ABC News Afternoon Briefing

Release Date: 
30 July 2020

Topics: National Agreement on Closing the Gap

Patricia Karvelas: Ken Wyatt is the Minister for Indigenous Australians and my guest this afternoon. Ken Wyatt, welcome.

Ken Wyatt: Thank you, Patricia. Good to be with you.

Patricia Karvelas: This strategy is dependent on states, territories and Indigenous organisations. So who does the buck actually stop with? Who is ultimately responsible if these targets fail?

Ken Wyatt: Basically, it's all of us because we've all agreed that we will take responsibility and be accountable, and we'll work on implementation plans to put into place the strategies and initiatives that we need to have in place to close the gap. But they also are wrap around targets as well. There's a cluster of three, for example, in the early years of life, and then of course, they're through to culture and language and other key in critical areas that are important to Indigenous Australians.

Patricia Karvelas: So what are the specific accountability mechanisms that will be in place to ensure that it happens? Because, Minister, you know, I know that there's been decades of failure. How are you going to make sure that there won't be any more failure in this next phase?

Ken Wyatt: Well, one mechanism, Patricia, is the monitoring process that will occur through the joint council and the annual monitoring and assessment discussions and negotiations that will go on. The other is every state parliament and territory parliament will now table their reports on Closing the Gap, whereas previously it was only the Commonwealth government using aggregated data. So this will really hone in on each of the jurisdictions. And equally, the peak bodies will be providing a report as well.

Patricia Karvelas: Advocates are disappointed by the targets on incarceration rates. Why did you settle on 15 percent?

Ken Wyatt: Well, the peaks in conjunction with all of the systems, particularly the officials from each of the systems, worked through all of the targets and these were the figures they settled on. NATSILS was part of that process and the agreement was the 15 per cent for adults and 30 per cent for juveniles and children, and so that's what has come forward. Now because it's a new target there's a lot more work that will be undertaken in terms of indicators, what's the data, what are some of the areas that we can look at in terms of diversion. But I think we're better off focussing on the first eight years of life and having a solid foundation that leads into good educational pathways, careers and jobs and we'll see a lessening of people needing to end up in incarceration.

Patricia Karvelas: Is there any chance to bring the parity forward on the issues around incarceration? Is there a process where there will be a negotiation about whether some of this will become more ambitious or is this the settled path now?

Ken Wyatt: Look, I think at the moment it is the set of agreed targets and everybody will work on those targets. But if there are outcomes, for example, that show that in certain areas you can fast track some elements of incarceration rates, then I think that will reset the dial. WA, for example, in removing incarceration for fine defaults, is already on the front foot in terms of reducing the number of particularly women who'll be incarcerated. But certainly across the board, they will have an outcome based on just that change. And there is another jurisdiction looking at the issue of drinking in a public place and changing the legislation around that.

Patricia Karvelas: Are you frustrated that states and territories failed to agree on raising the criminal age of responsibility this week?

Ken Wyatt: I think we've got to accept the reality of the pragmatic reality that they face in terms of, firstly, they agreed to the target and then the percentage is always going to be the challenging reality of whether it's possible or not possible. You're better off starting with a benchmark and then after the period of 12 months, when we monitor and review, then you can have discussions around whether you need to raise the bar or lower the bar.

Patricia Karvelas: Yeah, but on this issue of the criminal age of responsibility, 14, do you think at 10 years old, should it be raised to 14? Are you passionate about that, because seems to me that putting 10 year olds in detention is pretty much condemning them to a life in prison.

Ken Wyatt: Well, once you start the journey of recidivism then you'll find that pattern of having spent time in in imprisonment that you end up back in it again. And I've seen a couple of reports that showed there is a pattern. But the attorneys general are certainly working through the advice they've got. WA is leading the work in this area, what they'll need is consensus across the nation.

Patricia Karvelas: Yes, Minister, I understand that. But I reckon people watching get really frustrated, I know you're not the Attorney General, and think how can 10 year olds be put in this position? What's your view? I mean, what was your life at 10? Do you think that at 10 your brain functions to the level where you should be punished and put in detention? Is that realistic?

Ken Wyatt: Look, when I was a 10 year old, what happened then was if you misbehaved, you were sent away to a childcare place or in some instances to some of the old missions that were still operating, but in a different ilk. We don't have those options anymore and incarceration. But no, I don't support young children being incarcerated, we need to look at diversion programs. And I know that the work that the attorney generals will be doing will be based on some conundrums that they will face in terms of the types of crimes, what they've got as alternatives and whether they will agree to a national uniform approach. And they're working through that, my understanding is they will come back. I have had a discussion with the federal Attorney General, Christian Porter, and his view is that we will work through these matters and certainly I'll continue the discussions with the individual Ministers.

Patricia Karvelas: Do you think 14 is the right age?

Ken Wyatt: Look, I think there will always be debates around the age, but 14 seems to be the universal one that I see in other countries. And then, of course, in other nations, they're much lower.

Patricia Karvelas: Because even though it is, of course, the attorney generals that are working on, it it seems to me a key part of closing the gap. You'd actually achieve quite a lot if you dealt with this issue around children ending up in detention, right?

Ken Wyatt: Well, the beauty of this Closing the Gap, Patricia, and the agreement, is every state and territory cabinet, including the Commonwealth, have signed off on the agreement and the targets. So they require each portfolio to look at each of the targets and then look at ways in which they can reduce the number. And by reporting to their state or territory parliament what will be highlighted are those areas where they've not made much movement. And both these targets on incarceration would certainly come under scrutiny after the first 12 months once the progress of achievement is tabled in the respective parliaments of Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: What guarantees can you give that because this is a partnership agreement, Aboriginal people won't end up being the ones blamed if failure continues.

Ken Wyatt: The way in which we've constructed the agreement and all parties, commonwealth, state, territory and the 51 peaks have agreed to integrity, transparency, being committed to achieving the targets and reporting on progress that we all make. I can't see this being turned back because the level of commitment was very genuine. And in the final stages of discussion, I saw no one try and reconcile from that at all.

Patricia Karvelas: Which targets have funding agreements attached to them, and when will that money start to flow? It seems to me a whole bunch of targets today, sixteen, and it's a really quite a big expansion of what we had first announced by the Rudd government. But when do we see the money, Minister.

Ken Wyatt: Well, the states at the moment are looking at their funding commitments and we'll be making further announcements next week in respect to funding. But we've also got to look at programs that currently exist, look at their effectiveness. And if they're not effective, we have to have a serious line of thinking as to whether we continue to fund those programs, because if you're not achieving the results in closing the gap, then there are some serious questions that we have to address and then look at alternative programs that will be more effective.

Patricia Karvelas: When will the targets on family violence be ready? I know there's a commitment to them, but we don't have those final targets. Can you give me a sense of what they'll look like?

Ken Wyatt: Well, there is a commitment to 100 per cent reduction in family violence. What the discussion was around, and the 51 peak bodies are predominantly Aboriginal women. But the discussion was it was just a focus on physical violence, we need to look at the other forms of violence that happen to women that are as equally important as the physical aspect. So over the next three months, the peak, organisations and officials and the Commonwealth will be working on that target. But we're not reconciling from 100 per cent reduction.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, I really am interested in the intersection of what the Closing the Gap agreement is and your work with the peaks that are clearly a key stakeholder in all of this and a future voice to Parliament that's being developed, either in a constitutional way or through legislation which you are clearly leaning towards. What happens, do the peaks give you the advice? Does the voice give you the advice? How does it work, have you guys thought about that?

Ken Wyatt: Yeah I have. Look, in reality, what we want is communities to have a voice as well. But the structures that are starting to evolve out of the work of the three groups that I've appointed are coming up with working models that also include the voice structures that state and territory governments have got because we don't want to cut across those, so we're looking at how we bring these models together. The 51 peaks have played a very critical role in the Closing the Gap target areas. But there are many other issues that community raise that they often will indicate are not being listened to by a number of layers that are above them. And so the voice is to look at local, regional and then state voices that feed into a national voice.

Patricia Karvelas: I just want to end, if we can, on the coronavirus crisis, particularly in Victoria, as it's unfolding. How closely are you monitoring coronavirus cases amongst the Indigenous community in Victoria?

Ken Wyatt: We're doing that very closely and we're working with NACCHO. Pat indicated this morning when she was addressing the Closing the Gap agreement that the ACCHOs are heavily involved. But, we also, through the NIAA, work very closely with all the relevant Commonwealth and state bodies that provide input into what government has to consider. And I certainly work very closely with Minister Hunt on matters that are absolutely critical to preventing the increase of number in the Aboriginal community, but also treatment that will be required and in some instances, isolation and the way we can do that.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, you know, and you've been talking about the fact that if coronavirus makes its way into Indigenous communities, it could have a devastating effect given the kinds of other complex health issues that already exist. What briefings are you getting about how this new wave we're seeing might affect indigenous communities? How serious is the threat that you've been briefed on?

Ken Wyatt: Well, the threat is serious at all phases of COVID-19, even in the early stages when we locked down Aboriginal and remote communities. Even last week when I was on the Telecom, sorry yesterday, on a teleconference with the land councils the issue of safety was paramount in their thinking and access to support and resources should that occur. And in our connecting with Aboriginal organisations through the new medium that we're using of the teleconferencing or telephoning, then we certainly gather sufficient intel to be able to make decisions. And through that, we still want to see the measures we put in place before be carried on in practice, that is, washing your hands, keeping physical distance and making sure that if you don't feel well that you go and have a test done and then self-isolate so you don't infect the rest of your family or people within your community. As we are seeing in what's panned out in Victoria, and I really feel for the Victorians, and certainly what I'm now seeing in some cases that are emerging in New South Wales.

Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, Minister, and it's a really sad topic to talk about, but Western Australia has recorded its third Aboriginal death in custody in less than two months after a prisoner in the state's north took his own life. This is a pretty sad story, but it does demonstrate that there is, I believe, a crisis in the criminal justice system, or in the jail system in WA. How concerned are you by this?

Ken Wyatt: I've always been concerned about the mental health state of people within prisons. The one in Roeburn I'm given to understand died of natural causes, but the young one in the Perth metropolitan region took his own life. And the coronial investigation or inquiry will certainly look at that. But I intend having a further discussion with Minister Hunt when he gets a breath from his focus on COVID about how we can do some more work with people in prisons, particularly Indigenous people, the young ones who do experience some of the trauma associated, not only with their life, but the pressures that have been there for some time but manifest themselves in the isolation that they feel personally within prisons.

Patricia Karvelas: Ken Wyatt, thank you so much for talking to me this afternoon.

Ken Wyatt: Thank you, Patricia.