DHML 2022: Let’s have smart justice in the ACT

This note outlines and paraphrases the content of the 2022 DHML – see the recording for the full content. You can access the lecture through YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdRfaxPXIJ0&t=2s and read Cheryl’s lecture on the ANTaR website: Ending Australia’s Indigenous mass incarceration crisis.

Dr Chris Bourke was MC for the 2022 David Hunter Memorial Lecture. He welcomed all those attending, in person or on line, and then invited Aunty Selina Walker to do the Welcome to Country.

Selina welcomed all those attending to Ngunnawal country, acknowledging her grandmother, Aunty Agnes, who knew David Hunter.

Paul Wright, ANTaR’s National Director, introduced the Change the Record campaign, noting the ACT Government’s commitment to raising the age of criminal responsibility.

The keynote speaker, Cheryl Axleby, started with a minute of silence to pay respect to all those who had died in custody (500 since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) and the members of the stolen generations who are no longer with us.Cheryl Axleby at podium, photo of David Hunter

Cheryl then reflected on the many advocates who have stood up to shine the light on injustice and crisis of mass incarceration. South Australia (her state): Tauto Sansbury. NSW: Keenan Mundine and Carly Stanley (Deadly Connections). Qld: Auntie Jackie Huggins, Evelyn Scott. WA: Megan Krakouer. Tas: Rodney Dillon (native title cultural fishing rights). NSW: Grandmothers Against Removals. Vic: Uncle Jack Charles. ACT: Selina Walker, who has welcomed us.

Cheryl talked about the background to the Change the Record campaign, with a crisis of mass incarceration in Australia, tearing up families and communities. Aboriginal people are among the most incarcerated in the world, on the verge of overtaking the United States. She asked why isn’t there widespread outrage at the policy settings that led to this. Aboriginal people have been portrayed as the problem, rather than the discriminatory laws and policing that causes so much harm. The incarceration rate reflects the ongoing impact of colonisation, from housing, to social policy, to policing. The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated has increased since the 1989 Royal Commission, even as crime rates have decreased.

Cheryl then talked about the difficulties facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. They born into families that love them and communities that do all they can do keep them safe and strong, but there are many forces that put children in harm’s way. Children are taught a history they know is not true, they face discrimination and hostility from their peers, experience higher rates of suspension. They are watched, harassed and targeted by police more than non-Indigenous kids. Aboriginal children are treated differently when before the courts – more likely to be locked up on remand. Most children detained are on remand, not sentenced. The majority of children held on remand are later released after their case is heard and should never have been detained. Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years will make a difference – so far only the ACT has committed to this, and they have not yet legislated it.

Cheryl AxlebyOther policy settings must also change. It is a deliberate policy choice to imprison people for crimes of poverty, such as unpaid fines or public nuisance. Putting heavily armed police in communities while underfunding health and welfare services is a deliberate policy choice. Locking up 10 year old children is a deliberate policy choice. These policy choices carry forward the legacy of colonisation and have to change.

The policy solutions are simple the political will is hard. Need to convince the government there is support for change. Together we can solve these problems; we are ready for a systemic overhaul. Cheryl asked everyone present to make a commitment now to help them to achieve this change.

Cheryl also talked about the importance of the Voice to Parliament and urged everyone to stand up and vote Yes. There is debate in the community about this being a race division issue – it is not. In 1901, the constitution excluded First Nations peoples. In 1967, the referendum gave the Commonwealth the power to make decisions on behalf of First Nations people. Now a Voice to Parliament is needed to enshrine a voice for First Nations people that can’t be taken away by the stroke of a pen.

Tanya Keed at podium, photo of David HunterTanya Keed provided a local perspective. She talked about the high incarceration rate in the ACT and the areas of greatest concern. People are not getting the services they need to support healing. Women in prison are not getting rehabilitation services, do not have the pathways and safe housing when they leave. Women and men lose their babies when they are incarcerated, taken into the foster system, and then come out to nothing – can’t see their families or they will lose their children. There is a lot of addiction, but it is self-medicating. Need to hear the voices of those who are incarcerated and make changes. Look at how to build community, not prisons.


Questions about justice reinvestment. Cheryl talked about the work in this area and the need for community-driven solutions.

Questions about what is smarter justice. Tanya talked about acknowledging criminalisation and just locking up people is not the answer. Need to do things differently – have culturally appropriate programs to support healing, building community not prisons. Ensure services are safe, support connections to country. Make sure the right people are at table.

Chris thanked the speakers and attendees and urged all to follow and support Cheryl and Tanya’s work to reduce incarceration rates for First Nations peoples. www.changetherecord.org.au

Gathering of people after lecture - Chris Bourke on left, Cheryl Axleby second left

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