Aborigines 'need their own community courts'

Debbie Guest | The Australian | July 31, 2009 + MORE ARTICLES

Aboriginal community courts need to be rolled out across Western Australia to help tackle the nation's highest rate of Aboriginal imprisonment, according to the state's Chief Justice.

Wayne Martin said with current and previous policies only increasing Aboriginal incarceration rates, a fresh approach was needed and community courts had many positive effects.

"I would certainly like to see more community courts rolled out around the state," he told Legal Affairs.

"There is greater cultural context for Aboriginal people, particularly from remote areas, when they do intersect with the justice system. The advantage of the community court process is that it's more relevant to Aboriginal people because Aboriginal people actually participate in the process."

All Australian jurisdictions, except Tasmania, operate indigenous sentencing courts.

In Western Australia, the only Aboriginal court is in Kalgoorlie.

It has been operating since November 2006 and is currently being independently evaluated.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has not committed to its continuation and is expected to receive a report on the evaluation next month.

Despite Aboriginal people making up just 3.5 per cent of the West Australian population, they account for 40 per cent of adult prisoners and 76 per cent of juvenile detainees.

"We know that they (Aboriginal incarceration rates) have increased, they have continued to increase over the last 20 years, they're now about three times higher than they were 20 years ago," Chief Justice Martin said.

He said it was important the Kalgoorlie court was not simply evaluated on the basis of whether reoffending rates decreased because the court had produced other, less tangible, advantages.

"One of the things we found in Kalgoorlie is that having 15 or 16 prominent members of the Aboriginal community actually participating in the court process with the magistrate has been very important in terms of creating opportunities for liaison between the justice system and the Aboriginal communities."

Chief Justice Martin said he suspected the real, long-term solution to the gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in prisons was outside the justice system. He said this was because the high rate of Aboriginal prisoners was probably due to issues such as dispossession, poor health, low education standards and poor housing.

"If that's right, then there's no quick fix, there's no short-term solution, the only real solution will lie in addressing the fundamental structural issues in contemporary Australia," he said.

"That doesn't mean we sit on our hands and say it's all too hard, but what it does mean is if there is to be real progress in reducing Aboriginal incarceration rates it's probably going to have to come from outside the justice system." Kalgoorlie community court magistrate Liz Langdon said it was probably too early to determine whether re-offending rates had reduced in the specialised court.

She said fears that the court would become a "soft option" were unfounded and the reverse was actually the case.

Ms Langdon said offenders had to face two respected elders during the court's proceedings and they were often grilled over their actions. In comparison, she said a mainstream court could make justice more distant.

"It's all about trying to confront the offender about what they've done," she said.


Alcohol abuse reports 'useless without action'

Thursday July 30th, 2009 | www.abc.net.au

A Fitzroy Valley Aboriginal leader has accused the Western Australian Government of being more focused on producing reports than making real progress in the treatment of alcohol abuse.

A State Government-funded report into the impact of the Fitzroy Crossing alcohol restrictions has found they had brought numerous benefits to the town, including a drop in public violence.

However, researchers concluded more support services were needed to deal with alcoholism in the long-term.

The chairman of the Leedal Aboriginal Corporation, Patrick Green, says research documents are useless unless they translate into action.

"The concerns that have been raised by many reports, the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Gordon report and so many others, including this, I'm yet to see the real changes in Aboriginal affairs, even in policing, health and education," he said.


Indigenous group demands non-sniffable fuel

Wednesday July 29th, 2009 | www.abc.net.au

An Aboriginal women's group is urging the West Australian Government to force petrol stations to introduce non-sniffable fuel in the Goldfields.

The NPY Women's Council says petrol sniffing rates in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, particularly in Warburton, are increasing.

The council's chairwoman, Margaret Smith, blames the refusal of some Goldfields petrol stations to stock the non-sniffable Opal fuel.

In March, a Senate committee recommended Commonwealth legislation be drafted to force retailers to stock Opal fuel if they did not start supplying it voluntarily within six months.

Ms Smith says that is too long for communities to wait.

"We're talking about young people here, very young children are doing it," she said.

The council says the Federal Government should force Goldfields stations to start stocking the fuel immediately.


Richo's legacy: Billy has a slab for a home

Paul Toohey | http://www.theaustralian.com.au | August 01, 2009

Billy Watson doesn't remember when Graham Richardson visited Wallaby Camp in 1994. Richardson, then Labor's federal health minister, described the Katherine town camp as "not fit for humans" and likened conditions to that of "war-ravaged African nations".

The Weekend Australian, travelling with then senator Richardson, reported his dismay at the lamentable housing, sewerage and cooking conditions. He pledged to make Aboriginal living conditions a national priority.

Watson remembers what they did to fix Wallaby Camp. Nothing. The place no longer exists. It has been reclaimed by the bush.

Watson lives in the Warlpiri Camp on the south of town. His house could qualify as the worst in Australia, except for one problem: it's not a house.

Fifteen years ago, Richardson was upset that Wallaby Camp didn't have a tap that worked. Billy Watson doesn't even have a tap in the Warlpiri Camp. And don't mention the vile toilet facilities.

Watson's home comprises a bare concrete slab, a ripped tarpaulin and some blankets. He shares his mattress and fireplace with a woman named Mavis, and two dogs. Another Aboriginal couple live in identical conditions a stone's throw away.

Watson was told, about the time the intervention was announced in 2007, that new houses were to be built in Warlpiri Camp. It never happened.

He's heard about the $672 million Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has promised for new housing and upgrades in the Northern Territory. None of that money is earmarked for Katherine, a town three hours' drive south of Darwin and a major Aboriginal gathering place.

Watson, 52, can't remember how long he's lived this way. "All I can tell you is I got grey hair while I was living here in Katherine," he says.

In the rainy season, he and Mavis shelter in an overcrowded tin shack. Asked how he cleaned his clothes, he laughs: "I wash them on the floor with the hose on." There is a shared toilet block nearby but the toilets are blocked. The solar system is broken, so he can only have a lukewarm shower once the sun's been up and about.

"They promised more homes for us here in the Warlpiri Camp," Watson says. "Yes, we would like a house. But it's not happening." He says the story of Aboriginal living conditions has been told often enough. He thinks the government has used up all its excuses.

"I think most people in Australia know how we live in the Northern Territory," Watson says. "They know about the promises, and they know we'd like to live in our own home."

A long-time watcher of the comings and goings of federal politicians to Katherine is Jim Forscutt, the town's former mayor. He says: "They promise you everything, they give you nothing and, before you get it, they take it off you. That's the Territory."

WA's suicide rate 'worse than road toll'

Keryn Bradbury | www.abc.net.au | 29th July 2009
AUDIO - MP3: Chief Justice Wayne Martin talks to ABC 720's Geoff Hutchison. (ABC News)

The Chief Justice says Western Australia's suicide rate is 50 per cent worse than the road toll, but gets much less attention.

Wayne Martin has addressed the Blank Page Summit on Suicide at Billard, about 120 kilometres north of Broome, where two young men took their lives.

The Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, opened the conference on Monday with a pledge to meet organisers and discuss their recommendations later in the year.

More than 200 delegates, including Health Minister Kim Hames and the coroner Alastair Hope, are spending five days trying to identify ways to reduce Indigenous suicide rates.

Chief Justice Wayne Martin has told the ABC 720's Mornings program the problem is very significant.

"The recorded suicides, which are probably less than real ones, each year in Western Australia are about 300. That compares to the road toll of about 200, so the suicide rate is about 50 per cent more than the road toll," he said.

"You know how much we talk and how much money we spend on the road toll but the suicide toll is 50 per cent higher."

Mr Martin says young Aboriginal men are grossly over-represented.

"They are not exclusively or predominantly in those numbers but the are significantly over-represented just as they are in the criminal justice system," he said.

He says Indigenous suicide is a complex issue.

"There is no single causative factor so it follows there's no single solution. It's really an interaction of all areas of disadvantage that are experienced by Aboriginal people," he said.

The summit's organiser, Mary O'Reeri, says there is a sense that real progress is being made.

"It's been really wonderful, the atmosphere's fantastic," she said.

"The minds and the group of people that were able to come here is really excited and wanting to put something so good and so realistic, in terms of the outcomes, of what we want to achieve."