The Gunner Government’s controversial youth bail reforms passed Parliament last night after a confusing day that saw last minute changes to the legislation, protests in the chamber and Police Minister Nicole Manison bizarrely assuring the public that judges would “interpret” the new laws the way the government intended.
The reforms, which will see the revocation of bail for youths committing newly identified “serious” offences, had attracted controversy from human rights groups, Indigenous organisations and childrens’ commissioners from across the country, who all argued the changes were regressive and would lead to higher rates of incarceration for Indigenous youths with reduced chances of rehabilitation.
Debate over the reforms consumed the entire day of parliamentary sittings but were eventually passed, after the government “watered down” its legislation following the backlash.
Independent MLA Robyn Lambley, who reluctantly supported the changes, said the only clear message from the government was that youth crime was out of control and their current measures were not working.
“I am having difficulty following where this government is at and where it is taking Territorians,” she told Parliament.
“I am not surprised that Territorians are feeling the same. There are mixed messages and hypocritical statements; it is very confusing.
“From my perspective, the signs are there that this government is in a shemozzle when it comes to youth justice, like an out-of-control train. It feels like I do not know what will happen next because nothing is following a clear trajectory.”
Ms Manison, who introduced the new laws instead of Attorney General Selena Uibo, said the reforms were aimed at targeting 116 repeat youth offenders, which she said were responsible for half the crimes – or 3,000 offences – in the NT last year.
Ms Manison said despite the last minute changes to the legislation – that would permit judges to take into account “exceptional circumstances” around revoking bail – the courts would understand how the government intended the new laws to be applied.
“The intent of the legislation is very clear, and I have no doubt the courts will interpret it that way,” she told reporters.
Opposition Leader Lia Finocchiaro said the government’s rushed legislation was “weak” and had failed all Territorians.
“Instead of having a government finally wake up from its coma to understand that it had done the wrong things—that its policy settings were driving very poor results both for offenders, victims, police and everyday Territorians—we have before us this amendment bill,” she said.
“This bill means that youth who breach their bail will have their bail automatically revoked. Whilst this government would have you believe that it goes towards dealing with what Territorians are most concerned about, it does not. It makes, at best, a shuffle in the right direction.
“Labor has tried to tailor a political solution to the serious issue of law and order – and they just don’t match.”
Government has failed to address ‘underlying issues’ of youth crime: Guyula
Independent Member for Mulka Yingiya Mark Guyula opposed the bill and said the Labor government was wasting time and resources pursuing its bail reforms instead of implementing proper alternatives to detention for young people.
“These bail changes will bring more Aboriginal youth in contact with the detention centre system which we know will have an ongoing negative impact on their lives,” he told Parliament. “That will mean they are more likely to …”
Mr Guyula was forced to suspend his speech as Speaker Ngaree Ah Kit had security clear the public from the viewing areas, as protesters aired their concerns. They were later issued tickets by police for disrupting Parliament.
When he resumed, Mr Guyula hammered the government on their lack of action over the last four years to address the underlying problems of youth crime.
“The problem exists that this government has not done enough in the last four years to help communities address underlying issues,” he said.
“They have not done enough to create community alternatives to detention to support young people. In this way, government has failed both the young people and victims of crime. It is disappointing. Where is the consultation and evidence?”