Report highlights why driving criminalisation increased by 250 % under NTER

Posted on October 26, 2012


Northern Territory: Addressing The “Crime Problem” Of The Northern Territory Intervention – Alternate Paths To Regulating Minor Driving Offences In Remote Indigenous Communities

Dr Thalia Anthony and Dr Harry Blagg, June 2012

A recently released report about a study into driving offences in the Northern Territory caught my attention this morning. It highlights an interesting but not widely discussed outcome of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention).

According to the authors Dr Thalia Anthony and Dr Harry Blagg, “The study examines the incidence of Indigenous driving offences since 2006 and assesses the effectiveness of law enforcement in addressing the crime” (p5).

Despite Government implementing the Intervention to particularly address child abuse the biggest increase in crime matters during the Intervention years has actually been related to driving offences. The rate of driving criminalisation increased by 250 per cent between 2006 and 2010 (p7). Interestingly, although the focus on driver offences is usually linked to increasing road safety there has not been a decrease in recidivism, road fatalities or injuries (p7).

The study identified several issues which included the focus of government stakeholders and police on Indigenous driver behaviour without considering the need for infrastructure investment (p8). Roads in remote communities are notoriously bad and often communities do not have access to services to obtain licences etc. With 75 % of Aboriginal people living outside of main centres in the NT they are driving long distances on poor quality roads (p60). As the report states the perception of the Warlpiri who participated in this study is that authorities are saying to them “we expect you to follow whitefellas road rules but don’t expect to receive whitefellas roads”. The Warlpiri people also hold a view that there is a growing trend to bring Aboriginal spaces into the framework of general law (p41). For example, a focus by police on roads in and around communities and on Aboriginal lands which are unsealed and uneven and which have previously not been policed in the same way as main roads or roads in towns.

The figures quoted in the report are telling:

  • The NT prison rate increased faster than any other state or territory since the Intervention with a twenty three per cent increase between 2006-2009 (p17).
  • The rate of incarceration has increased for Indigenous peoples but the proportion has not changed much showing that there is an increase in imprisonment of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people despite special measures to increase policing in Indigenous communities (p18).
  • Approximately twenty five per cent of the prison population is made up of driving offenders of which ninety-seven per cent are Indigenous (p18).
  • Rates of recorded sexual offending have remained fairly steady since the Intervention; however driving offences have increased by 250 per cent (p28).

The report goes into some detail about the reasons why drivers might offend, but importantly also discusses the failure of authorities in providing services and alternatives such as diversionary programs, licensing services, driver education etc.  Diminishing trust between police, Government agencies and communities as well as restrictions placed on community initiatives (such as night patrols) have also exacerbated the problems.

In June 2012, new legislation called Stronger Futures was passed which essentially continues the Intervention for another ten years. One of the measures that continue under Stronger Futures is the inability of the judicial system to take customary law or culture into account in sentencing. In light of that it was interesting to read the comments in this report about Yapa (Warlpiri) law and Kardiya (white) law. Elders expressed concern that young people had lost respect for all law. “They believed that building mutual respect for both laws would ensure that young people would become better behaved, and said that attempts to dismantle Warlpiri authority did not ensure that Warlpiri people began to follow white law, rather it led to a kind of anomie, or lawlessness.”

This study is useful because it clearly identifies quantitative outcomes of increased policing efforts related to the NT Intervention. Perhaps more importantly though is the qualitative aspects to the study. Hearing and understanding the opinions of those affected, in this case the Warlpiri people, are vital to gaining a real appreciation of the effects of policies such as the Intervention. The views expressed in this report clearly identify where the disconnection between policy and its implementation and the needs, opinions and aspirations of the communities lie. Most importantly the community provide clear signposts for government agencies and Police to work with communities to address issues if they are willing to engage and listen.