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STANDING COMMITTEE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
13/05/2010
Involvement of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system

CHAIR —Welcome. You have heard everyone go through the procedure so I will not go through that again. Would one of you like to start? And, perhaps, Wayne, you could give us a bit of an explanation of how you are all together too.

Mr Applebee —Thank you. I am studying at the University of Canberra, doing a double degree—Bachelor of Social Science in Justice Studies, in Law. The reason I came here, and our group came here, was that we have a problem here in Canberra. I am a panel member of the Circle Court here, the Ngamberri Court, and our problem is that we have no options with the magistrate for sentencing. That is the real concern that we have. Rod is on the advisory board for the ACT government, and he will speak a bit on that, and this is Paul Collis who is doing a PhD at UC, and Dr Tony Deklin is a senior lecturer in the law at UC.

Basically, we are trying to inform people about the problem we have here in Canberra, because we have no options about sentencing. We have got a really good system here. We have got a Circle Court which works effectively—and everything works fine—but we are still limited in the options that we have got for sentencing. You may not be aware but per head of population we have probably got the highest criminal figures for young people, both white and black, here in Canberra. That is a real concern to us and we need to do something about it. I might hand over to Paul for a moment. We are trying to work out what the problems are and Paul is probably better at it than I am, and about the ‘enemy’ problem we have got as well.

Mr Collis —I am a student at the University of Canberra. I am a Barkindji person originally from Burke. I have got a long and extensive history dealing with Aboriginal communities—

CHAIR —I have seen you before, Paul, haven’t I?

Mr Collis —Yes, Bob, we are old mates. We have met a couple of times in the past. I have worked for many years in jails and the juvenile detention centres as well. I have worked as an arts officer and as a youth worker—

CHAIR —I should say for the benefit of the committee that the Barkinji own the Darling River.

Mr Collis —We did not bother about challenging the name of the Darling River when it was changed to ‘Darling’ because its original name was Barker, and ‘Barker’ in Barkinji language means ‘darling one’. So there is something that we can share together—or our darling one.

This is a community response to young Aboriginal people and crime. We have quite a unique program—which is not unique in Aboriginal communities, for it has been used forever as a way of ‘growing people up’. I use that phrase as opposed to ‘mentoring’, although this basically is a mentoring-type program. With the limited options for sentencing that Wayne spoke about, sometimes people are overprogrammed. Every time we talk about blackfellas there has to be a program for this and a program for that. I am sick of the word, to tell you the truth, and I am sick of us being described as dysfunctional. The kids come from dysfunctional families; that is why they are before the court. There are all sorts of reasons why people are before the court. The other group that spoke here quite elegantly informed you about some of those intricacies.

To come back to what you were asking before about whether or not these mainstream programs could work, Mr Laming, let me say this: everything about Aboriginals is different. A really simple example is the death of somebody. We may or may not hear that person. We may see them for a number of months. But if you are unlucky enough to be caught talking to yourself—or seemingly talking to yourself—you can end up in a psych unit. The first things you and the doctor will say are: ‘How you going? What’s going on?’ ‘I was just talking to my mother.’ ‘Oh? Where’s your mother?’ ‘She died last week.’ The whole process of knowing yourself is different. It is a very different way, and those cultural things take a lifetime. You are born into it; it is almost inscribed as Aboriginal. I think that is also part of the historical response towards the law, in particular because of one of the arguments by Chris Kineen, a criminologist in Sydney, says that because there is no declared war police took on those issues, so the police have been seen primarily as a stumbling block for community development.

Having said that, one of the roles that I have performed where I could see where communities come together really effectively—though short lived—is in sport. But sport alone is not going to solve bigger issues. I do not know if you are aware, but Newcastle has what they call Surfest, the biggest surfing contest in the Southern Hemisphere. Newcastle is lucky enough to have Mark Richards, four-time world champion, working there. A few years ago, while I was working as arts officer, a young policeman said to me: ‘We ought to do something about this crime rate with the young people. How can the police come to talk to them?’ He was a surfer. I cannot swim, although I come from the river country. He got me drunk one night and said, ‘Let’s have a surf contest between the Kooris and the cops’—which we did. It was the opening event of Surfest. It is now in its 15th year. They want to bring us back together—me, Andrew Collins and a couple others who helped set it up—for some kind of big service thing this year. What happened was that out on the water, just like on the football field, there was no cultural difference. There was just the sport.

Nowra heard about it and some fellas came up from Nowra. They rang Andrew at his police station on the Monday. They said: ‘Can you send those coppers down here, mate? We’ve got a real problem. Our kids surf too; it might be one way for our communities to come together.’ But that is not what we are on about. It is along the lines of culture, but I am saying that Aboriginal kids basically do not know how to be Aboriginal. We know how to be black, we know how to be First Nation, we know how to be whatever you want to call us and whatever we call ourselves, and that gang mentality and culture is the thing that is problematic. The behaviour becomes problematic. We cannot cope with it, and the community ought not be expected to cope with it. That is the wider community as well. You can see the extreme situation in Western Australia, where it is three strikes and you’re out. People have had enough of feeling like they are under threat—but ‘under threat’ for stealing a carton of milk? When you look deeper into the issue it is not as cut and dry as it might first seem.

I took some kids to Brewarrina from here about 10 years ago. They were young men—17 and 18. All the way up they were listening to hip-hop—‘I’m going to rape your mother,’ and do-da-da-da. I hated all that crap in this bus, and for eight hours I put up with it. I am an initiated man, and I went back to my father’s country—Ngamberri at Bree—and took Paul Gordon, who was a senior Ngamberri man. We put these blokes through a rebirthing program, back through the earth. All the way back they wanted to find out, ‘What does this mean? What does that mean? Talk to me about this.’—things about their culture which were missing. None of those kids have been presented before the court again. They are now going on 30, and responsible people.

We are on about restorative behaviour. I do not know how you can judge this stuff or assess it. I know that it works—I cannot tell you how you will change, but if you come through it you will feel completely unconditional love.

Mr LAMING —Are you saying the problems at the moment are that the courts do not have the flexibility to recognise that? Can you just go through some of your issues in the ACT? It is only because I want to know how we can improve things with the current legal system.

Mr Applebee —We are trying to develop a program, and there are five modules in the program that we are developing. We call the program Project Circuit Breaker—

Mr LAMING —Yes, I have read about that. But I just want to ask if you are proposing that as a replacement, or something to follow—

Mr Collis —As part of the Circle—

Mr Applebee —As an adjunct to the Circle Court.

Mr LAMING —And they are not allowing you to implement that inside sentence?

Mr Collis —They are happy to have it to come up, but we have no money to run it. We do not have a bus and we have no petrol money. I have got a little Laser, so I cannot take them.

Mr LAMING —So it is only resourcing that is the issue?

Mr Collis —That is the issue.

Mr LAMING —And what about the high level of remand? Is that a problem in the ACT? Are there large numbers of people on remand who end up not being incarcerated?

Mr Applebee —Yes.

Mr LAMING —They are sort of held in remand—

Mr Applebee —They are held in remand centres, yes.

Mr LAMING —For how long?

Mr Applebee —Sometimes for months.

Mr LAMING —Do you have an alternative proposal there?

Mr Collis —We have been looking at first offenders, with the idea that once you are in the system you are actually corrupted by it. There is a whole culture that you then need to break down outside. You come out bent and almost another gang member—you are tough, and there is all that drama that goes with it.

The beauty of this is that you can actually target young people almost before they get to court. You could see these kids who are absconding from school or who are disruptive at school and say, ‘That person would be very good in this time out program. Let’s run it and see what happens—see if their behaviour changes.’ We want to look exclusively at young Aboriginal boys, partly because we do not have women involved in this program. I am looking more towards those boys going through initiation later on down the track, hopefully.

There have been more than 130 young people put through the first stage of law in Newcastle—

Mr LAMING —The first stage of Aboriginal law?

Mr Collis —Aboriginal law, yes. And similar to the stories you heard before, the changes in behaviour are night and day. Blokes who could not stop drinking, who would not stop certain kinds of behaviours, suddenly no longer had the need for it. They found something else, and I think that what they found in that program is their own identity. They found respect for themselves and that found a sensible place for them in the communities.

At the end of it, you can have all the programs you like, but these people have still got to come back to community. For the guys who are in their last 12 months of sentence at Cessnock jail, I suggested that we take them up to where the initiation place is once every week with a view to putting them through the first stage at the end of that 12 months. The infrastructure problems were that we would have to send a prison officer, what if somebody absconds and all that kind of thing; and that is fair enough—they are in jail. In Canada and in North America they have some different sorts of programs where they have got sweat lodges in the jail. We do not do sweat lodge, but it is not a bad idea.

Mr LAMING —What are they?

Mr Collis —A sweat lodge is almost like a sauna—

CHAIR —The Indian habit.

Mr Collis —They are able to bring that into the incarceration centre, perform those rituals and get these guys into a frame of mind where they come out with a healthy body and a healthy mind. But with this initiation stuff you actually need to take them to ground that is sacred and all that kind of stuff. Not that any ground is not sacred, but there are sites where men go.

Basically, that is it in a nutshell—we need funding for the stuff. I know that—

CHAIR —Can we just talk about that a bit more. All over Australia, there are people who are making some form or other of this argument. In most places that we have been to, there is also a complaint that there is not enough money for it. There are different names for it—culture camps and all of the others. I know that you first concern was about what was happening here, but have you got an idea about the way in which this kind of program might be put into effect generally?

Mr Collis —Absolutely.

CHAIR —Can you talk about that in a few minutes.

Mr Collis —Yes. In our program, I am looking at the cultural side. There are other aspects to it—you could learn to read, learn to type or do whatever you want as part of the other part of the program—but the cultural shift, that change in your identity and your responsibility, in this case is getting people to understand that when we talk about Mother Earth we just use it as a term, and it is so commonly used now that it almost has no meaning or relevance. If you ask a young person, ‘Where are you from, brother?’ they might say, ‘I’m from Canberra.’ ‘So are you Ngunawal?’ ‘Yes, I’m Ngunawal?’ ‘What do you do that’s Ngunawal?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘What’s Ngunawal?’ ‘I don’t know.’ So what about Mother Earth?

CHAIR —This is what you mean about Aboriginality?

Mr Collis —That is about it, yes. It is not knowing yourself under yourself. Part of this program is this rebirthing program. Bobby McLeod, when he was alive, was taken as a young man through a similar form of initiation. It is a preliminary part of initiation.

CHAIR —Was that on the South Coast?

Mr Collis —Yes. He was associating with people through trees and stuff like that—connecting back to earth through trees. Where this can work collectively across the country is that every community group can decide on whatever cultural ritual they want to perform as the basis of the change for their kids. It does not have to be rebirthing; it could be something else. The thing that I most like about it is that it is not reliant upon me or Wayne, it is sustainable and communities can take this on for themselves.

CHAIR —It does rely on someone, though.

Mr Collis —It does, but it does not rely on me being that community person in every community. The community can make their own model and put their own rituals to it.

CHAIR —Rod and Tony have not spoken yet, and I do not think we are going to hold them back much longer.

Mr Little —My involvement with this comes from a lengthy career as a public servant—nearly 20 years. I am a Wajuk-Amangu person from Western Australia—that is, Perth and Geraldton. I previously was the CEO of the Aboriginal Justice Centre here in the ACT, so Wayne had approached me about the programs. In the period of time when I was the CEO, we did some research. In partnership, we commissioned some research from the ACT Council of Social Service, looking at the justice, prevention and diversion programs within the ACT and seeing what sort of impact they have been having for our people. We found that these programs were not really having an impact, so we were looking for something that would have that impact and decrease the number of incarcerations in the youth centre, to begin with—but we also now have a prison, and we can see that there is an increase in Indigenous people being incarcerated.

My other role in this, as Wayne mentioned, is that I am a member of the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body, which is the only Indigenous representative body at a jurisdictional level in the country at the moment. I am also a member of the Circle centre, so I am a very busy person doing a lot of things. I have seen a lot of these programs. I have been in the public service for such a long time and have not seen measurement with all of these programs. Bob, you mentioned earlier the silo workings of programs and departments. It happens and is a continual issue. We do not see anything that is really out there measuring the impact or effectiveness of programs. We count the numbers of people going into prisons or attending a workshop or program, and then what? We do not measure what that social impact afterwards has been.

I think that it is very critical to be able to do that. Somebody participating in an effective program needs to be of sound mind and wellbeing. At the moment I am heavily involved in education, so it is the prevention, front end stuff before they get to the circuit breaker situation. It is clearly about what we and the previous speakers have talked about with respect to identity—acknowledging what it really means to be an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and working out where you fit into this world and the other world.

The point that you made, Andrew, was about where these programs work. It is about having relationships, building trust and acceptance of one another and of being a member of our broader society. We have heard stories about police being involved. That is about relationship building, understanding and building trust by the division and, I believe, by the quarantining of programs and who funds what. We heard earlier that once it has been a health program then health will not fund it any more because they think it is an arts program.

From the beginning to the end the impact of what this has done for a number of people are the sorts of things that you can replicate as a program right across the board. We can pull out this the certain tools or the certain make-up of a person who can run this program. We know the qualities of the person and the leadership qualities that we want to run a particular program and we search for those sorts of people in another program or another area that we can replicate the program. We have to have a look at what it is that makes this thing a successful program. If it was run by Paul, Wayne or me, you are not going to have another Paul or Wayne but you know what it was that made this a success.

CHAIR —You are saying that there is no point in just having a template kind of program where nobody pays any attention to the qualities that people have who are working in it and the kind of relationships they are able to develop with people going through the program. It is not really rocket science is it but nevertheless it is a big issue.

Mr Little —We do not have the things there to say. ‘This is why it worked and this is why it didn’t work.’

CHAIR —For what it is worth when we were in Darwin just 10 days ago some of us visited a healing centre called Balunu. It was noticeable that the men running this program could all have easily gone in the pack for the Waratahs although one of them was too big for it I think. They were taking kids who were in a really bad way indeed and keeping them in a camp and beginning the kind of discussion that you have just described. They take them out of dangerous situations and let them get calm for a while. The very important thing that we found out was that somebody from the Menzies school within the Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory is developing an evaluation tool for them. The tool allows you to go beyond the question of deciding, when measuring the program, whether somebody offended again and instead allows you to judge the change in the person’s attitude and at the crudest level the withdrawal from suicidal thoughts, for instance, but you can make it much more sophisticated than that. That seemed to be the kind of promising thing that would help everybody think about the personal impact of a program of this nature on its participants without being obsessed about whether they offended again. It is not an irrelevant consideration but it is not necessary to be obsessed with it.

Mr Little —That is the same as a parole officer sitting there listening to somebody and understanding what a person is personally willing to commit to not to reoffend and then saying, ‘We don’t think you’re ready yet.’ So, all of a sudden, that person thinks: ‘What’s the point in coming before you? I want to do this. I want to get out of here. I don’t want to reoffend.’ It is about building trust in that relationship with a person. Even though you are sitting across the table from them, it is really important to the individual to have some faith and for some wellbeing to be rebuilt in that individual.

CHAIR —I am conscious of the time and I am conscious that Tony has been modestly quiet. Did you want to say anything to us?

Dr Deklin —Just to thank you, Chair, for giving us the time to come and present our views and listen, particularly to Wayne, Paul and Rod. I have one or two comments. As a bit of background, I teach law at the University of Canberra. I teach human rights law. I am a Papua New Guinean.

CHAIR —From what part of the country?

Dr Deklin —From West Sepik, Sandaun Province. I have been teaching at the University of Canberra for 20 years. I taught at the University of PNG before that. I have three law degrees—a Bachelor of Laws from the University of PNG, a Master of Laws from York University in Toronto, Canada, and a PhD from ANU. On a personal level I have an affinity with the Indigenous cause, and so I have been involved as part of the thinking process, although it is their initiative and I am only working as a kind of brother to help them process the ideas. Secondly, because I teach human rights law, naturally this area is of particular concern to me professionally. In my teaching I have covered indigenous human rights and so from that perspective I am interested in it.

I have one or two points about Project Circuit Breaker. It is their proposal, and all they are asking for is a chance to run with it. They need resources, so I give them support for that. The importance of this program is its emphasis on prevention, and prevention is better than cure, as you know. But beyond the program is community, and the problem as I see it is that, like PNG, the Aboriginal culture is dying out and there is a real need to prevent that culture dying out. I returned to my old village earlier this year and I can see that is happening—in the Vanimo village where I come from. So culture plays a very important role here.

Equally important is the Indigenous law, the customary law. I think customary law, both in PNG and in Australia, is poorly resourced and it really needs to be supported. This is where Indigenous people themselves need to be encouraged to develop customary law and, fundamentally, to see the bridge between customary law and the modern law of the majority.

Equally important is the question of family. Not only is community a problem among Indigenous people here but family is also not being protected and promoted. I think these kids coming through the schools and through the courts particularly lack personal responsibility. It is the family that nurtures that, and if you do not have the family, as a matter of logic, you cannot expect the kids to pick up a sense of personal responsibility. That is what is missing. What we need to do is restore that personal responsibility to kids, and you cannot do that without family support. What they really need, what everybody needs, is a fair chance to run the race of life at all levels—in the outlying areas, in urban centres and wherever else they happen to be. The vision is to ensure there are responsible individuals, and you cannot achieve that in five years time if you do not have that social background of family and community.

Equally important is the need to develop intellectual culture among Indigenous people so they can talk about their problems. This is where I would draw an analogy with PNG, for example. Australia created the University of PNG, the first colonial power to create a university in a colony. Through that, we were able to develop our own intellectual ability to solve problems. There is no reason why Australia cannot set up an Indigenous university to encourage intellectual culture so Indigenous people get their own intellectuals to debate their own ideas and see their own solutions. That is one way to really look to the future.

CHAIR —That is a very interesting idea to end our session. Paul will be the first professor of arts there! Wayne, what degree are you doing?

Mr Applebee —A Bachelor of Social Science in Justice Studies, and I am doing law as well.

CHAIR —There is a job for you too then! Thank you all for giving us your time.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Turnour):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 1.37 pm