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AM - Clare Martin defends anti-social behaviour laws

AM - Wednesday, 17 June , 2005  08:28:00

Reporter: Tony Eastly

TONY EASTLEY: Clare Martin is the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and early in the campaign she pinpointed the problem of itinerants and public drunkenness.

Good morning Clare Martin, welcome along to AM.

David Gulpilil is your Territorian of the Year. Last night he was told he couldn't camp where he was, where I spoke to him there, and he's been moved on.

What have you got to say about him?

CLARE MARTIN: We have got a problem in the Northern Territory, Tony, about people who sleep out, and many of those do cause anti-social behaviour. I mean, you're talking to David, and he was just doing that peaceably.

But there's a consistent problem across the Territory, from Darwin through to Alice to Nhulunbuy, and what we've done over the last four years is put in a lot more temporary accommodation.

Something like 300 beds here in Darwin, so that, particularly during the wet season, that if someone like David is coming to town from where he lives in the community, then there is somewhere to stay.

So even though you've got someone like David, who sounds as though he's peaceably living in the long grass, and it's been a long tradition in Darwin, there are many who cause problems. And it's associated with alcohol.

TONY EASTLEY: But aren't people like him caught up in the net of your new law, albeit inadvertently?

CLARE MARTIN: The new law is about habitual drunks. And the new law is about those who cause a lot of damage to themselves and a lot of damage to our community by the behaviour that they have when they're drunk.

And there's probably something like, across the territory, between 100 and 200 who the police have told us are habitual drunks. That's what we want to tackle. And it's the damage to them, and the disproportionate damage they do to the community, and the violence to women and children that we want to tackle.

TONY EASTLEY: But many of these people, the habitual drunks that you talk about, and the police superintendent told me the other day, he said there are about 250, and they go round in a cycle. These people have had the option of undertaking treatment before, and they haven't taken it up. They're drinkers. So you will have to charge them with a criminal offence, won't you?

CLARE MARTIN: No, what we're going to do is, there will be prohibition orders. If you're picked up six times in three months, and look, I know people on the streets who are probably picked up six times in a week, and they either get taken into protective custody with the police, or they're taken to the sobering up shelter, the next day they're back on the streets.

So to stop the damage they are causing to themselves, Tony, and to our community, we need to get tougher. And so we're saying to that 200, 250 people across the Territory, we want you - and we've put extra resources into alcohol treatment and rehabilitation - we want you to take that treatment. And we're going to get tougher about that.

TONY EASTLEY: But if they refuse to take the treatment, or they drop out of it, your program says well it's off to jail. Is that right?

CLARE MARTIN: No, it doesn't say that. What it says is that if you've committed an offence following that, and you have to have had committed an offence, then you possibly can face jail. That's the law.

TONY EASTLEY: Possibly or will face jail?

CLARE MARTIN: Possibly face jail, so the penalty would be: possibly face jail. But our focus is very clearly on rehabilitation.

TONY EASTLEY: I understand that. But I'm just wondering if people…

CLARE MARTIN: We're not talking about thousands of people. We're talking about, as the police said to you, probably 200 to 250 people.

TONY EASTLEY: So you can, then, guarantee that this law, the one that you're proposing, won't lead to more Indigenous Australians ending up in prison?

CLARE MARTIN: What we want to do is tackle a problem that is chronic in the community, with those 200 to 250 people, and they do cause a lot of disturbance to the community. There is violence, there is harassment, there is begging, and it does cause, for Territorians, a problem on the streets.

We've, as a responsible government you need to tackle it, and we're tackling it in, I think, a very humane and effective way.

TONY EASTLEY: But can you guarantee that more Indigenous Australians won't end up in jail as a result of your new anti-behaviour legislation?

CLARE MARTIN: Well, I think to say to people who are breaking the law often when they're drunk that we will do everything we can to get you alcohol rehabilitation and treatment, I think's a fair policy.

TONY EASTLEY: I'm sure people wouldn't argue with that, but what I'm asking you is: will it end up with more Indigenous people ending up in jail, which I imagine is not the… what you prefer?

CLARE MARTIN: Well, what the focus is here is to get people who potentially now, because of the offences they commit when they are drunk can end up in jail, to get them alcohol rehabilitation and treatment.

TONY EASTLEY: Denis Burke says those laws that require people to undertake treatment are already there, you don't need this new Act.

CLARE MARTIN: No, it's not effective enough. And we've looked at it. We've had in place strategies for the last four years to deal with antic-social behaviour, and we've had a lot of success with those.

For example, getting elders from the communities to come into somewhere like Darwin and talk to people about the need to go home. And we've had hundreds and hundreds of people who were in many cases stranded in the towns actually return to country. And they've paid their way, and people like Galarrwuy Yunupingu have come in and assisted in that process. We've done a lot over four years, but we realise there was more to do.

TONY EASTLEY: So you're not criminalising drunkenness?

CLARE MARTIN: Not at all, absolutely not at all.

TONY EASTLEY: Now the Indigenous Times says this Act that you've just been talking about - they've accused you of playing the race card in the election, and says please explain. You couldn't have missed the headline this week.

CLARE MARTIN: Can I just say that we have strong support in what we're doing from our bush elders. We have strong support from the Larrakia people in Darwin, and because the Indigenous Times doesn't agree, they should be talking to some of our bush elders, the people who say… the woman at Millingimbi who said to Jack Ah Kit, who's the Minister for Community Development, she said you've got to do something, I'm tired of our people coming home in boxes.

That is the kind of strength of the feeling in our Aboriginal communities about the people who are damaging themselves, and talk to the Larrakia, Tony, the Larrakia in Darwin. They are tired of Aboriginal people, who are their… their community, damaging the community in Darwin.

TONY EASTLEY: It's somewhat of a celebration for you today. We're running out of time, but I understand it's 10 years in politics today.


TONY EASTLEY: Are you sick of it yet?

CLARE MARTIN: Not at all. The challenges in the Territory are always there. The challenges of developing a young economy, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow, I think it's going to be close, but I certainly hope that I can get across the line for another four years.

TONY EASTLEY: Clare Martin, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory.

© 2005 Australian Broadcasting Corporation