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Monday, 10 April 2000
Page: 15550

Mr BEAZLEY (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Does the package you have put to Chief Minister Burke contain a requirement that judges and magistrates sentencing juveniles in the Northern Territory must have available to them alternatives to imposing jail sentences at the point of sentencing—yes or no?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I can inform the House that the Chief Minister and I met last night. I can also inform the House that the Chief Minister and I have agreed on a number of initiatives to deal with this issue, and I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his question. During our meeting last night, I indicated to the Chief Minister the Commonwealth's particular concern about the practical impact of the policy of mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory on juveniles. Both of us recognised that these matters are ones normally dealt with by the criminal laws of the states and territories. We agreed, however, that our common objective—and I would think it is the common objective of all members of this House—was to prevent juveniles entering the criminal justice system.

Accordingly, we agreed on a number of initiatives designed to achieve this goal. They address the particular concerns of the Commonwealth, whilst respecting the role of the Northern Territory parliament. I can inform the House that the Northern Territory legislation will be amended so that a person will be treated as an adult from the age of 18, rather than 17 years as it is at present. I also agreed that the federal Attorney-General will approach the governments of Victoria and Queensland requesting them to bring their laws in relation to juveniles into line because, at present, in both Victoria and Queensland—and it has gone unremarked—the juvenile age is designated as 17; we think it is desirable that it be 18. We will approach the two governments on this. In the end, of course, it is a matter for the parliaments of those two states as to whether they bring their laws into line, but I imagine that I would have the support of all members of the House in any approach that the Attorney-General might make.

Importantly, in relation to juveniles, the Northern Territory government has agreed to amend the general orders of the Northern Territory police, so that, firstly, the police will be required to divert at the pre-charge stage all juveniles apprehended in relation to minor offences. What that means in practice is that, in respect of minor offences, there can be no mandatory sentencing of juveniles because they will be compulsorily diverted by the police to a much expanded program of diversion, including many of the things about which the member for Calare and also the Leader of the Opposition spoke only a few moments ago in this parliament. Secondly, in relation to more serious cases, there will be a discretion provided for the police to divert offenders into those same diversionary programs and, on successful completion of programs, not to pursue charges. The Chief Minister has agreed that the Chief Magistrate would continue to have special responsibility for juveniles within his jurisdiction. In addition, court lists will be scheduled so that the juvenile matters are dealt with separately, wherever possible, in a dedicated juvenile court.

The additional funding that will be needed for these programs will be substantially provided by the Commonwealth. We will be making available an additional annual amount of about $5 million to the Territory. This will be provided to help fund a much enhanced diversionary program, including conferencing with victims—another matter I think mentioned by the member for Calare, perhaps also by the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, by many of my own colleagues. It will also fund greater opportunities for involvement in substance abuse and drug diversion programs. There will be additional community based diversion programs. We will also make money available, within that $5 million allocation, to fund jointly with the Northern Territory government an Aboriginal interpreter service, which will be an important element of successfully addressing this very difficult issue.

It has been agreed between the two governments that the effectiveness of these new measures will be reviewed after they have been in operation for a period of 12 months. This outcome represents a practical dealing with a difficult issue. It recognises in relation to the change in the age a specific alteration to the law. In relation to the handling of matters prior to charges being laid, by the introduction of what is, in effect, mandatory diversion for minor offences, it means that juveniles apprehended for minor offences will not be caught up in the mandatory sentencing regime. I think that is an important consideration. In relation to more serious offences, there will be the option, depending on the circumstances, that that not occur. I think that represents a fair and balanced outcome. In other respects, the laws in the Northern Territory are not being altered. There are those who argue that the Commonwealth should have gone further; that is not a view that is shared on this side of the House. We think there is a role for the local parliament, the local people and the local expression of will in relation to these matters. I think running through all of this debate has been a concern about the practical impact of mandatory sentencing regimes on juveniles. There is also a concern within local communities about the need to have effective legal responses to certain forms of behaviour. I believe that these changes strike a fair balance in relation to those matters.

I want to thank the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory for his constructive approach to this issue and I want to thank members on both sides of the House who have shown a concerned interest in resolving what I think is a difficult issue, and one that reflects on the kind of society we are, but also one that has to take into account the fact that it is a large country and thoughts on issues like this in parts of metropolitan Sydney are not the same as thoughts on this in Darwin and Alice Springs. That is why you have a federation, that is why you have states and that is why you have territory parliaments, and I think we are very foolish if we ever lose sight of that fact.