New Internationalist

Closing the gap in Australia

Issue 428

Louis Dai visits the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place near Melbourne, a community-based programme to bring Aboriginal values into the Australian criminal justice system. In the process he meets Phillip Dow and wonders about the deeper roots of injustice in his homeland.

‘I’m back smoking chuff and drinking again,’ Phillip Dow says. Hands in pockets, he’s slouched against the wall of the ANZ Bank in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. Yesterday was his brother’s funeral. Allegedly, his stepson had bashed him to death.

Today, his brothers and sisters are at their communal gathering spot outside the bank. There are kisses on the cheeks and minute-long embraces. Two wine bottles and a pack of cigarettes are passed around.

I first met Phillip at the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place (WNLP) in April 2009, 12 months after it was set up. WNLP is a ‘live-in diversion programme’ for Aboriginal offenders, purpose-built to help them through Community Based Orders (CBOs) handed out by the legal system.

According to the latest National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee paper, Bridges and Barriers, more than 30 per cent of female and 24 per cent of male prisoners in Australia are Indigenous. Shocking numbers when native Australians make up just 2-3 per cent of Australia’s total population

‘One of the reasons Wulgunggo Ngalu started was because Aboriginal people were breaching their Community Based Orders at a much higher rate than non-Aboriginals,’ says former WNLP Programme Manager, Kenneth Mayes.

‘They’re not complying with the conditions of their order when they’re in the community. When they’re here, they comply and we get them through.’

The WNLP was an initiative of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA), an arrangement between Aboriginal Elders and local government to deal with Aboriginal ‘over-representation’ in the criminal justice system.

According to the latest National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee paper, Bridges and Barriers, more than 30 per cent of female and 24 per cent of male prisoners in Australia are Indigenous. Shocking numbers when native Australians make up just 2 to 3 per cent of Australia’s total population.

For the Victorian AJA the WNLP was a good start. A CBO breach can set Aboriginal Australians down the rabbit hole of crime. Preventing breaches means preventing jail time.

But, as with Phillip and numerous other cases, preventing breaches isn’t enough to stop Aboriginal Australians from lapsing into crime again.

A diversion programme with a difference

WNLP was sold as a diversion programme ‘with a difference’. The programme’s manager, Shaun Braybrook, re-iterated this sentiment in Koori Justice, ‘It’s one of the first facilities in Victoria to be designed and managed by Koories for Koories (Koori is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘the people’). And it will be a much-needed alternative for Koori offenders by providing a higher level of cultural support, supervision and services than a regular CBO.’

This was not empty rhetoric. Tribal Elders were consulted in setting up the programme and an Aboriginal architect, Dillon Kombumerri, was hired to give the residence an Aboriginal ‘feel’.

‘It’s great… exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I said our government could spend a lot more money, put in a lot more resources into alternatives, in particular community-based ones. It should be a standard part of the overall mix in the criminal justice system’

Mr Kombumerri put in fishing holes, BMX bike tracks and rooms built of natural timber painted with the colours of the blue wren. There were areas for open fires where the residents could gather to share their ‘business’ in a salute to Aboriginal camps of old.

When I went to visit last April, I stopped at a music room to see a resident strap on an electric guitar and start his rendition of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. A hundred metres on, in a shed full of weights, another resident was pumping iron.

In a small collection of classrooms, closer to the central gathering space, training courses were being held. These included alcohol and drug counselling sessions and a cognitive behavioural programme that taught residents to ‘not just go flat out and smash’ their victims.

There was a chainsaw licensing course, an RSA (bartender) and food handling course and arts and wood sculpting lessons. Budgeting classes, skills training and literature classes completed the abundance of support and services.

‘The idea is that they will have more skills when they’ve finished here to keep them out of trouble,’ says Kenneth Mayes. ‘They’ll be more able to get a job and live better in their community.’

No wonder the WNLP never had a shortage of admirers along the ‘Indigenous grapevine’. Bess Yarram, Chairman of the Gippsland Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee, said in Koori Justice, ‘I really think it will achieve great things. The support and training these men will receive will give them more pride in themselves and help keep their families together.’

Researchers, too, were enthusiastic. David McDonald, Deputy Head of the Criminology Research Unit of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, said: ‘It’s great… exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I said our government could spend a lot more money, put in a lot more resources into alternatives, in particular community-based ones. It should be a standard part of the overall mix in the criminal justice system.’

The numbers game

But things don’t always work out as advertised. Take Phillip Dow’s experience. Phillip joined the WNLP in December 2008 to finish a CBO on his second count of assault. The judge had been lenient.

‘I’d already been there,’ recalls Phillip, ‘and it didn’t help, ‘cos jail treats you like you’re a number.’

The training and classes that were supposed to keep him of trouble, help him get a job and adjust to the community have led to begging and cleaning people’s lawns for $10 a go

He spent seven months in Wulgunggo Ngalu, four more than the recommended amount of time. He had $5,500 worth of fines for ‘jumping trains and trams’ converted into an additional 250 hours of community work. He completed a First Aid course, arts and wood sculpting classes, and now has a Chainsaw Level 1 licence. When I first met him he was brimming with praise for the programme. ‘It’s like a holiday. I love the peace and quiet here. It’s away from all the bullshit.’ He had showered. His clothes were clean and, he was heading home to Drouin that evening to watch his son in the local Under-11s football team where he would ‘hang out with the coppers’ on the sidelines.

‘I changed a lot. Now the police are proud of me.’ (Both charges of assault were against ‘coppers’, he told me.) Drouin Police Senior Constable, Kevin Johnson, agreed that he had shown some progress. ‘We don’t have much to do with him unless he plays up. But he hasn’t, so we haven’t had any dealings with him.’

Now, six months later, it’s a drab contrast. Kicked out of WNLP for drinking on-grounds, he’s on the streets of Collingwood begging for spare change. I give him a few coins, barely enough for public transport. It’s all I have and he laughs, ‘Well, it’s the thought that counts. It comes from the heart.’

The training and classes that were supposed to keep him of trouble, help him get a job and adjust to the community have led to begging and cleaning people’s lawns for $10 a go. Cheap red wine is his one of his gentler vices. As he swigs down some more, he hobbles to a ‘brother’ and bums a fag.

The real world

This shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not an anomaly. Returning to the real world for Phillip and others like him means returning to the ‘bullshit’ of being an Aboriginal Australian.

Life expectancy is the lowest for all native people in the developed world – 17 years below that of non-Indigenous Australians

Unemployment is rife; education is scant and literacy/numeracy rates are low. Poverty, substance abuse and child neglect are worsening and access to health services is a constant battle. Over-crowding is common in communities where 300+ residents are forced to share fewer than 30 dwellings. Life expectancy is the lowest for all native people in the developed world – 17 years below that of non-Indigenous Australians. There is no national political organization to represent Aboriginals since the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services was shut down four years ago. It’s no surprise that Phillip’s back on the street again, smoking drugs and drinking.

‘It’s the only way I can deal with this at the moment. I know it’s bad for me. I know I gotta get off it.’

It’s almost inevitable that Phillip will re-offend and find himself back in jail. Director of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics Research, Donald Weatherburn, says Phillip’s downward spiral is all too common:

‘People have been working on the assumption that if you create an alternative to custody, fewer people will go to jail. That’s only true if alternatives reduce the risk of re-offending, which most alternatives don’t. Otherwise all you’re doing is creating another step for Aboriginal Australians to climb on their way to jail.’

The key issue is the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society. Nearly 20 years ago the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) pointed out the need to address underlying issues to stop people winding up in the criminal justice system. Crime and over-representation reflects Australia’s marginalization of its Aboriginal people. To reduce the ‘gap’ social problems like poverty and poor education need to be addressed. In particular, colonialism’s hangovers, such as dispossession and land rights, need to be sorted.

‘Dispossession, and the historic events that forbade the practise of song and dance ceremony, that forbade us to practise our culture, are all factors that have contributed to provide a disjointed existence. There is a re-learning and a re-gaining of all of those things that needs to happen,’ says Alf Bamblett, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Community Services.

‘Dispossession, and the historic events that forbade the practise of song and dance ceremony, that forbade us to practise our culture, are all factors that have contributed to provide a disjointed existence’

Racist patterns of policing need to be quelled as well. In New South Wales, there are now tougher sentencing laws for re-offenders. Says Donald Weatherburn: ‘They’re shifting more people who wouldn’t have gone to jail to jail and that has a differential affect on Aboriginal people because there’s always more of them on the cusp of a prison sentence than there are non-Aboriginal people. Since 2000, the growth in Aboriginal imprisonment has mainly been policy driven. It’s not because Aboriginal people are more involved in crime.’

Indigenous leaders have urged Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to add action to his February, 2008 apology to Aborigines for their ‘profound grief, suffering and loss’. Rudd came to power on a platform of reconciliation and justice for Aboriginal people. But three years have passed and little has been achieved.

‘The apology has provided the Rudd Government with a political shield against criticism of its failures in Aboriginal affairs,’ said Indigenous leader and director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Michael Mansell in The Australian. ‘There are no land rights for the dispossessed, no compensation for the stolen generations; the health standards are not improving and the Aboriginal imprisonment rate continues to climb.’

PM Rudd and his Aboriginal Affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, have seldom had to defend this slow start. But as the recent ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’ report showed, the hidden gap continues to increase. Initiatives like the Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place are significant. But they can’t address the entrenched racism that exposes Australia’s claim to equality and egalitarianism.

Without this fundamental reversal people like Phillip, no matter how much treatment and diversion he receives, is doomed to return to the ‘bullshit’ of life as an Aboriginal Australian.

Louis Dai recently graduated with a degree in Media and Communication from the University of Melbourne and is now a freelance journalist.

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