The NT intervention was targeted at eliminating child sexual abuse. But extra policing may have only resulted in criminalising driving offenders, writes Dr THALIA ANTHONY*.
NATIONAL: The NT intervention was targeted at eliminating child sexual abuse. But extra policing may have only resulted in criminalising driving offenders, writes Dr THALIA ANTHONY*.
Violent sexual crimes in Aboriginal communities featured in media and government reporting in the lead-up to the Northern Territory Intervention.
Stories of paedophile rings – which were later shown to be fabricated – sought to sensationalise the nature of crime in communities.
It justified the paternalist Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 that undermines Aboriginal rights to land, welfare and governance.
However, when one looks at the Northern Territory Police Annual Reports in the years before and since the Intervention, it is not sexual crimes that have been identified.
Rather, an alarming increase in criminalisation has come from minor driving offenders. If you attend a bush court on any given day, Aboriginal driving offenders are lined up to receive their punishment.
This can range from licence suspension to a prison term depending on the type of driving offence and the number of repeat offences.
This is not a new phenomenon, with driving being a form of Indigenous criminalisation since the introduction of cars to Aboriginal communities. However, the escalation in the criminalisation since the Intervention is unprecedented.
The majority of driving offences do not involve alcohol or lead to any harm.
Rather, they are regulatory offences, such as not holding a driver’s licence, driving an unregistered and/or unroadworthy vehicle.
There are also increasing matters in bush courts involving not wearing a seatbelt, displaying P or L plates and failure of driver to state name and address on request.
Since 2006-2007 when the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were deployed to the Northern Territory and the Intervention legislation was enacted, police annual reports show dramatic increases in driving unlicensed.
In the four years before 2006, driving unlicensed hovered around 3,000 police matters. This figure has steadily risen every year since the Intervention and in 2010 it had more than doubled to 6,312.
A similar trend occurred for vehicle registration and roadworthiness offences, which more than doubled. In the four years before the Intervention registration offences were less than 3,000 and more than doubled to 7,121 in 2010.
By contrast, there has been a slight decrease in police incidents of sexual crimes, which were the raison d’etre of the Intervention.
In the three years before the Intervention on average there were 371 police matters involving sexual assaults or aggravated sexual assaults, since the Intervention there has been an average of 367 sexual offences.
Therefore, despite a mass of federal resources allocated to uncovering and addressing sexual crimes – including the deployment of federal police and taskforces and the involvement of the Australian Crime Commission – this has not translated into police finding more sexual crimes.
The apparent reason for the rise in the criminalisation of unlawful drivers since the Intervention is the greater number of police in communities. Often a number of driving offences are heard together in courts.
The common trifecta is driving unlicensed, driving unregistered and driving with an unroadworthy vehicle. When several driving offences are prosecuted and it is a repeat offence, there is a strong possibility that the offender will face prison.
There is no evidence that the increased criminalisation of driving offenders has improved road safety, with Northern Territory road fatalities averaging around 50 deaths per year before and since the Intervention.
This is arguably because the cause of unlawful driving in communities is structural and socio-economic.
There are inadequate licensing services and facilities in communities; a lack of public transport, and disreputable dealers sell unroadworthy vehicles.
Furthermore, the inability to pay fines results in driver licence cancellation – entrenching the criminal cycle.
The Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agency has also pointed out that since the Intervention there has been a change in policing. Previously police used their discretion in relation to unlicensed or unregistered driving on Aboriginal land on communities.
The head of Taskforce Themis, which was responsible for the establishment of 18 new police stations in Indigenous communities, expressed a zero tolerance approach to minor driving offences.
While an epidemic of sexual crimes has not been uncovered in the Northern Territory since the Intervention, the law and order approach has blown up other areas of crime that are easy to prosecute.
Minor driving offenders have been caught up in the punitive malaise in Aboriginal communities, with little consequence for safety.
*Dr Thalia Anthony is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Technology, Sydney. She specialises in reparations and Aboriginal rights, especially in the criminal justice system.