Bill's Speeches

CLOSING THE JUSTICE GAP

CLOSING THE JUSTICE GAP

 

MELBOURNE LAW SCHOOL –  THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE

 

WEDNESDAY, 18 NOVEMBER 2015

 

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the handback at Uluru.

As part of the ceremonies, I had to provide the local Pitjantjara interpreters with a copy of my speech in advance.

The lady who was interpreting my speech, Lena, had made changes to the English, because my words did not exist in Pitjantjara.

Her changes were seriously good.

Where I had written about ‘dispossessing’ and ‘marginalising’ the traditional owners, she wrote:

“We took away the land from the people who knew, loved and cared for it.”

I had quoted Stanner’s famous reference to the ‘Great Australian silence’ in our history.

Lena changed this to:  An empty place in our nation’s heart.

I was blown away by Lena’s words, ringing with truth.

And it struck me as something of a metaphor for so much of what occurs in Indigenous affairs.

The first Australians, knowing precisely what they have endured and exactly what it means.

And the rest of us not quite speaking the same language, not capturing the same truth.

With some heroic exceptions, decades of failing to say exactly what we mean – and not always meaning what we say.

This is why our efforts to close the gap, and build momentum for constitutional recognition, must always be informed by the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their community-controlled, representative organisations.

Any proposal for change we take to the Australian people must be owned and shaped by the First Australians.

At the gathering of Indigenous leaders in July, we agreed to establish a Council to help formalise the referendum question, the timing and to lead the community conversation.

I know there is a growing frustration with a lack of action in getting the Council up and running.

For our part, we will continue to do as much as we can, with the Prime Minister, to progress the Council, so they can get on with their important work.

Because every day of delay, every day of talk without progress, creates the risk of apathy and cynicism undercutting our goal.

We can’t prevaricate any longer.

We need to ensure the next steps are clear – and democratic.

Informed by grassroots activists and advocates, citizens and Elders in the community who know what recognition means to them – and what it must mean to Australia.

I believe a deep reservoir of national goodwill exists for success.

There are those who say we should be cautious, preserving popularity by offering only minimal, symbolic change.

I take a different view, I believe we draw upon this goodwill to achieve meaningful, substantive change.

Change that rightly consigns the race powers in our Constitution to the same fate as the White Australia policy.

Change that makes it clear there is no place for racism in modern Australia.

Recognition must be more than a new cover page of poetry we staple onto the front of the Constitution.

Australians set their ambitions high - and expect their elected representatives to rise to the challenge.

It’s up to our generation, to all of us, to right this wrong.

And yet whatever words we choose, we know recognition alone is not enough - unless it is accompanied by post-recognition action.

Real action, to address the racism, injustice, poverty and disadvantage that afflict the lives of the First Australians.

When Aboriginal people die ten years’ earlier than non-Indigenous Australians, we need to offer more than recognition.

When Australia is the only developed nation in the world where trachoma is endemic, we need to change more than our constitution.

When half of the young people in juvenile detention are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people…

When two per cent of our population makes up more than a quarter of our prison population…

When an Aboriginal man leaving school is more likely to go to jail than university…

We must do more than correct historical injustice.

We must strive to deliver justice.

I will never forget sitting in the Parliament in 2008 for the Apology.

Kevin Rudd said sorry on behalf of a nation for the prejudice and exclusion inflicted by governments past, and the first Australians accepted that Apology in the spirit in which it was offered.

That moment was a test of honesty, speaking the truth about our history.

The test of this moment, of our generation, is to make sure we do not merely trade one set of mistakes for another.

I don’t want another Prime Minister, in another Parliament to have to deliver another apology for the failures and neglect of our generation.

This is why Labor built the Closing the Gap framework – and set clear targets and timetables.

  • Early childhood education

  • Reading, writing and numeracy

  • Year 12 completion

  • Halving the employment gap by 2018

  • Halving the mortality gap for children under five

  • And closing the life expectancy gap by 2031.


We are on track to halve the child mortality gap, but in other areas progress has been uneven – and there is more to do.

Setting specific targets means we record our performance.

It focuses national attention on closing the gap.

And it keeps all of us – politicians, public servants and service providers accountable.

It’s why in 2013, Labor sought to create a new target, ensuring 90 per cent of Indigenous Australians with disability will be able to access NDIS support by 2020.

Labor is committed to this.

And the appalling rate of incarceration among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, demands we create justice targets.

Targets that allow us to focus on community safety, preventing crime and reducing incarceration.

Less crime, and less punishment.

Because nowhere is the story of unfairness and diminished opportunity more clearly defined than in the justice gap between the first Australians and the rest of us.

From family violence, to incarceration rates – the numbers are simply shocking.

If you are an Aboriginal man, you are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Aboriginal man.

Half of all Aboriginal prisoners are under 30.

The re-imprisonment rate for Aboriginal young people is higher than the school retention rate.

The numbers are heartbreaking – and getting worse.

Imprisonment rates have more than doubled in the past decade, growing independent from changes in the crime rate.

And for Aboriginal women, the rate of imprisonment is accelerating even faster – a 74 per cent increase in the past 15 years.

Today, Aboriginal women are one-third of our female prisoners.

There are far too many people in prison with poorly-understood disability, particularly cognitive and mental disabilities.

We cannot tolerate a system that just processes people, rather than a system that fairly administers justice.

We cannot let it be said of modern Australia that the colour of your skin determines whether or not you end up in jail.

It is devastating that jail is seen as a rite of passage for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, part of the natural order of things.

It is an outrage that there is an attitude that this is normal.

It is not normal.

It is soul-shattering that our justice system is defunct for communities in our nation.

And this ongoing injustice isn’t confined to outback communities, far from our gaze.

We can’t take the shoulder-shrugging view that this is just the tyranny of distance or a ‘fact of life’ in remote Australia.

The injustice is just as shameful across our cities and regional towns.

For individuals, an early stint in jail means you’re more likely to grapple with mental health issues or develop a substance addiction…

…and less likely to finish school, learn a trade or get a job.

Children with a parent in jail are less likely to go to school.

More likely to know the pain of poverty and neglect.

And more likely to be part of the rapidly-growing number of Aboriginal children placed in out-of-home care.

A number that has increased by a staggering 440 per cent since the Bringing them Home report was released in 1997.

Every community pays a price – with higher crime rates, reduced safety, and family violence.

And it costs the taxpayer $292 a day to keep someone in prison.

It’s time for Australia to face these failures.

To demand an end to this grievous national shame.

The first meeting of COAG convened under a Shorten Labor Government will work on justice targets.

We will work closely with State and local governments, through law enforcement agencies, corrections and community services

And just as importantly, we will be guided by the people who live the reality of the justice gap: community leaders, Elders and Aboriginal representative organisations.

Crime and incarceration affects the safety of the whole community – and the solution belongs to the whole community.

Two years ago the town of Bourke in the west of New South Wales, topped the state for six of the eight crime categories.

Including family violence, sexual assault and robbery.

In February 2013, a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald reported that if Bourke was a nation, on a per capita basis, it would be ‘more dangerous than any country in the world’. 

The people of Bourke said ‘enough is enough’.

The community brought together 18 different organisations: police, magistrates, legal services, mental health experts and community groups to examine the causes of crime – and to work on preventing crime.

This is not about being ‘soft’ on crime, or giving offenders a free pass.

It’s about breaking the vicious cycle of disadvantage, the demoralising treadmill of offending and incarceration.

This has been baptised as a ‘justice reinvestment’ model: prevention, rehabilitation and diversion.

An approach owned, championed by local people…informed by local knowledge, local expertise…and supported by the NSW government.

Building the capacity of communities to tackle the underlying causes of crime: substance abuse, disengagement from school and family dislocation.

Similar programs are underway in Cowra, in Katherine, in the Northern Territory – where the NT Law society is helping fund a project.

And the South Australian Government has offered its support to two sites.

But after two years, one of the problems confronting Bourke is a lack of co-ordinated information about what is working, and what is not.

It’s difficult for time-poor people on the frontline, to take a step back and assess their performance.

It’s time for the Federal Government to step up.

A Shorten Labor Government will provide the resources for a long-term study of justice reinvestment in Bourke, to see what Australia can learn.

And Labor will work with communities who are committed to this approach, and with the states and territories, to select three more launch sites: in a major city, a regional town and a remote community to roll out a local-power model for community safety.

Through COAG, we will create a national coordinating body for collecting data and measuring progress.

Building safer communities, by empowering residents.

Of course, we can never talk about community safety, without addressing the scourge of family violence.

Violence against Aboriginal women is at the very core of the national shame of family violence in Australia.

An Aboriginal woman is 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence.

And 11 times more likely to die.

Family violence is the number one cause of Aboriginal children being removed from their family and their community, and all the trauma and disruption to the social fabric this entails.

And too many women seeking help from family violence face significant legal, psychological and cultural barriers.

Every woman living in fear must have access to safe and culturally appropriate legal support, no matter where they live.

This is why Australia’s 14 Family Violence Prevention Legal Services are so important.

These Aboriginal community-controlled organisations work to break down the fear and isolation that affects many victims of family violence.

Many Aboriginal women come to a centre after living in violent situations for many years, trusting the staff to provide support and advice – without judgment.

These centres don’t just provide legal advice for one day in court.

They are a bridge to counselling and housing services, as well as leading community education campaigns aimed at boosting resilience and respect.

Disappointingly, Malcolm Turnbull’s recent Family Violence announcement neglected to invest in these services.  

A decision that sits alongside:

  • A $21.5 million cut from Legal Aid Commissions.



  • $13.4 million cut from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

  • And a broader $270 million cut from community support services – such as emergency relief, financial counselling and family relationships grants.


Far from the front page and the nightly news, cuts like these rarely receive the media condemnation they deserve.

But I want you to know I get how much pressure these cuts place on every community legal centre.

Ramping up demand on facilities already under strain, many running on their own tight budgets and absorbing cuts themselves.

This is why the first funding commitment I gave as Labor leader was to restore $50 million in legal service funding – including $4.5 million specifically allocated to Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention Legal Services.

I know every dollar of this money is desperately needed – and I know it will be well spent.

Particularly when the presence of accessible, culturally-appropriate support can be the difference between Aboriginal women seeking help – and suffering in silence.

I know in some conservative quarters it’s fashionable to say: ‘money won’t solve the problem on its own’.

But cutting funding won’t rescue family violence survivors – full stop.

So, the next time you hear someone talk about the ‘cost’ of preventing family violence, you tell them this.

By 2021, the cost of not preventing family violence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alone…will be $2.2 billion a year.

Above all, eliminating family violence from our national life, depends upon delivering equality for Australian women, regardless of who they are or where they live.

Equal opportunity for work, equal pay at work and an equal chance to lead decision-making for their communities and their country.

And we cannot close the justice gap, the family violence gap – without closing the gender gap for Aboriginal women and girls.

Better education for girls and young women is our best hope of promoting better health and nutrition, reducing infant and maternal mortality rates – and boosting productivity and employment.

But right now, less than six in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female students complete secondary school (as opposed to over eight in ten for non-Indigenous students).

And over 50 per cent of Aboriginal mothers have their first child while they are still teenagers.

We must engage young people at school and beyond.

The Clontarf academy among others has proven successful in improving school retention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys.

Yet while there are 28 of these various academies designed specifically for boys, there are only 13 for girls.

We can’t build gender equality on this shifting, uneven foundation.

A Labor Government I lead will address the current inequity in programs for girls.

We will partner with Stars Foundation, to build on their existing programs in schools in the Northern Territory, to engage many more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and young women across Australia.

The Stars program adopts an approach similar to the Clontarf model, but designed specifically for female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Providing full-time mentors and using extra-curricular activities, including sport, to improve school attendance and Year 12 attainment, as well as addressing health issues and social and emotional wellbeing.

Just as importantly, identifying the path from school to work or further education and training.

Addressing endemic poverty and disadvantage in so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities…

….depends on educating and empowering the next generation of girls – the generation currently in school, the generation who will close the gap.

A Shorten Labor Government will invest $8.4 million to create 7155 new places in the Stars Program for girls across Australia.

The Foundation will work with other organisations delivering school-based mentoring to girls and young women to engage and support students.

Friends, I’m not here tonight pretending to have all the answers, or that governments can resolve every issue.

There’s been enough of that, enough imposed solutions creating new problems.

Instead, we need to recognise that the best plans and policies depend upon fundamental respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Empowering people has guided my whole working life.

The best outcomes occur when people are empowered to make decisions about their own lives.

These principles are at the heart of great campaigns like ‘Change the Record’ being led by Kirstie Parker and Shane Duffy…with the guidance of Mick Gooda – who has been such a strong voice for empowering communities through diversion and prevention in justice.

But relying on the goodwill and generosity of an under-resourced, over-worked few is not enough.

The injustice dealt to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a stain on our whole nation, and it is a challenge to our whole nation.

The national lawmakers must lead.

We should not deceive ourselves.

We need new justice targets.

Shared goals, shaped by the voices of all involved.

Law enforcement, legal services, community sector experts, governments and - above all - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Friends, not for one minute do I underestimate the scope or the scale of the challenge before us.

No generation of Australians has passed the test we face.

But if we listen, if we work together, I believe we can succeed where others have failed.

We can close the justice gap.

We can. We must. We will.

 

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