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Unpicking the Northern Territory’s complex web of crime, unemployment, low education and poverty

By Olga Havnen, The Australian, 27 May 2023

For decades, politicians, policymakers and other “experts” have periodically descended on the Northern Territory offering to fix its problems.

We saw this recently when a summer outbreak of crime in and around Alice Springs attracted national headlines. Tragically, this was followed by a number of high-profile stabbing deaths in Darwin. 

Like the well-worn script of a TV serial, the solutions offered spanned the spectrum of “tough-on-crime” approaches – flooding the street with more police, flying the military in, presumptions against bail and all-round tougher sentencing.

While most suggestions were well-meaning, they were neither new nor innovative. Many have been tried before and failed dismally, which goes some way to explaining why the NT has by far the nation’s highest rates of incarceration and prisoner recidivism

A key reason we find ourselves stuck is that our preferred solutions to rising crime, and particularly repeat offending, pay only fleeting consideration to the complex factors that enable crime to engulf a community in the first place. 

In the Northern Territory, almost 60 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of working age were not engaged in the labour force as of the 2021 census. In remote areas, which include the town camps around Alice Springs, it was 62 per cent. 

In the very remote areas of the Territory, home to around 30,000 people, the proportion not in the labour force was higher still at 67.4 per cent, including approximately 6550 working-age men (aged 15 to 64). 

Only 22 per cent of the population had attained education to year 12 or higher, while the median weekly income for a person aged 15 or over in remote Yuendumu, for example, was $238 a week – more than 50 per cent lower than Australia’s unofficial poverty line of $489 a week.

Let’s stop for a moment and think what the crime rates would be like in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs or Sydney’s Bondi if more than two-thirds of residents were unemployed, under-educated and without enough money for essential food, goods and services.

I have recently been involved with the Smarter Justice for Safer Communities campaign that is advocating for greater investment in evidence-based approaches to justice challenges that actually work, and have seen some excellent examples of initiatives led by local communities to drive down crime and offending. 

One example is Groote Eylandt, where local justice initiatives, including early intervention, diversion, mentoring and providing life skills, are working to keep at-risk children and teenagers out of trouble. As a result, youth crime has fallen 95 per cent. 

Fortunately, the NT government is aware of some of these smarter solutions and has made some positive investments in its recent budget.

However, if we are to hope to have any impact when it comes to reducing crime, tackling unacceptably high prison rates and breaking the cycle of offending, we need to act smarter in our solutions to the social and economic challenges crippling families in remote communities.

These include inadequate and overcrowded housing; severe poverty stemming from high levels of unemployment, particularly among working-age men; lack of access to affordable food and essential household items; limited healthcare and other support services; poor infrastructure; drug and alcohol misuse, and; family violence and childhood neglect, which has contributed to the rising number of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. 

Tragically, as evidenced by the insights of the Closing the Gap project, the impacts of being born into such a catastrophic scale of disadvantage only accumulate as children grow up. 

Only 83 per cent of Aboriginal babies born in the NT are of healthy birthweight and only 16 per cent are assessed as “on track developmentally” when they start school. Only 40 per cent of Aboriginal students in the Territory will complete year 12 (compared with 80 per cent of the broader NT population) and Aboriginal youth unemployment and educational disengagement is unacceptably high, with only 34 per cent of Aboriginal Territorians aged 15 to 24 in a job or education. 

All this suggests we must act quickly or risk losing yet another generation of young people to the cycle of offending and incarceration. We need to quantify the areas of highest need, work collaboratively with those communities to pinpoint solutions that will work in their specific contexts, and deliver targeted funding as a matter of urgency. 

Equipping communities with adequate services, whether it be healthcare, drug and alcohol or family counselling, education, sport and recreational opportunities for young people, and access to training and work experience, will go some way to prevent large flows of migration to areas such as Alice Springs, which also lack the infrastructure to cope. We also need to rethink the concept of the economy in some of our very remote Aboriginal communities. Well-regarded anthropologist Jon Altman of the Australian National University, who has spent decades working with remote communities in Arnhem Land, has spoken about the need for policy solutions that recognise different ways of living and diverse aspirations in cases where people aspire to live differently.

Addressing the Northern Territory Council of Social Service conference in Alice Springs this month, Altman showcased how remote ranger programs are engaged in fire management and carbon abatement programs with considerable success.

This is a good example of how Aboriginal communities can build a “real” economy on country and at the same time fulfil cultural obligations around caring for country. 

The model is not dissimilar to that of the Law and Justice Groups that will be expanded across the NT over the next few years, enabling people to take actions in their own communities that contribute to social wellbeing, safety and stronger families and connection to culture.

The solutions to the NT’s problems start with listening to communities about what they need and the supports they want. Importantly, they involve backing smarter strategies that address systemic disadvantage by providing opportunities for people to have meaningful roles in their communities, either through work or volunteering, and reducing the likelihood they will become involved in crime.

Addressing the justice challenge in the NT must start with tackling these complex drivers of offending, not merely crime itself. 

Olga Havnen is a co-chair of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agreement, spokeswoman for the Smarter Justice for Safer Communities campaign and a board member of the Justice Reform initiative. 


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