Inside Story

Revival on the Darling

An outback town finds a way to cut Indigenous crime and imprisonment where governments have failed

Robert Milliken 18 September 2018 3418 words

A “lot of moving parts” came together: Alistair Ferguson, leader of the project. Robert Milliken

It’s Monday morning in the northwest NSW town of Bourke, and the Diggers on the Darling restaurant is being rushed for its excellent espresso coffee. Lawyers, bureaucrats, philanthropists and even a government minister from faraway Sydney have driven across the outback to take stock of this river town’s battle to rescue itself from crime.

Bourke is pioneering Australia’s most innovative way of tackling a problem haunting many parts of the country: the shockingly high rate of incarceration among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Of Bourke’s 3000-strong population, about a third identify as Indigenous. Before the scheme started having an impact, the town had the state’s highest conviction rate for Aboriginal children and teenagers under seventeen, and about 90 per cent of young people released from custody were in trouble with the law again a year later.

“We’d been left to die slowly,” is how Alistair Ferguson, a local Indigenous man, describes his community’s fate under past government policies. “But Bourke and outback river towns are worth fighting for.” Fed up with billions of dollars of government money being poured into the “old law-and-order approach,” with little to show for it, Ferguson turned to an idea developed by the Open Society Institute, a New York think tank run by the American billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Known as “justice reinvestment,” the strategy is based on the argument that the money governments spend building yet more prisons should instead go to projects designed to help people stay out of them.

It is Ferguson’s initiative that eventually brings this group of expert backers to Bourke for a crucial “leadership group” meeting. Five years after introducing justice reinvestment to his town, he opens their gathering at Diggers on the Darling by declaring, “We are on the road to recovery.”

My own 800 kilometre journey from Sydney to Bourke — still one of Australia’s most isolated places — revealed much about the town’s vivid frontier history and its disastrous legacies for Indigenous people. From the 1880s, Bourke was a booming port handling wool bound for world markets via the Darling River. The press called it the “Chicago of the West.” In 1885, jealous at seeing its wool exported to Britain via Victoria and South Australia, the state government extended the rail line to Bourke so it could be shipped from Sydney instead.

The last 186 kilometres of this great piece of late-nineteenth-century infrastructure was closed down in 1990, and now lies crumbling beside the dead-straight road from Nyngan to Bourke. The remnants of Bourke’s wharf, where Darling River steamers once loaded multitudinous bales of wool (40,000 a year at its peak), have fared a bit better, and it’s there that Alistair Ferguson spoke to me between a stream of meetings with summit participants.

Ferguson, an energetic man with close-cropped greying hair, was born in Brewarrina, a nearby town on the Darling. He traces his own heritage to four states, and has family links with Barkindji, one of four tribal groups that were living in this region when white settlers began arriving in the mid 1860s. As the historian Bobbie Hardy writes in her book Lament for the Barkindji: The Vanished Tribes of the Darling River Region, some tribes “disappeared early under the impact of white settlement, and their conquerors were less than explicit as to the fate that overtook them.”

The Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre at North Bourke is a bit more explicit. In its small section on “The Traditional People,” it quotes an early settler: “The blacks on the Darling had been most barbarously murdered by our early predecessors, hunted like kangaroos or wild dogs wherever they were known to exist.”

Governments removed many Aboriginal people from traditional lands, and later brought others from outside the region to mission stations at Bourke. The thoughtless mixing of rival groups changed the makeup of the area, expanding the region’s four tribal groups to twenty-two in Bourke today. Ferguson and others see that dispossession and loss of identity as the main underlying cause of high crime rates.

Ferguson, who had planned to be a chef after he left high school in Bourke, became a public servant in the Bourke office of the state attorney-general’s department. From there he watched in despair the “constant revolving door of young people in handcuffs” at the local courthouse. Using Bourke’s twenty-first century lifeline to the world, the internet, he learned about trials of justice reinvestment in around twenty-four states in the United States, and in Britain. Tom Calma and Mick Gooda, both former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioners, had already called for similar trials in Australia.

“I became intrigued,” says Ferguson. “I wanted to know more.” In 2012 he approached Sarah Hopkins, a Sydney-based lawyer and chair of Just Reinvest NSW, a body advocating justice reinvestment as public policy. The following year, Just Reinvest and Ferguson formed a partnership to start a project in Bourke. “We didn’t go to Bourke,” Hopkins says. “They came to us.” She is keen to stress the Aboriginal community’s determination to find a new approach to solving its problems that didn’t leave it beholden to governments. “Self-determination is fundamental to justice reinvestment,” she says.

A “lot of moving parts” soon came together, says Ferguson. The Australian Human Rights Commission and the state Aboriginal affairs office offered early support; Gilbert and Tobin, a law firm, pitched in later. The first funding, in 2014, came not from governments but from two family philanthropic outfits: the Dusseldorp Forum and the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation. Along with money from smaller family foundations, this allowed the project to kickstart with a backbone of staff in Bourke.

A September 2016 report prepared free of charge by accounting firm KPMG found that philanthropic funding for the project had amounted to $554,800 each year over the three years to 2018–19. It argued that the early progress and the goodwill the project had attracted made a strong enough case for governments to get behind it.

Teya Dusseldorp, the Dusseldorp Forum’s executive director, is a granddaughter of its founder, the late Dick Dusseldorp, who also founded the Lend Lease construction company. She visited Bourke at Ferguson’s invitation when he was trying to get something started. “We could see the real desire of the Bourke community to be drivers of change for their town,” she says. “I found that far more promising than people just advocating to governments. They wanted to confront the problems they identified of too many young people being incarcerated. There were enough people there who wanted to be part of designing the solutions themselves, rather than waiting for government to fix things.”

Goodwill was palpable when the fifty-odd people gathered at Diggers on the Darling on 30 July. There was something symbolic about the fact that the meeting was taking place across the road from the Darling River, where Henry Lawson set several short stories drawing on his time in Bourke in 1892. Lawson sharply observed the region’s swagmen, riverboat captains and other pioneer characters, but Indigenous people featured in his stories only fleetingly as part of the exotic frontier backdrop.

“Finding a balance from the first nations’ perspective isn’t an easy thing to do,” Ferguson told the meeting. But now, the descendants of Lawson’s largely invisible people were telling a story of trying to reverse a downward spiral that had started back then. By any standards, it has a promising ring of success.

A report to the meeting showed a sharp drop in juvenile crime last year. Break-and-enter offences fell by about half. At Bourke Primary School, 4 per cent of Aboriginal students were suspended, a dramatic reduction from about 20 per cent four years earlier, though the fall in suspensions at Bourke High School was not so impressive. The proportion of children going to school, and staying there, has risen.

One of the most encouraging shifts involved domestic violence committed by Aboriginal men. Unemployment, alcohol and dislocation have long made this a problem in Bourke: reoffending rates per capita are among the highest in Australia. And its reverberations spread to the streets, where children forced to flee violent homes embark on crimes of their own. The meeting heard that the proportion of adult men charged with domestic violence had almost halved since 2014.

This news preceded the opening of a new “Men’s Space,” further along the Darling, later that afternoon. The substantial block of land and modest brick house on the edge of Bourke was donated by the Sisters of Charity, a Catholic group. Ironically, it was once a prison site; but now, says Jonathon Knight, an Aboriginal man who works with a group called Men of Bourke, it will become a place where “men can come to seek help and feel comfortable.” His hope is that “we can be role models for our community.”

A group of Aboriginal children and young men had gathered for the event, and five nuns had travelled from Orange in New South Wales to join a Catholic priest in blessing the Men’s Space. (One of them recalled how the Indian missionary, Mother Teresa, had visited Bourke fifty years ago to bless the sisters’ land.) Led by several Aboriginal women, the men, black and white, walked in a semicircle through a smoking ceremony under a magnificent river red gum tree.

Brad Hazzard, the NSW health minister, was among them. “I still shake my head in wonder as to why so much state and federal resources are coming into regional towns and not achieving the outcomes we want,” Hazzard told the Bourke meeting. He offered as one explanation the politics in some Aboriginal communities: “They make Labor and Liberal look like a bunch of amateurs.” After recent leadership turmoil in Canberra, he may be right.

Yet that seemed to miss a key point. The Bourke community’s creation of the Men’s Space is one example of its bid to take pressure off a key cause of crime in its midst. “Do they have the right to make decisions for us?” asks Phil Sullivan, a Bourke elder, referring to governments. “We’re still not in the Constitution you know! I think the justice reinvestment approach, a tool to do what we want to do, is a perfect start.”

Like most governments in Australia, the Coalition to which Hazzard belongs beats a law-and-order drum relentlessly. In its 2016–17 budget, the NSW government announced almost $4 billion for what it called the “largest single prison expansion in the state’s history.” Yet Hazzard seems impressed with what he has seen in Bourke. “The men here say they asked for the Men’s Space,” he tells me after the smoking ceremony. “No central office dreamed it up. The ground-up mode means the community owns the process and the outcomes. My instinct tells me that is the most likely recipe for success.”

When he embarked on justice reinvestment in Bourke, Alistair Ferguson built crucial new links into the project. He involved local Aboriginal people by helping to create two bodies: a community hub called Maranguka (“caring for others” in Ngemba, a local tribal language), and the Bourke Tribal Council, representing the town’s twenty-two language groups, whose role is to make decisions about strategy.

“This concept, allowing the community to be the decision-makers, isn’t new,” Ferguson says. “It’s been here for thousands of years. It got lost after white settlement pushed traditional structures away.”

He also insisted on involving Bourke’s police force as key players. Too often around Australia, high imprisonment rates have followed combative relationships between police and Indigenous communities. Greg Moore, Bourke’s police chief, presides over a staff of about forty-five police; he is also commander of a larger force that serves other outback districts in the state’s northwest. He has keenly embraced justice reinvestment, which he sees as a way to “shift the focus from building prisons to addressing the causes that feed crime in the first place.”

“In the old days, you had the cops, health, education and the local council,” Moore says. “That was about it.” Of the new Aboriginal bodies, he says, “We set these structures up so the community could have greater involvement in decision-making and resolving community conflicts. The community has always said, ‘We want policy designed with us, not on us.’”

Greg Moore identifies domestic violence, mental health, alcohol, drugs, idleness and truancy among the main underlying causes of Bourke’s high Aboriginal youth conviction rate. They are the same as those revealed twenty-seven years ago in a royal commission the Hawke government set up to examine Australia’s then alarmingly high rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody and juvenile detention. That inquiry said the main way to stop rates climbing even higher was for governments to tackle these causes first. But since then incarceration rates have only doubled, according to Amnesty International.

While governments have ignored the royal commission’s recommendation, Ferguson says he has taken it as his template. The work starts every morning at the Maranguka hub office in Bourke. James Moore (no relation to Greg), the Birrang SOS (“Save Our Sons, Save Our Sisters”) youth coordinator, meets there with police to review any trouble in town overnight.

Moore is a local Aboriginal man who left school without finishing Year 10. He fell foul of the law himself and spent time in jail. He understands the problems of the people aged between eight and eighteen whom he now tries to help: “Like them, I felt disconnected and had little sense of belonging.” This understanding, and working with kids to encourage more positive outlooks, is probably the key to Bourke’s justice reinvestment project. It was missing from long-time government approaches in Sydney and Canberra: setting policy from a distance, and sending welfare to the town.

“Because of a lack of jobs, a lot of families depend on welfare,” James Moore explains. “Kids just dropped out of school. Many fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were on police radar every day. Maranguka asked, what can we do to help them? My role is to change their mindset, to work towards getting jobs.” SOS was set up last year to encourage kids to go back to school.

Maranguka has also set up a youth council to discuss proposals from Moore and his colleagues, and contribute their own ideas. “It’s all about giving them a voice,” says Moore. “In the past, young people never had a say in anything.” The council consists of local young Aboriginal role models and “other more vulnerable ones.”

Moore also works with an Alternative Education Program, to equip young people with job skills. Bourke’s schools identified twelve kids who they thought could benefit. Moore says the twelve had about 300 “interactions” with police between them in the three months before the program; in the three months after it started, police interactions had fallen to fourteen. Meanwhile, school attendance rates among the twelve have risen.

Another initiative exposes young people to environments outside Bourke. James has taken some to Nowra, on the NSW south coast, for boot camps on leadership and life skills. “It’s all based on discipline, respect and responsibility,” he says. Closer to home, he takes young people out “on country” to connect them with traditional cultural practices. “Culture today is the answer for our vulnerable kids,” he says. “It should be part of day-to-day routine for Aboriginal people.”

Vivianne Prince, whose parents are Ngemba and Wangukmarra people, coordinates services at Maranguka. Each Thursday, school principals and other town officials join the meetings. “It means everyone is working together, breaking a silence,” says Prince. “If a pupil has been suspended from school, everyone knows. Evidence shows the children are benefiting from this approach. They’re getting the support they need.”

Leonie Brown, corporate services manager of Bourke Shire Council, tells me the council has supported justice reinvestment “since Alistair put it together.” With jobs scarce on the region’s great sheep stations nowadays, especially during the drought, the council is one of Bourke’s biggest employers. An abattoir, due to open in Bourke this year, could offer up to 200 jobs.

“A lot of government and non-government money comes into Bourke,” says Brown. “Incarcerating youth is a big cost. If we can stop that, and reinvest it, this is one way of working through those problems.” She praises Greg Moore as police chief for his “supportive” approach, helping to bring crime down: “You can see the difference.”

I sensed a difference myself since my last visit to Bourke, in 2010. On that occasion, I was reporting on another intractable issue: water. Crime then seemed out of control. Among the handsome old stone and wrought-iron buildings from Bourke’s grander days, shops were shuttered with steel grids. The town had a sense of siege.

Eight years later the shutters are still there, but the siege sense has waned. Perhaps wary, Bourke’s business figures largely had held back from engaging with justice reinvestment. Now, though, some are happy to commend it.

“It’s doing what it should be doing: getting kids off the street. It’s a marvellous thing,” says David Randall, manager of the Betta Home Living electrical goods shop in Oxley Street. “Eight years ago, you wouldn’t have contemplated that I might take my shutters down. Now I’m contemplating it. It’s very rare that we have problems with hardened kids any more. A lot has to do with attitudes of the police, who are getting involved before crime happens.”

Across the street Peter Crothers, the pharmacist at the Towers Drug Co (“An outback icon since 1878”), says Bourke had long suffered from a “feeling of powerlessness.” He adds, “All decisions were made on how money was spent without reference to the community. What’s happened since justice reinvestment started is that Aboriginal, non-Aboriginal, local government, community associations, business and professional people have all said, ‘Just give us the money and let us work out what needs to be done.’ We’ve started in this town trying to address a different way. Unlike any community I have worked in, we have started to say, ‘We’re special.’”

Support is growing for projects like the one in Bourke. Although none is as advanced as Bourke’s, other justice reinvestment trials are planned or getting started at Katherine, in the Northern Territory, Cherbourg, in Queensland, and in the Australian Capital Territory and South Australia.

The Australian Human Rights Commission calls it a “powerful crime prevention strategy.” The Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee five years ago recommended that the Commonwealth “adopt a leadership role” to support justice reinvestment and that it fund a trial with “at least one remote Indigenous community.” In a report last March, the Australian Law Reform Commission called on federal, state and territory governments to establish an independent justice reinvestment body to “promote the reinvestment of resources from the criminal justice system to community-led, place-based initiatives that address the drivers of crime and incarceration.”

So far, governments show little inclination to take this on. Beating the law-and-order drum seems calculated to win them more plaudits from tabloids and shock jocks than cutting spending on prisons. Yet the 2016 KPMG report on Bourke offered a cogent economic case for a different approach. It contrasted the justice reinvestment project’s estimated running cost of $554,800 a year with the estimated $4 million annual cost to the Bourke area’s criminal justice system of Aboriginal children and young people’s involvement in crime. KPMG is preparing another report on the Bourke project’s economic impact.

Its achievements so far have prompted the federal and NSW governments to commit $2.5 million up to 2022 towards cutting family violence, helping young people to find jobs and enabling the Maranguka team to collect more data. The project’s influential private backers are impressed. “We have a long-term commitment to this work, because that is what it will take,” says Teya Dusseldorp. “We’re talking about generational change. Maranguka is one of the most promising initiatives I’ve seen. They’ve been very effective in building a bridge between community and government to last.”

Alistair Ferguson reckons the “reinvestment” side of justice reinvestment is now in sight. Bourke’s crime reduction, he argues, could warrant redirecting a quarter of its $4 million spend on criminal justice into more work helping the town’s young people. “That will be the real turning point.” When? “It can’t come soon enough.” ●

Robert Milliken returned to Bourke later in 2018; his short followup report is here.