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Opinion article

Governments cannot continue business as usual to Close the Gap

In a recent report on Closing the Gap targets, the Productivity Commission showed that Australia has moved backwards on the problem of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Co-Chairs of Change the Record Cheryl Axleby and Antoinette Braybrook consider the changes we need to make progress on the issues facing First Nations peoples.

One year since the signing of the new Closing the Gap Agreement, we are no closer to closing the gap on the dual crises of family violence or the mass imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Closing the Gap Agreement was heralded as the beginning of a new way of doing things with First Nations peoples and communities. But for it to be effective, governments must be willing to do things differently. 

Change the Record is Australia’s only national First Nations-led justice coalition. We have two goals: to end the mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to end the disproportionate rate of family violence experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children. We have this dual focus because we understand that what drives family violence also often drives mass incarceration, and that family violence is both a cause and a consequence of the imprisonment of our people. 

When the new Closing the Gap Agreement was announced in July 2020, we expressed our alarm at the low justice targets agreed to by state, territory and commonwealth governments. The target to reduce the incarceration of First Nations people by 15 per cent by 2031 does not have us reaching parity with the rest of the Australian population until the end of the century. Despite this lack of ambition, we found out earlier this month that the number of imprisoned First Nations adults has actually increased since the new agreement was announced.  

First Nations women are the fastest growing prison population. We are also 32 times more likely to be hospitalised than other women, and 10 times more likely to be killed. Up to 90 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison report having experienced sexual or family violence. Sexual and family violence often goes unreported, so the numbers are likely even higher. 

Family violence drives First Nations women into the criminal justice system when we seek help from police and are misidentified as perpetrators. Fleeing violence too often drives our women into poverty and homelessness, forcing them to rely on social services that fail to support those who engage in crimes of poverty or struggle with trauma and mental illness. When our women are released from prison without adequate housing or social services, they are too often forced back into dangerous situations. Women in these situations can have their children ripped out of their care, continuing the cycle. 

To close this gap, governments need to move away from the ‘tough on crime’, ‘law and order’ policies of our colonial past and invest in strengthening and healing our communities. That means investing in adequate, affordable housing for everyone instead of spending millions of dollars expanding prisons to warehouse our women and children. It means investing in a National Justice Reinvestment body that can guide government spending away from concrete cells and metal bars, and into community-led programs, prevention and early intervention, drug and alcohol services and wrap-around supports for families who are struggling. 

Governments must also confront the racism that permeates and props up their policies and policing. At every stage of the criminal justice system – from initial contact with police, to choices about issuing warnings or undertaking arrests, through to decisions about bail or release and finally to sentencing – First Nations peoples are treated more harshly. Our children are more likely to be targeted by police, arrested, locked away on remand and sentenced to time behind bars than non-Indigenous children. First Nations victim-survivors of family violence are misidentified as perpetrators by police and criminalised, instead of being offered safety. 

In this way, it is not just government inaction that drives our people behind bars, but also government action. Despite the promising ideals of the Closing the Gap Agreement, the Victorian Government continues to criminalise our women with some of the most punitive bail laws in the country. They are designed to target men who perpetrate violence, but punish our women instead. The Northern Territory Government has introduced a raft of laws that have already seen the number of our children behind bars sky rocket. The Queensland Government, too, is spending millions of dollars to build a new 1000-bed prison that history shows will be filled with our people. A prison it boasts will bring hundreds of jobs into the region, ignoring the devastation it will inflict on the hundreds of Aboriginal people it will imprison, their families and our communities. 

For Closing the Gap to be anything more than lofty ideals, it requires governments not only to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk; to genuinely engage with First Nations peoples and organisations and address the systemic racism that underpins our laws, policies and policing.

About the authors

Cheryl Axleby

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Cheryl Axleby is a proud Narungga Woman who is passionate about improving the quality of life for her people. Cheryl is Co-Chair of Change the Record, Australia’s only national Aboriginal led justice coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies and non-Indigenous allies. She has spent the last 40 years working within the Aboriginal community, Federal Government and South Australian Government to improve the lives of First Nations peoples. She has experience working within the Aboriginal community sector, law and justice, women's issues, family violence, youth justice, child and family services and is currently working in the Aboriginal Community Housing sector. Cheryl is committed to influencing positive change and outcomes for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Antoinette Braybrook

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Antoinette Braybrook is an Aboriginal woman who was born in Victoria on Wurundjeri country. Antoinette’s grandfather and mother’s line is through the Kuku Yalanji, North Queensland. Antoinette is Co-Chair of Change the Record, Australia’s only national Aboriginal led justice coalition of Aboriginal peak bodies and non-Indigenous allies. She is also the CEO of Djirra (formerly the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria – FVPLS Victoria), a position she has held since the service was established in 2002. In addition to Antoinette’s leadership in Victoria, she has held the elected position of National Convenor of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum (National FVPLS Forum) since 2012. The National FVPLS Forum is the peak body for the 14 FVPLSs throughout Australia.

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