PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: I rise to speak on Dr Leigh’s motion concerning the increasing incarceration rates of Australian citizens, and particularly those of Indigenous Australians. This issue is an important one.
The figures quoted in the motion are alarming and should make all Australians, particularly policy makers, stop, think and reflect. The Australian incarceration rate has increased from 117 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 1991 to 172 prisoners in 2010. The Indigenous rate has increased from 1,739 per 100,000 adults to 2,303 over the same period. This Indigenous incarceration rate is particularly alarming as it is high to start with—Indigenous people make up 22 per cent of the prison population and yet comprise only two per cent of the overall population—and this high rate has been increasing ever since the landmark Aboriginal deaths in custody report in 1991. We thought that this report would see the turnaround in incarceration rates of Indigenous people in Australia, but it has not. It has clearly failed in its intent.
I congratulate the Member for Fraser for raising this issue today in his motion. But it is here that my congratulations end and my disappointment begins. I am disappointed because I expected more from the Member for Fraser in analysing the problem and prescribing some policy solutions that might make a demonstrable difference. But in this motion he does not do this. His analysis and his policy prescriptions of the issues are typical of left liberal thinking that has characterised the issue for many, many years. I believe that Dr Leigh is better than this.
The motion itself is largely unobjectionable. It calls for more early intervention; more alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice and drug courts; smarter policing strategies; in-prison education; and more research. That is, the motion is based on a strong belief in diversion, education and early intervention as ways of tackling the issue of high and ever-increasing incarceration rates. Some of these policies can be useful. I accept that. Drug courts, in particular, have been shown to be beneficial in this regard.
We should work on the things that Dr Leigh and the Labor Party have raised in this motion. But those things alone will not make a substantial difference, and this is my core criticism. The motion puts too much hope in intervention and diversion alone; whereas we need to acknowledge that a breakdown in norms and self-perpetuating substance abuse epidemics are major causes of crime. We need to tackle those factors head on and with great determination.
Dr Don Weatherburn and Noel Pearson have been some of the strongest critics of the approach that this motion advocates. Noel Pearson refers to the sausage machine of the criminal justice system, where Indigenous people are the meat in the machine. He says:
That is, everybody from police to legal aid, diversionary programs, probationary programs and corrective services all basically see the goal as ensuring proper safe and fair procedures and facilities for the meat to get processed through the machine and turned into sausages. He goes on: Almost all the academic and policy focus on Indigenous criminal justice has been focused on making the most human-rights-compliant sausage machine. And there are those who daydream about simple solutions such as inserting a gate to stop people from being imprisoned. But where does that leave us? The last thing communities want is offenders left to continue wreaking destruction. The sausage machine paradigm exists because there has been an unwillingness to tackle the immediate behaviours that give rise to offences, such as substance abuse …
Dr Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, is equally to the point, where he says that the leading cause of Aboriginal overrepresentation in prison is not systemic bias or lack of diversion programs or education program, but is the ‘high rates of involvement in serious crime’. That is what it is. It is the high rate of involvement in serious crime. It is this fact that this motion and the left-liberals do not acknowledge and do not address.
Yes, it is unpleasant to state this. But by not stating it does not mean that it does not exist. Worse, it can continue a fabrication that all we need to concentrate on as policy makers is on being nicer, having more education and early intervention programs and a better criminal justice system—and then everything will be rosy. Unfortunately, it will not be.
So what is to be done? The first step is to acknowledge the reality that high rates of imprisonment are due to high rates of serious crime. That is the reality. Next is to address head-on the causes of the high rates of serious crime, to tackle the behaviours that give rise to offences—such as the behaviours that Noel Pearson referred to: substance abuse, abandonment of personal responsibility for one’s actions and disrespect for neighbours and for community standards.
The most important thing in this list is alcohol and drug abuse. General poverty and disadvantage are of course factors here and we need to be addressing these, but the categorical research from Weatherburn, Snowball and Hunter is that the highest predictor of imprisonment, even after controlling for a wide range of other factors associated with economic disadvantage, was high use of alcohol and drugs. Anyone who has been to remote Indigenous communities is only too aware of this, where alcohol is the poison that runs through these communities. This is the most important thing for us to tackle head-on if we are fair dinkum about reducing incarceration rates, particularly for Indigenous peoples.
There has been some movement in this area to deal with alcohol and substance abuse, but not enough. We need to be tougher at restricting supply of alcohol and drugs through alcohol management plans and through income quarantining—so there is less cash available to purchase those substance—and we need to do more to enforce existing laws more strongly. Concurrently, other mechanisms to rebuild the social fabric of remote Indigenous communities need to be addressed. We need to insist on 100 per cent school attendance at high-quality schools in the remote communities. We need welfare reform, so that people are working and are not encouraged to stay on welfare. We need to give authority back to the elders—like what occurs in Cape York through the Family Responsibilities Commission.
This motion is weak because it does not mention any of those things. It does not mention that the high rate of imprisonment is due to high rates of crime. The motion does not mention alcohol or drugs anywhere. It doe not mention the need to rebuild social and community norms.
I will conclude by examining some statistics from Mornington Island, which is almost exclusively an Indigenous community. I have in front of me the murder and suicide rates for Mornington Island from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the 20th century. Between 1900 and the end of the 1970s there was one murder and one suicide. In the subsequent two decades there were 13 murders and 22 suicides. In those subsequent two decades we had enormous investment in infrastructure, enormous investment in education and the formal elimination of systemic racism. Opportunities opened up for Indigenous people through those decades and yet the murder rate, the suicide rate and the rate of other crimes increased dramatically. I understand—and other people will say—that these statistics are apparent in all other communities as well. But in the last couple of decades there has been alcohol abuse, welfare dependency and a breakdown in these communities. That is what is causing the high crime rate, and it is the high crime rate that is causing the high incarceration rate.
These are the things that this motion should be addressing but does not address. So, while the intent of the motion is good and while the measures that are outlined in the motion are unobjectionable, the motion does not get to the root cause of the problem of the high incarceration rate in our country. They are the things that I have mentioned. They are substance abuse, welfare dependence and the breakdown of communities. We need to tackle these head-on.