Don't let 'inquiry mentality' see life get worse in the NT after the royal commission
When I was appointed to head up the Royal Commission on the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory with Margaret White, she had a simple vision: follow the evidence and go where the evidence takes us.
Here is what the evidence told us with respect to youth detention:
Internal rules were not followed, the laws as set out in the Northern Territory Youth Justice Act were regularly broken and there were numerous breaches of many of the international human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory.
We also followed the evidence when it came to recommending the way forward. We visited New Zealand and saw how sensitively a judge in the Children’s Court dealt with young offenders, we heard how 80% of youth offenders are diverted away from arrest, of how they place the role of family in the centre of addressing youth offending and saw how culture could be used as a positive contribution to reduce youth offending. I was particularly taken with their attitude to youth offending that went something like this:
It is amazing how many people I tell this to, then tell me:
Many of our own experts here in Australia in the fields of hearing loss, FASD, youth detention, prisons, mental health and community-based interventions gave evidence in formal hearings and in community meetings.
In the process of developing our recommendations we again consulted with many of these people to ensure that our recommendations were feasible, doable and, if implemented properly, would have a positive impact.
But right from the very beginning of the Royal Commission were always confronted with the question:
What difference will this inquiry make, given that there have been so many in the past and the situation has got worse instead of better?
And as we have said repeatedly, we found over 50 inquiries, reviews and reports that covered many of the areas we were looking at in child protection and youth detention and if only a few of those recommendations had been fully implemented I would question whether a Royal Commission like ours was ever needed.
I love the quote from our Senior Counsel, Peter Callaghan SC on our first day of hearings:
The one thing seemingly missing from most of those reports was the involvement of the Aboriginal community in the implementation of any the recommendations. I am not talking just about the involvement of our representative organisations, although they too were missing most of the time, but real engagement with Aboriginal communities across the Northern Territory.
In of our report we make the case for community engagement. I have recalled many times since the Royal Commission concluded, how I convened a meeting of all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and there were plenty, including eight lawyers, to say while we would not indulge in “victim blaming” there was a need to confront the reality that some parents and carers had gone missing when it came to the welfare of their children. Every one of those staff agreed.
However, we came to understand there was a terrific appetite from the community to take up the challenge themselves and on their own terms. We met with people from Maningrida, Lajamanu, at full meetings of the Central and Northern Land Councils at Ross River and Timber Creek respectively whose members expressed the strong commitment to work with government to address the long-standing problems experienced every day right across the Territory in child protection and youth detention.
I have always been of the view that this will be the main challenge for government, but I also don’t underestimate the challenge for the community. Pulling together in communities wracked by disempowerment, where the phenomenon of the disempowered turning on each other is a regular experience, will take leadership of the type that has led our survival for over 60,000 year on this continent.
We can look to the work being done in the New South Wales town of Bourke. I was first invited to Bourke in 2013 when the Sydney Morning Herald was describing it as the most unsafe, most violent place in the world. A couple of weeks ago Bourke issued a report on the progress they are making and without quoting a big heap of statistics at you I think you’d be interested in these:
18% reduction in the number of major offences reported
34% reduction in the number of non-domestic violence related assaults reported
39% reduction in the number of domestic violence related assaults reported
39% reduction in the number of people proceeded against for drug offences
35% reduction in the number of people proceeded against for driving offences and
72% reduction in youth traffic offences
When I quote these at people they ask what programs are they running in Bourke to produce such results and I struggle to think of any one program that contributes to these outcomes. Rather, what is the driver of these results is to community coming together, taking control, engaging with the disengaged in Bourke and going back to where I started tonight, using lots of data to drive their interventions.
For instance, in an analysis of youth offending they found that 61% of youth offending occurred between 6pm and 6am each day, with a further 48% occurring on weekends. It didn’t take long to realise that the that these times coincided precisely when the youth organisations in Bourke were not working.
The community then confronted those organisations, basically telling them unless they change their operating times to address the issues coming out of this data they would simply tell government these organisations were not wanted in their town.
Whichever way you look at this these are amazing results, but when I was first invited to Bourke we worked together for 18 months without discussing too many interventions. My main job was to be the independent chair of community meetings where people simply started speaking to each other in a safe space. Bourke still has its problems with community engagement and not every one in Bourke agrees with their approach but there is a critical mass of people who do.
The secret is to realise the cost of changing the way our communities operate should be counted in hours, days, months and years, that is time rather than in dollar terms. There is an old saying I came across in WA about the longer it takes to build something the longer it takes to tear it down. You build something in a day it will be torn down in a day, but because of the time taken to develop this in Bourke it would take a mighty effort from anyone community, government or NGOs to take them down.
Coming back to the situation in the Northern Territory, there needs to be an intense effort of engaging communities at the community level to participate in decision-making but also keeping the governments to account for the implementation of our recommendations. We were told during the Royal Commission that it is impossible to stop a government going down a particular road to remove funding from programs or organisations or not fulfilling their commitments to implement the recommendations to which they commit, such as increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years old years of age.
But what we can do, is ensure transparency of decision-making when things like that happen, when commitments are not met, funding is allocated but only to see those allocations we moved or just basically taking a Uturn on public commitments to change legislation.
Because if we can ensure that transparency, and if communities are fully engaged, if the NGO sector is supportive then governments can and will be called to account. While Margaret and I obviously feel a sense of ownership of the progress in rectifying the issues we uncovered in the Royal Commission, in a sense our job was done when we handed our report to both the Northern Territory and Federal governments on 17 November last year.
It is only the power of community that will keep governments accountable and hopefully our recommendations would not only have gone a long way towards rectifying the particular issues we were asked to address, but also implemented the structural change to ensure government accountability.
This is an edited extract from a speech Mick Gooda delivered on 26 October as part of the 2018 Menzies School of Health Research Orations.
“Pulling together in communities wracked by disempowerment will take leadership of the type that has led our survival for over 60,000 yearon this continent.”