Aboriginal leadership will be at the centre the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Justice Agreement.

Justice Minister Selena Uibo, a Nunggubuyu woman, said putting Aboriginal voices at the centre of the process was “absolutely critical”.

“The work would not be worth doing if Aboriginal voices were not front and centre,” she said.

“The multi-agency work within our departments, but particularly with the non-government organisations in the partnership, has been critical.

“The government has led the process, but a lot of what has happened has been built on consulting and feedback from Aboriginal people, Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal organisations and organisations that deliver a lot of services to Aboriginal people in the Territory.”

The Minister said that the reference committee is transitioning into a “governance committee to keep the targets on track”.

According to the Minister, the work on the Agreement, a Labor commitment before they took office in 2016, begun under her predecessor Natasha Fyles.

She said the work of the Aboriginal Justice Unit under Director Leanne Liddle, an Arrernte woman from Mparntwe (Alice Springs), was vital to creating the reform framework.

“Very extensive consultation occurred… There is a very specifically tasked Aboriginal justice reference committee which has multiple organisations providing an outside of government perspective,” she said.

“All four Aboriginal land councils in the Territory are part of the committee, alongside representatives from North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, whose principal legal officer, [Jingilli man] David Woodroffe, was co-chair with Deborah Di Natale from NTCOSS [Northern Territory Council of Social Service].

“We also relied on the expertise of the legal profession and the social services sector to really target the development of the Agreement to benefit Territorians on the whole and especially Aboriginal people, working to reduce the very high levels of incarceration rates we have in the NT for Aboriginal Territorians.”

Minister Uibo said her role as Aboriginal Affairs Minister and Justice Minister asks her to work across issues of justice reform which includes “working through national Close the Gap refresh targets”.

She notes a listed priority of the reforms were justice partnerships.

“It perfectly aligned with the work we have been doing through the Aboriginal Justice Agreement.”

Dr Mindy Sotiri, Executive Director of the Justice Reform Initiative, told the National Indigenous Times there is “an urgent need in the NT to address the social justice issues at the heart of Aboriginal over-incarceration, to address the drivers of justice system involvement, and to build real alternatives so that people at risk of imprisonment can live strong good lives in the community”.

“The Justice Reform Initiative views the Aboriginal Justice Agreement in the NT as an excellent framework for making this happen, and acknowledges the incredible work led by Aboriginal people that has driven it,” she said.

“It is however critical to note the ongoing importance of ensuring that the plan is adequately resourced so that its ambition to improve the lives of Aboriginal people is genuinely able to be realised.”

Despite this, Amnesty International’s Indigenous Rights Campaigner and Gunggari activist Maggie Munn said there is still a great deal of work to be done – some of which is long overdue.

“In 2017 the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory made key recommendations which still, in 2021, have not been implemented, despite the Gunner Government committing to implement all the recommendations,” Munn said.

“One of the key reforms from the Royal Commission was to raise the age of criminal responsibility – if the NT Government is genuine about justice reform for First Nations people, this has to be the first step.”

Munn said that investment into diversion programs and keeping “kids out of the criminal justice system” would have “long-lasting and positive change”.

“What the justice agreement does show is that the NT Government’s existing approach isn’t working,” she said.

“The NT Government doesn’t need to create a new justice agreement – they know what they need to do, they just need the political will and gumption to make these crucial reforms.”

By Giovanni Torre