Justice targets are measurable goals which aim to reduce incarceration rates for Indigenous Australians. Their addition to the existing Closing the Gap targets, set collaboratively by all State and Territory governments, was announced in August 2013 by then Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. This was a recommendation of then Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma in 2009’s Social Justice Report. How can this be a bad idea?
Senator Nigel Scullion feels that such a measure would be “sending the wrong message”, implying that Indigenous Australians were somehow different from ‘regular’ Australians. Do our politicians truly not understand the links between dispossession, colonisation, mental illness and incarceration? Australians who have not suffered the effects of colonisation and physical and cultural dispossession do not suffer the same types of challenges.
It is ironic that, in Opposition, Senator Scullion chaired four of the five reports tabled by the Senate Select Committee on Regional and Remote Indigenous Communities, whose recommendations included:
5.125 The committee recommends that the Northern Territory government review the high levels of custodial sentences in the Northern Territory and the reasons for recent increases as well as determine whether the non-custodial options available to magistrate s and judges are sufficient. (Recommendation 2.68 from the First Report)
2.68 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government take a more active role in driving reform of the criminal justice system with the aim of
reducing the alarmingly high level of contact of Indigenous Australians, particularly Indigenous young people. (Recommendation 2.68 from the Third Report)
4.67 The committee recommends that the Western Australian government consider developing a comprehensive, culturally appropriate strategy to address
Indigenous incarceration rates and recidivism that is based on sound international and domestic evidence. (Recommendation 4.67 from the Third Report)
When appointed as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion issued a media release which stated:
The Coalition will provide bipartisan support for Labor’s proposed new Closing the Gap targets on incarceration rates, higher education and disability services but I am worried if we get too many targets they will lose their impact and then we could lose focus.
This he reaffirmed in Nov 2013:
So, in clarification, we are committed to the existing targets and we are committed to examining those in development, which are: disability, justice and early childhood.
One might be forgiven for thinking, then, that there was bipartisan agreement in principle on these targets.
While credit must go to Senator Scullion for acknowledging that life circumstances – such as poverty, unemployment, poor education, and substance abuse – contribute to the excessively high incarceration rates of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the justice system plays a pivotal role in determining life trajectories. With a more than 50% increase in incarceration rates of Indigenous Australian peoples since the turn of the century, action must include justice targets. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples believes the targets to be crucial. Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, repeats his predecessors vision for justice targets in his recent Social Justice and Native Title Report.
When will Australian Governments stop their token consultation with Indigenous communities and instead really listen to and action their recommendations for closing the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ wellbeing and life chances?