This is an edited version of former Australian Labor MP Bob Debus’ 2016 Frank Walker Lecture, in memory of the late Frank Walker, a minister in the Wran and Keating governments, and a fighter for the civil rights of Aboriginal people from a young age.

 A generation ago

I first met Frank Walker in 1971 at a meeting concerning what was to become the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service. He was 29, recently elected to the previously safe Liberal seat of Georges River and yet to tune his political and parliamentary skills to their later concert pitch but his driving conviction and courage were evident: also his proclivity for conspiracy. We were not to tell Patrick Darcy Hills, the leader of the Labor Party about the meeting, for he would not approve. I did not at the time know of Frank Walker’s life-defining childhood spent living with tribal people in New Guinea; nor of his youth in the Coffs Harbour District, where he was bashed by police for sitting with Aboriginal people in the roped-off section of the Bowraville Picture Show.

I was not then aware that while an articled clerk he had joined the 1965 Student Freedom Ride in northwest New South Wales and had his ribs broken by local police for swimming in the segregated section of the Moree Municipal Baths. But you will understand why — as a new attorney-general 40 years ago — his first concern was justice in the system of criminal law, the human rights of oppressed people.

His changes to the rape laws and the introduction of apprehended violence orders were designed to end the near impunity of the perpetrators of domestic violence. The repeal of the Summary Offences Act, which extinguished the offence of vagrancy and removed the so called “trifecta” offences, the reform of the bail law and the decriminalisation of drunkenness were all designed in the first instance to protect the poor and indigent from harassment and unfair treatment. A disproportionate number of the poor and indigent were Aboriginal. Hard to recall, but when Frank Walker was in office in the early 1980s there was no heroin epidemic, no talkback radio law and order campaigns, and there were less than 4000 people in prison in New South Wales.

I observe wistfully that the premier of the day was a patron of the Council for Civil Liberties. In June last year there were nearly 12,000 inmates in New South Wales and more than 2800 or 24% of them were Aboriginal. Nationally, there were nearly 34,000 inmates, 27% of them Aboriginal. This is an age standardised imprisonment rate 13 times higher than the non-indigenous population. For every 100,000 non-indigenous Australians, there were 146 in prison last year. For every 100,000 Indigenous Australians 2253 were in prison.

Several disclaimers. When one talks about a difficult subject like this it is too easy to overlook some of the dramatic changes that have taken place in recent decades. The recent report on the Closing the Gap Strategy reminded us of the persistence of Aboriginal disadvantage but Aboriginal people live in many settings. Aboriginal professionals, artists and sportspeople have these days become embedded in national life and the popular imagination. In 1971 Charlie Perkins was known as the only Aboriginal graduate, today thousands are at university and, in consequence, an Aboriginal middle class begins to emerge.

There is some encouragement in the news that there has been a decline in the rate of imprisonment for younger males over the last 10 years, but here’s the rub: in the last decade or so, overall rates of Aboriginal incarceration have increased by more than 50% in New South Wales. Alcohol-induced death for indigenous people occurs at six times the rate for non-indigenous people. In 2009, a careful study reported that one in four indigenous women, living with dependent children younger than 15 years, had been victims of violence in the previous year. It seems that still there are somewhat more young indigenous men in prison than there are at university. The saga of Adam Goodes reminds us that any rupture of our society’s veneer of tolerance reveals plenty of outright racism bubbling beneath the surface.

You will surely not need to be persuaded that the imprisonment of Aboriginal people cannot be addressed by changes to the system of criminal justice alone, although I’ll address that first. The imperative is to change the circumstances that encourage the drift into the ambit of the criminal justice system from early adolescence — and I shall explore that later.

Rising incarceration rates

It was normal until the 1980s for the executive government in the common law world to remain somewhat aloof from the operation of police and courts. But Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election campaign rhetoric changed that posture decisively. She insisted that rising crime was one of a piece with increasing industrial disputes and a permissive youth culture, that it was undermining the rule of law and driving the decline of the British nation. This was caused by the policies of the Labour Party and the flabbiness of the welfare state. It was a quite devastatingly effective electoral strategy — indeed a significant proportion of Labour voters agreed with her argument.

It was only in 1993 that the young shadow home secretary, Tony Blair, took back the electoral momentum for the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. He didn’t do it by returning to rational, civil libertarian arguments for minimising incarceration. He outflanked the Tories with the rhetorically brilliant slogan “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime” — “tough” twice in a few words essentially — and created a suite of policies to match. He made major speeches pointing out accurately that the working class suffered most from the effects of general crime, and claiming that crime was therefore a “socialist issue”.

As a result of the Blair law and order push, at least on some measures, incarceration rates are higher in Great Britain than Australia. Modern “law and order” politics arrived in New South Wales in the lead up to the 1988 general election when Frank Walker and I both lost our seats. Heroin-related rates of street crime — violence and robbery — had begun what was to be a steady 20-year period of increase and there was straightforward, reasonable concern about it in the community. However, this was also the first election to be conducted in the climate of resentment, revenge and hysteria generated across the tabloid media by the new talkback style of radio.

*Read the full post at Crikey blog The Northern Myth

Peter Fray

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