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Tuesday, 4 April 2000
Page: 15141


Mr PYNE (4:29 PM) —The principle that we are debating this afternoon is a very simple one: whether or not the punishment should fit the crime. We are not debating whether the attackers of an old woman who is walking down the street, is bashed with a brick and has her handbag stolen should be jailed or not; we are not dealing with that issue. We are dealing with whether the triviality of offences in the Northern Territory warrants the crime of being detained and incarcerated. I think it would be worth while remembering some of the offences that are attracting incarceration in the Northern Territory.

In the Northern Territory, an 18-year-old was sent to jail for 14 days for stealing a $2.50 cigarette lighter—and ironically this was after his having owned up to his father as having stolen it. This is a territory where a 29-year-old man who is homeless for the third time steals a towel worth $15 in order to keep warm at night and is jailed for a year. This debate is about whether a 20-year-old with no prior convictions who steals $9 worth of petrol should be put in jail for 14 days. This is about whether an 18-year-old who steals 90c from a vehicle should be jailed for 90 days. This is about whether two 17-year-old girls staying over at their friends' house and stealing some of their clothes should then be jailed for 14 days for doing so; or whether Jamie Warramurra, after stealing $23 worth of cordial and biscuits, should be in jail today serving a sentence of one year; or whether Johnno, who stole textas and pencils as a juvenile and was jailed for 28 days, should have been sent to jail at all, as it was there he ended up hanging himself. That is the principle about which we are talking this afternoon, and unfortunately too often it gets lost in the hurly-burly of debate and point scoring.

The Northern Territory law is a heinous law. It is different from the Western Australian law, but I will not deal with Western Australia because this bill is only about the Northern Territory. In the Northern Territory judicial discretion has been removed from the magistrates and judges. So gone is the opportunity for judges to look into the circumstances of a particular case, to look into the circumstances of an individual, to decide whether the triviality of an offence warrants incarceration and then to make a decision. No more are judges in the Northern Territory able to use their judgment, their experience or their legal training to make decisions. Instead, they are ciphers adopting a law that many of them oppose. They might as well be monkeys making such decisions because they are not being called upon to use their judgment, their experience and their training. We believe—and we have always believed—that a basic tenet of our legal system is that they should have that discretion to make decisions about sentencing.

It is inappropriate to put into the hands of the police the power to sentence, and that is what happens now in the Northern Territory. In the Northern Territory police have to decide whether or not to charge someone. They know that, if they charge a person who pleads guilty or is found to be guilty, that person will be sent to jail. So we have moved the responsibility to make decisions about sentencing from our judiciary to the police—and that is not their role and not a role that they would want. Also, the Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction to treat 17-year-olds as adults. Every other jurisdiction treats 17-year-olds as juveniles, the exception being the Northern Territory. There are simple changes that could be made by the Northern Territory in order to make its laws less pernicious—but, sadly, it has not done so.

The Northern Territory claims that it has a whole range of diversionary programs which make its laws okay, but let us have a look at those programs. For juveniles, those programs only apply to 15- and 16-year-olds, and they only apply to the 28-day detention period. So, if it is a third offence, a diversionary program does not apply. For adults, a diversionary program only applies if the defendant pleads guilty. So already the defendant has to give up his or her rights to a serious defence in order to even have access to a diversionary program in the Northern Territory—and it only applies to a first offence, not to any subsequent offences. There is one person employed in the Northern Territory to organise all that Territory's diversionary programs. Until recently, those programs were only organised for Alice Springs, Darwin and Katherine when, in fact, the real need is in remote communities—not in the major cities of the Northern Territory.

We also talk too blithely about detention and jail. Detention is not a holiday experience. Jail statistics today are extraordinary for adults. I am sure that such statistics also apply to juveniles but, hopefully, to a lesser extent—however, remember that in the Northern Territory 17-year-olds are treated as adults. For men who go to jail or detention in Australia, 24 per cent will be pack raped while in jail. Forty to 60 per cent of men who leave jail will have hepatitis C, and 60 to 85 per cent of women who leave jail will have it too. We are dealing with the destruction of people's lives. Too readily we blithely talk about sending people to jail, and we must remember the sorts of offences they are being sent there for—such as the boy who stole a $2.50 cigarette lighter.

Jail is not rehabilitating criminals. Clearly, putting juveniles in jail, rather than rehabilitating them, only exposes them to the sorts of hardened criminals from whom they learn the tricks of the trade. Crime rates in the Northern Territory have gone up following the introduction of mandatory sentencing in 1997. In 1998 crime rates for unlawful entry increased by 8.8 per cent. This is not a cheap affair. To keep an adult in jail for a year costs $56,000; to keep a juvenile in detention for a year costs $120,000. I would remind the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory that 80 per cent of the Territory's budget is provided by the Commonwealth government. So, when some in this House say that this is a matter for the Northern Territory, I say that certainly in many respects it is—but our taxpayers are the ones who are paying for it; if you are a New South Welshman, you are paying a greater proportion, and so on through each of the states. But our taxpayers are paying to put children in jail, and we must remember that.

What could the Northern Territory do? The Northern Territory could do a number of things: it could extend its diversionary programs for each offence to adults and to juveniles; it could treat 17-year-olds as juveniles rather than as adults; it could fund more officers to organise and run diversionary programs; it could establish the programs in areas of need in remote communities rather than in the major cities; and it could fund interpreters for indigenous children. It is extraordinary that, in Darwin, if you are an Indonesian people-smuggler you can get an interpreter to deal with a court situation in an hour but, if you are an indigenous person who does not speak English, you cannot get an interpreter to come to the court to deal with your problem.

The Northern Territory could re-establish judicial discretion at all levels of their justice system. They could establish more camps such as those that are run by Aborigines out of Alice Springs where they send their young people who are experiencing difficulties. They could extend those camps to juveniles so that they could be sent to camps which are funded by the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory but run by Aborigines. At these camps they could learn about socialisation and they would have recreational activities and sporting activities. Most importantly, they would have educational opportunities so they could learn to read and write as well as learn to speak English. This would mean that, when they went back into the community, they would be able to be full, active and constructive members of their own remote community or of any other community in the Northern Territory.

The government has decided that it will not intervene in the Northern Territory's mandatory sentencing laws, and the Prime Minister has set that out today. The government position is that it will not support the Andren bill and it will not support it being debated. I will support that position in the vote taken today. Therefore, I do not support the suspension of standing orders.

However, I want to make a number of points to the Labor Party. I was in the Senate in the Old Parliament House, during the time I worked for Amanda Vanstone, when George Georges was expelled from the Labor Party for crossing the floor. There was no question about whether George Georges would be expelled. He crossed the floor and he was automatically expelled. I say to those members of the Labor Party who demand that members of this side cross the floor: is this debate about point scoring and which coalition member is or is not going to cross the floor, or is it about bringing about outcomes for indigenous young people?

I believe this debate is about putting pressure on the Northern Territory and on Denis Burke to bring about change. It would be much better for all concerned if the Northern Territory were to act of its own volition to change these pernicious laws. That is what this debate is about. It is not about point scoring; if it is then, sadly, the Labor Party has missed the point. While I know many members of the Labor Party have not missed the point, some in today's debate have done so in demanding point scoring over the substance of bringing about outcomes.

The government is making a great impact in the Northern Territory in three ways: firstly, by allowing this debate to occur at all this afternoon we are putting pressure on Denis Burke, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory; secondly, the coalition has handled this matter in a way that has allowed those amongst it who feel very strongly on mandatory sentencing to put maximum pressure on the Northern Territory, both publicly and within the party, to bring about change; and, finally and most importantly, the Prime Minister has made it clear that Denis Burke has been asked to meet with him. The Prime Minister will put—as forcefully and as eloquently as we know that he is able to—our strong views on the mandatory sentencing laws being unwise and needing to be changed, because outcomes, not form, are what is important in this debate. If we can bring about change in the Northern Territory without federal government intervention, we will have achieved something good for those young indigenous Australians suffering at the moment under the yoke of mandatory sentencing.