to be 40 per cent higher than the rate of non-indigenous suicides. According to Professor Colin Tatz, the rates are possibly two to three times the non-Aboriginal rates.

New figures for 1998 from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that, in the Northern Territory for the 15 to 24 years age group, suicide deaths of indigenous youth account for half of the total suicide deaths. In 1998 in Western Australia, there were 10 suicides of indigenous youth compared with 45 for non-indigenous youth. Indigenous people are only 3.1 per cent of the total population of Western Australia, and yet indigenous youth suicides form 18.2 per cent of the youth suicides in that state. In Queensland, 17 of the total 93 suicide deaths in this age group were of indigenous youth.

The tragedy is that suicide risk factors have long been identified. They include: social disadvantage, particularly low socioeconomic status; experience of prejudice and discrimination; leaving school early; job loss; homelessness; and confinement to institutions such as mental hospitals or jails. Young people, and particularly indigenous youth, tend to have a higher exposure to these factors than other groups in the community. Confinement to an institution, such as jail, is particularly stressful for indigenous people, and yet they are massively over-represented in terms of incarceration rates.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody made its report way back in 1991, and yet many of its recommendations, including those aimed at reducing the numbers in custody, have not been implemented. In fact, the imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have risen. National prison census statistics show that, in 1986, indigenous people made up 14.6 per cent of all prisoners and 1.46 per cent of the total population. By 1995, they made up 17.1 per cent of all prisoners and only 1.3 per cent of the population.

The Howard government recommended in its 1998 draft report on suicide prevention a whole of government approach involving federal, state and local governments and services. How can this recommendation be taken seriously when the draconian mandatory sentencing laws of the Northern Territory and Western Australia contravene the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child? Mr Howard and his government appear greatly concerned about adhering to international conventions when it comes to supervised injecting places. They have overturned territories legislation on euthanasia. Yet they are content to allow the Northern Territory and Western Australia to flout the Convention on the Rights of the Child with their mandatory sentencing laws.

Article 37B of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Australia, states quite unequivocally:

No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

For petty theft of, reportedly, such things as paint, pens and textas, a 15-year-old Aboriginal orphan was taken from his community and sentenced to serve 28 days detention in a Darwin juvenile correction centre. From reports such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the stolen children report, it should have been obvious that this youth was being placed in an identified risk situation.

Indeed, a submission from Jon Tippett, President of the Northern Territory Law Society, on behalf of the Criminal Lawyers Association, warned the Northern Territory government in March 1999 that a death in custody was an entirely foreseeable consequence of mandatory sentencing. Other similar warnings and protests, for example, from Amnesty International, have gone unheeded. The National Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy was terminated in June 1999, and we are still awaiting its overall evaluation. It is to be replaced by a national action plan for suicide prevention called `life'.

The consultation draft plan appeared in December 1998. The draft acknowledges that indigenous people are experiencing higher and increasing rates of suicide, particularly among young males. The draft acknowledges:

To be effective, suicide prevention programs need to work with, and aim for, outcomes in related areas such as reducing rates of imprisonment, reducing accidents and injuries, enhancing emotional and social well-being, building self-determination and meaningful life opportunities for indigenous young people and connecting indigenous young people with their traditional culture and spirituality. Strategies need to be practical, effective, sustainable and adequately resourced.

How does this alleged commitment to reducing the high and life threatening rates of imprisonment for indigenous youth fit with the Howard government's reluctance to act against mandatory sentencing? Unfortunately many young Australians and many young indigenous Australians have died while we wait for action from the Howard government.