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Election campaign focus on First Nations justice

Paul Wright
Last edited: March 29, 2024

After years of strong and consistent advocacy last week I got to hear Senator Patrick Dodson and Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, announce over $100 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice.

If you have been following ANTaR’s advocacy work over the last 6 or 7 years you would know that we have long called for national support for justice reinvestment, for justice targets to be included in the Closing the Gap Strategy and for much better funding for the frontline services provided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.

ANTaR’s work through the Change the Record Campaign and Just Reinvest NSW has had a direct impact on this outcome.

Change the Record and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been calling for these changes for many years, and now our voices are being heard. These commitments are practical solutions and necessary first steps toward ending the over-incarceration of our people.

Ms Cheryl Axelby,Co-Chair of the Change the Record Campaign.

Next week we will release our Federal Election Scorecard that will summarise some of the key election commitments and party responses to issues that we have been advocating on. Here is state of the play following last week’s campaign announcement on First Nations justice by the ALP and Greens.

Australian Labor Party

The Australian Labor Party’s announcement includes, over four years, $40 million for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, retaining the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program, $4 million for their peak body NATSILS, $21.5 million to Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, and $20 million for refuge and safe houses.

If elected, Labor will adopt the principle that imprisonment should be a last resort and work with states and territories to adopt justice targets as part of the Closing the Gap framework, which sets interim goals to overcome disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

This announcement indicates a strong commitment to tackling the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children. The answer to the problem of too many people coming into contact with the justice system won’t be found inside the justice system. We solve this by getting in front of the problem, focusing on local solutions that strengthen communities and keep people from offending in the first place.

Ms Sarah Hopkins, Chair of Just Reinvest NSW.

Australian Greens

The Greens announced their First Nations Youth Justice Policy, which includes many of the recommendations from the Change the Record Campaign’s Free to Be Kids: National Plan of Action. The Greens election announcement included measures aimed at avoiding detention of children on remand, making bail meaningful, ending the use of restraints, force and isolation in prison, and investing in diversion programs.

The Greens also committed $10 million over the next four years to establish an independent National Centre for Justice Reinvestment and $50 million over four years for a Justice Reinvestment Grants Program.

Justice reinvestment is common sense. When communities lead the change they want to see, and when services genuinely collaborate to generate that change, we see results.

Mick Gooda, former Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and former Commissioner of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Recently I traveled to Bourke with Mick Gooda to visit the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Initiative, you can read this story in my last blog entry.

We also have a clip of Mick explaining Justice Reinvestment below.

Coalition Government

Frustratingly, the Coalition Government have not yet stepped up to articulate how they will address the parlous state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice.

In fact, their most significant announcement has been to abolish the standalone Indigenous Legal Assistance Program which funds community controlled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. These services will now be lumped with mainstream community legal services, despite the clear advice that it risks the long-term funding viability. Maybe they will surprise us in the last few weeks of the campaign.

As I have said more than once, the 2019 Federal Election is the most consequential for the future direction of Australia we have had in the last decade and a half. There is so much at stake for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and we need to hold all sides of politics to account.

The world is paying close attention to how Australia moves forwards with the unfinished business of reconciliation, the coming election is our opportunity to demonstrate that we are ready and willing for change, so together let’s make our votes count this 18 May.

Paul Wright
National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia

Paul is National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia. He was ANTAR’s National Director from 2018 to 2023 and has many years of experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services. Paul studied politics and international relations at the University of Canberra and has a Masters of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University. Prior to his role with ANTAR, Paul was the Executive Officer for the Close the Gap Campaign Secretariat and the National Health Leadership Forum at the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2021, he became a PhD Researcher at the Western Sydney University (Social Sciences).