Don't let 'in­quiry men­tal­ity' see life get worse in the NT after the royal com­mis­sion

The Guardian Australia - - The Long Read / Opinion - Mick Gooda

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.

Pho­to­graph: Sup­plied

“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.”

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