Indigenous justice requires pragmatism

We won’t solve indigenous crime and justice problems with isolated decisions or with ideology. With governments focussed on outcomes and what works we can deal with Indigenous crime & justice problems and save governments money. 

In debates on social issues there are usually two sides – one based on ideology and the other on pragmatism.

Ideologues focus on principle and theory. Their ideas are based on their ideals. If something doesn’t work they often blame poor application or resourcing. Pragmatists accept reality and that compromise and setbacks are unavoidable. They care about results over theory. They support things that work.

Too often vocal activism on Indigenous issues is dominated by ideologues.

Before the election the Coalition announced spending cuts to Indigenous legal services. I engaged in a public battle with Treasury over the proposal. Ultimately, Treasury spared a substantial amount of legal services from defunding but identified others to make up the budget saving figure, including to some family violence programs.

I remain unhappy with the final decision. But, practically, once the line item had been included in pre-election figures it was going to be extremely difficult to get it reversed. The reality is that Australia’s budgetary position is unsustainable. Government is spending more than it raises in revenue, forecasts have been consistently wrong and there are structural budget deficiencies.

Initiatives for Indigeous people aren’t immune from this problem. It’s unrealistic to expect me, or the Indigenous Advisory Council, to cast some sort of force field over Indigenous spending to exempt it from the broader budget agenda. Pragmatists understand that we must work within this reality. Ideologues don’t.

A lot of the criticism of the decision on legal aid funding was based on the presumption that defunding will undoubtedly lead to increased Indigenous incarceration. That was the ideological principle through which the decision was judged. There was a lot of anger and indignation but not much discussion of the actual outcomes the defunded services have achieved and how those services correlate to incarceration rates. Some critics appeared more interested in opposing a budgetary decision of a Government they don’t like based on their political opinions.

Treasury wasn’t focussed on the functions being cut or the outcomes they delivered; it was focussed on the dollars. But ideologues fell into the same trap; they too were focussed on the dollars.

I objected to the decision because I want the IAC to review Indigenous legal services as part of the broader review, identify what is delivering outcomes, develop a strategy on how services should be structured to address crime, incarceration rates and the needs of victims and work with state and territory governments to implement.

A strategy that works will actually deliver savings far greater than hasty tactical cuts will ever deliver. We can deliver both outcomes and spending reductions. In fact we must.

There are thousands of initiatives across the country aimed at eliminating Indigenous disadvantage. Yet the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people isn’t closing. If the current framework for addressing Indigenous disadvantage was working there would be less need for special services and therefore progressively less funding required to address the problems.

We also know there’s inefficiency in Indigenous programs and that a lot of the money is spent on bureacracy and administration. I meet Indigenous people nearly every week who complain about it. Removing inefficiency, duplication, bureacracy and red tape will also mean lower spending.

That’s why money isn’t the main issue. The number one issue is the outcomes achieved for Indigenous people. Outcomes like real jobs, school attendance and closing the gaps in health, education and incarceration.


Judgement by His Peers by Gordon Syron
Oil on canvas, 1978

Here’s an example. About 10 years ago I sat on the NSW Attorney General’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Committee. Research presented to the Committee pointed to a common conclusion – send a juvenile offender to detention and in most cases you have them for life; they’ll invariably be in and out of the system forever. However, put them into a diversionary program (where they instead go into a job or education which they must complete instead of gaol) and in most cases you never see them again.


If a diversionary program succeeds and a young person goes on to stable employment this means a lifetime of paying taxes rather than a life in and out of detention and welfare at taxpayers’ expense. Yet governments shy away from effective diversionary programs because they fear being labelled weak on crime. Another example of ideology trumping pragmatism.

There’s a mountain of research on Indigenous incarceration, its causes and effects and many ideas for solving the problem. Some have been tried and tested. Ironically, much of the work and expertise in this areas that has informed me in recent months originates from NATSILS – one of the bodies that Treasury is defunding.

We won’t solve indigenous crime and justice problems with isolated decisions or with ideology. We need considered strategy based on facts and consistent, committed implementation. With governments working together and focussed on outcomes and what works we can deal with this problem and save governments a lot of money. That’s pragmatism.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine is the Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. This article first appeared in The Australian on 3 January 2014 under the headline “When ideology trumps pragmatism, everybody pays”.


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  1. SR Phillips says:

    I’m for anything that supports our young people and older folks living full lives. Sentencing as last resort has been long-held as first and best option in many situations – I am thrilled you are talking up diversion as an example of better path to better outcomes. And if this is what you mean by being outcomes-focussed, in bipartisan fashion, beyond limited ideological blinkers, then I’m heartened. Thank-you. SRP.

  2. An excellent paper, Warren. Don’t be insulted if I call your pragmatic solution a no brainer. Of course, diversion is the answer, whereas incarceration massively compounds the problem, starting with the way it trashes a troubled kid’s sense of worth and purpose, and where the hell that kid might be headed longterm.

  3. A good read.

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