This is a guest post by a long-term insider in the criminal justice system in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. I’ve been asked not to use their name for professional reasons. They thought it a useful time to throw their two bob’s worth into the current debates concerning the criminal justice system – particularly the debate about school attendance and truancy – and how the justice system – and common sense – can better serve and protect the community, in particular the disadvantaged people up in the Territory and WA.

Yesterday’s Fairfax press carried a snippet headed “Abbott backs fines to cut Aboriginal truancy“. Tony Abbott says that under a Coalition Government parents would face on-the-spot fines for “failing” to send their kids to school.

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This brainstorm had the backing of Warren Mundine who reckoned that a new “toughness” towards getting Aboriginal children to school was needed. I know Aussie politics is in the doldrums right now and ill-conceived policies like this are tossed off routinely to demonstrate some sort of “action” on the “Aboriginal issue” but I was genuinely taken aback by this rubbish.

In recent years there has been no shortage of evidence – in the Northern Territory and Western Australia in particular – to show how little good comes from punitive measures. Abbott coughing up this garbage, supported by Warren Mundine – who should and does know better – drove me to desperation, and to the keyboard.

We might expect this kind of poorly-thought-through policy from Bess “Gaol is good for Aboriginal people” Price or her ilk. It is the same species of vaguely malevolent and populist buffoonery that is designed to capture the attention of the tutt-tutterers and spouted by politicians that inevitably have a short tenure in power. But to get it from the Prime Minister in waiting – and a former Federal President of the Labor party – is more than alarming.

I’ve got words for him – and them – from Kununurra in Western Australia’s far north about this scheme – it just won’t work.

Small-town Kununurra is exactly the kind of place that the punitive approach promoted by Abbott and Mundine would be rolled out. K-town is surrounded by a ring of run-down town camps that are the playgrounds of truants but is – coincidentally – seized of an almighty effort to get Aboriginal kids into school.

The latest weapon in the struggle is a young police officer we will call Frank (not his real name). At the start of this year, Frank took on the established role of the “local cop who hunts up the kids for school.”

I’m not sure what his predecessor was doing, but Frank, with his trademark “can do” attitude, was on the game and making things happen.
He threw himself into the job of scouring the town camps –  The Reserve, The Garden and The Ranch – and certain streets of notoriety to get kids with poor school attendance records out of sleepyland and into learningland.

These town living areas are the places where many homes have more green cans on the lawn than blades of grass. Places where folks are as likely to have an all-nighter party on a Tuesday as they would on a Saturday. Places where young kids are better off hitting the streets at night to avoid grog and punch ups – and the rest of it – and creeping home at daybreak, when the relatives are choked down, to get some much-needed sleep.

Entering this crepuscular world, Frank found the kids who’d lost their directions to the “blue school” or the “green school” and showed how to get there.

At 8am! On the dot! Admittedly he occasionally dropped them off out of the back of a paddy wagon, but … it was all in a good cause.

So, you would think, a good reason for a celebration of learning, of achievement and barrier-breaching to flow.

No way. Parents of the regular-attenders at school were the first to complain.

The regular-attenders were under fire from the under-attenders. Fights, bullying and harassment followed. The schools reacted by suspending the under-attenders as soon as they were dropped off, deeming them “not school ready”.

Frank had stirred the beast. The local school system was simply not equipped (at primary or secondary level) to handle the increased numbers and the level of dysfunction the nightrider kids brought. Frank did a great job, maybe too good a job – but the school system let him – and the kids – down big time.? We now can see the work that needs to be done to make sure kids being reintroduced to school are going to make a go of it.

As for the use of fines? Please … JUST … STOP!

For starters the fines will simply be tossed onto an already too-big pile. The targets of Abbott’s policy – the parents most likely to be “failing” to get their kids to school – are those already in and out of court or copping other on-the -spot fines from the too-eager and too-numerous local officials and cops.

Many locals who have “time to pay” arrangements on their fines. The average person copping the huge Traffic Act fines already has a four figure debt that she or he pays at the rate of $50 to $100 per fortnight from their Centrelink or CDEP or training wage payments. The new fine just goes onto the pile and the person struggling on $440 per fortnight is left with $390 per fortnight – or less.

Often the debts exceed $5,000 and will in many cases never be fully repaid. Some people elect to get the time-to-pay bear off their backs and ask to go straight to gaol. A week in the police cells or Broome Prison usually does the trick of “cutting out” the unpaid fines. The WA government is laughing … Federal welfare payments are channelled into state coffers via fines.

So truancy fines, designed to promote school attendance, result in less money for feeding and clothing the kids they are designed to protect and would result in an increased chance of mum or dad being in gaol and not packing the kids off to school.

The obvious point is that this sort of politically attractive – but fundamentally naive and cruel – quick fix does not work.

To get kids back into school successfully takes more than tough love, fines or hawk-eyed cops.

Success will only come with resources, planning, proper encouragement, good role models, joyful love and humour.

It cannot solely rely on footy-based treats and bribes or police paddy wagons.

Warren Mundine calls for a “new” toughness. If any one knows about old, current and new toughness it is the over-imprisoned, over-fined and over-policed Aboriginal people of small town Australia.

The” tough” thing has been done, in some cases literally, to death.

Mundine and Price and their ilk are providing the chorus that emboldens the ill-informed like Abbott to press for hopeless solutions in the most critical areas of life and society.

Education is one such area and for too long short-term, politically expedient and inhuman thinking has had free rein.

We can – and must – do better, for our own and our kid’s sake.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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