Northern Territory

By Carment, David | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2000 | Go to article overview
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Northern Territory

Carment, David, The Australian Journal of Politics and History

January to June 2000


A national and international debate over the Northern Territory's mandatory sentencing legislation dominated the period under review. There were, however, other important political issues that received attention. These included a cabinet reshuffle, urban planning, the creation of two House of Representatives electorates in the Northern Territory, finance, Aboriginal affairs, gambling, local government elections, statehood, relations with East Timor, the resignation from parliament of a former Chief Minister and freedom of information.

Mandatory Sentencing

Very early in the year the Northern Territory government reaffirmed its commitment to mandatory sentencing, despite claims from the Labor Opposition that the controversial policy had failed to reduce crime. Mandatory sentencing legislation, introduced in March 1997, meant that adults convicted of property crimes faced a minimum of fourteen days' imprisonment for a first offence. On 4 January the Acting Chief Minister, Mike Reed, asserted that mandatory sentencing was intended as a punishment and not as a deterrent.

As the year went on, criticism of the legislation mounted. During late January and early February a Senate heating into proposed federal legislation that would override the Territory's laws received a flood of submissions that the laws were racist and contravened basic human fights. On 2 February the Chief Minister, Denis Burke, said the Northern Territory would make "justice for the victim a priority" and mandatory sentencing would stay (Northern Territory News, 3 February 2000).

Senior politicians, lawyers and Aboriginal leaders all expressed outrage over the death in custody on 10 February of a fifteen-year old Aboriginal boy. They called for a repeal of mandatory sentencing. The President of the Northern Territory Law Society, Jon Tippett, argued that the laws breached international conventions. He went on to claim that the boy's death "can be laid squarely at the feet of the NT's mandatory sentencing laws" (Northern Territory News, 11 February 2000). Chief Minister Burke, however, remained defiant, rejecting any suggestion that his government was responsible for the boy's death. On 11 February the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, said he would consider the recommendations of a Senate inquiry into mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The inquiry's findings, he continued, would now be examined in light of the recent death in custody. On the same day three hundred mourners, including legal and church representatives, held a minute's silence outside the Darwin Magistrates' Court for the boy's death.

On 13 February the Tasmanian Greens Senator, Dr Bob Brown, vowed that the Territory legislation would be overturned. He also warned of an economic backlash if the Territory did not reverse the law, saying that "informal sanctions" could cost the Territory millions of lost tourism dollars (Northern Territory News, 14 February 2000).

Pressure on the Territory government to revise its stance came from a variety of sources, including the Leader of the Commonwealth Opposition, Kim Beazley, the Law Council of Australia, the Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Geoff Clark, and the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr. More than a thousand Darwin residents during early February signed a petition calling for mandatory sentencing to be abolished. In the federal parliament, Liberal members were deeply divided on the issue, with some demanding federal intervention to overturn mandatory sentencing laws for juveniles.

On 16 February a twenty-one-year old Groote Eylandt man, Jamie Wurramurra, was jailed for a year after being found guilty of stealing a bottle of cordial and some biscuits from a work site on Christmas Day 1998. It was his third property offence and under the mandatory sentencing legislation the magistrate had no option other than to impose a year's imprisonment.

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