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Blanchard, Lynda-ann; Lui, Leah --- "Citizenship and Social Justice: Learning from Aboriginal Night Patrols in NSW" [2001] IndigLawB 3; (2001) 5(5) Indigenous Law Bulletin 16

Citizenship and Social Justice:

Learning from Aboriginal Night Patrols in NSW

by Lynda-ann Blanchard and Leah Lui[1]

Citizenship implies rights and responsibilities. It is the right of all individuals, including the most vulnerable, to expect dignity, respect and non-violence from others. Aboriginal young people are among the most vulnerable people in Australia. This is highlighted in reports that detail their arrest and detention rates. Recognition of this serious situation and a desire to improve the quality of life of their young people provoked some indigenous communities to create night patrols. As a mechanism of alternative dispute resolution, night patrols aim to remove 'people at risk' from public places to safe places. Learning about the operation of Aboriginal night patrols in NSW is a lesson in citizenship and social justice.

Primarily run by volunteers, these night patrols are a community response to the alarming numbers of indigenous young people involved in the criminal justice system. The impetus for citizen action includes feelings of despair and a desire for safer communities.

Do ambitious visions about citizenship have any bearing on the predicament of indigenous Australians? This question will be addressed (i) in an initial discussion of different perspectives on the meaning and means of citizenship and (ii) by examining the experiences of Aboriginal citizens in running night patrols in NSW.

Views of Citizenship

Just over fifty years ago, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 intended to represent the higher aspiration of a common citizenship. Australia played a major part in advocating the adoption of this decree by the General Assembly. However that same year Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament passed the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, creating the formal legal category of Australian citizen. This definition of citizenship largely excluded indigenous people. While visions of international citizenship are all inclusive in their goals, citizenship at a national level can be exclusive.

Central to contemporary analyses of citizenship, in which rights are linked with responsibilities, is the notion of ‘selective rights’. That is, through emphasising different needs we can realise universal principles. The paradox of this view of citizenship is that an ‘all inclusive’ view can be achieved by positive discrimination to attain the human rights of specific vulnerable groups.

In 1967, the national referendum, which yielded 91 percent support, allowed indigenous Australians to feel they had achieved a stronger sense of ‘citizenship’. Unfortunately, thirty years later, Australian indigenous people, particularly young people, are still disadvantaged. This is clear from any of the welfare indicators relating to health, education and justice, Governments may make efforts to moderate this disparity, but when it comes to recognising indigenous rights and reshaping citizenship-related ideas and institutions in order to accommodate indigenous people, efforts to reach equitable outcomes are weak.[2] Given these difficulties, interpreting government policy to enable Aboriginal communities to act for themselves in offering solutions to identified social problems and welfare inequities, is a first step.

Young People are Citizens Too

Social indicators measuring health, education and employment levels indicate that Aboriginal young people are vulnerable. These statistics are most compelling in reports that detail the arrest and detention rates of young Aboriginal people.[3]

State legislation and government policies have been identified as infringing the human rights of young people and as increasing Aboriginal involvement in the juvenile justice system.[4] In NSW over the past four years there has been a 20% increase of Aboriginal persons aged 10 to 17 years admitted into custody in juvenile justice.[5] Between January 1996 and January 1998, the rate of Aboriginal young people imprisoned in Juvenile Justice Centres increased from 25% to 36%.[6]

Section 3 of the Attorney General’s Department Crime Prevention Division Report, Juvenile Crime in New South Wales - A review of the literature, cites the presence of factors such as poverty, inadequate education, intellectual disability, poor health, negative parent-child relations, social inequality, racism, unemployment and general lack of opportunity as contributing to the criminal behaviour of young people:

Aboriginal Night Patrols

Aboriginal night patrols are an indigenous initiative instigated by the women of Yuendemu in central Australia during the early 1990’s to challenge violence and help protect the community in the absence of effective intervention from mainstream justice systems.[12] As a mechanism of alternative dispute resolution, night patrols aim to remove ‘people at risk’ from public places to safe places. In interrupting potential conflicts, taking responsibility for unprotected children and removing drunkenness, Aboriginal communities are empowered to act for themselves. With the support of local police, but often without their active engagement, the community relies on the resources of indigenous people and their codes of conduct in this problem-solving work.

Different types of Aboriginal night patrols operate in Australia. These differences arise from the varying objectives of this community initiative. ‘Dry’ communities in Alice Springs organise volunteer patrols to remove all persons under the influence of alcohol. Other patrols concentrate on protecting vulnerable children and young people. They try to reach young people in the absence of effective mainstream mechanisms for accessing justice. The focus of NSW night patrols is to support young people to move from ‘at risk’ to ‘safer’ situations. Removing young people from town streets has a number of effects:

In 1998 the Crime Prevention Division of the NSW Attorney General’s Department in collaboration with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the NSW Police Service, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Community Services funded four Aboriginal Night Patrol projects. These patrols operated for a period of one year in the regional NSW locations of Forster, Kempsey, Narrandera and Dareton. An evaluation of the night patrol projects suggests that night patrols can achieve a reduction in the involvement of young Aboriginal people in anti-social behaviour and crimes such as malicious damage, street offences and vehicular theft.[13] The evaluation also suggests that night patrols enhance perceptions of safety, minimise harm associated with consumption of alcohol and other drugs and encourage management of communities in accordance with principles of self-determination.

How do Aboriginal Australians involved in the operation of night patrols express notions of citizenship and endeavour to redress situations of inequality and access to social justice? An exploration of this question forms the balance of this paper.

How are Aboriginal Night Patrols Examples of Citizenship?

The key to understanding night patrols as an exercise of citizenship is the notion of participation. This in turn raises issues of how people are encouraged and supported in their participation. The essential ‘grass roots’ involvement of Aboriginal community members in night patrols is on a voluntary basis. It is unpaid ‘community’ work, mostly unacknowledged by the non-indigenous community. Although Aboriginal service providers are involved in night patrols, this participation occurs within a framework determined by government and constrained by lack of resources and wider community responses.

The response of some of the wider community to the pilot night patrols has involved prejudice and racism.[14] Other responses have exemplified goodwill and openness to working collaboratively with indigenous people in the community.[15] Within these extremes, night patrols continue to work toward addressing some of the issues faced by vulnerable youth. In advocating for the rights of others and improving their quality of life, volunteer night patrol participants in NSW express their citizenship rights and responsibilities in ways that

(i) build community;
(ii) promote partnership and reciprocity;
(iii) recognise alternative approaches; and
(iv) encourage cultural understanding.

(i) Building community

Night patrols recognise that the first step in building community is rebuilding family and that a crucial step for rebuilding family lies in supporting efforts to take care of children. Patrols make a valuable contribution in this regard. However, operators expressed anguish over the impact of past government policy and current legislation on young Aboriginal people and their families.[16] An Elder from one location stated, ‘the night patrol is doing a great job, but something needs to be done for the parents’.[17]

It is understood that efforts to assist young people on an individual basis do not go far enough in addressing underlying social inequalities. The struggle for night patrols is how to work best with the already existing practices of welfare, police and other government personnel to rebuild family and build community. This kind of participation is expressed in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Social Justice Report 1999 as, ‘the requirement that Indigenous people be able to fully participate in decisions that affect them’[18] and is seen as essential in order to secure a move from welfare dependency. It is also a yardstick of best practice with which governments must comply if they are to ensure greater efficiency in service delivery. However, the importance of this ‘principle’ of citizenship and its usefulness in community work is often perceived by governments as aspirational rather than essential.

(ii) Promoting partnership and reciprocity

“We pick up Koori and non-Koori kids”
Trevor Clarke, Forster

Although the night patrols were funded as an ‘Aboriginal program’, there was a keen sense that the service should be made available to all those who needed it. Patrol operators recognised that their work was most effective when they operated for the benefit of the whole community (indigenous and non-indigenous citizens, younger and older people). The comment, ‘the bus is for everyone’, became a common refrain throughout the state.[19]

For governments, the operation of night patrols are largely seen as a ‘community service’. This is problematic as citizenship rights to full and equal participation in public life may obscure government responsibilities to support this work, financially as well as philosophically.

The funding given to night patrols in NSW is barely enough for a single patrol. The resources needed for even one night patrol group to be sustained total approximately $70,000 a year, little more than the annual cost of one incarcerated youth. Basic costs to be covered include: bus hire and ongoing running costs of the vehicle, personal and property insurance for volunteers, equipment including radio communications, uniforms and training including first aid courses, drivers licences and child protection workshops. A coordinator should also be funded if the community chooses to have one. In some communities, such as Walgett and Redfern, the NSW Police Service provides this support. In others, such as Kempsey, a shire worker coordinates patrol activities. This is an extremely valuable ‘hidden’ cost of patrol operations. However most night patrol operations in NSW struggle with donations from business or short term government contracts. This piecemeal approach to funding is undesirable. An alternative would be a pool of funds available to patrols to complement support acquired at the local level.

A clear example of promoting partnerships at a local level is in the opportunity night patrols provide for ongoing consultation between government representatives and indigenous and non-indigenous citizens. In two instances, night patrols have been incorporated into the Council’s Safer Community Plans. Night patrol operators also consult with members of the Aboriginal community about the operation of the patrol. As Paul, of the Namitjira Regional Sporting Association in Dareton stated, ‘people don’t like being told what to do, they like to be asked about things that impact on their lives.’

Consultation within indigenous communities has led to the introduction of negotiated procedures. For example, consent forms, signed by parents or care givers, give night patrol operators permission to transport children on the night patrol bus. These forms also serve as mechanisms for obtaining some level of Aboriginal community participation, whereby parents and patrollers work together for the benefit of young people in need. Night patrols are encouraging partnerships between Aboriginal service providers, community leaders, youth workers and police.

(iii) Recognising alternative approaches

For Aboriginal night patrol operators and committees, preventing juvenile crime is only one reason for intervention. Recognising the risk factors associated with juvenile crime in Aboriginal communities and developing diverse strategies to respond to youth needs are key objectives. There are three issues related to these objectives (i) the need to hear what indigenous people are saying in general about social problems and juvenile justice; (ii) the need to take seriously the proposals which indigenous people have made about ways to respond to the marginalisation of Aboriginal youth and (iii) the problem that key local governments have difficulty in responding creatively to points (i) and (ii).

Aboriginal night patrol operators recognise that the issues affecting young peoples’ quality of life cannot be dealt with by simply removing them from the streets. The lack of services for youth in country areas means that too little is being done to respond effectively to high youth unemployment, low school retention and high incarceration rates of young Aboriginal people.

One night patrol is keen to extend the use of their bus to include the undertaking of cultural camps for young people and their families.[20] This is regarded as important for rebuilding families, connecting young people with their indigenous culture and giving them an alternative to ‘hanging out’ on the streets.[21] Such camps can affirm identity and combat the sense of alienation suffered by Aboriginal youth. There also needs to be wider recognition of the greater good that flows from such ventures. The story telling, bush tucker gathering and dancing can all contribute to the development of a positive sense of self, a recognition of self worth, an affirmation of cultural identity and to a realisation that there are alternative ways of ‘being’ citizens.

A second night patrol was interested in pursuing more opportunities to involve young people in sport as players and spectators.[22] This community recognised that unless measures were taken to give young people an alternative to being on the streets, the transporting of young people from the streets to their homes was merely a band-aid approach.

(iv) Encouraging cultural understanding

Night patrols provide the opportunity for building connections and promoting understanding between young and old, indigenous and non-indigenous. Vital to the survival of indigenous people are the generational connections between people. All night patrols support the key role that indigenous Elders can play in teaching, disciplining and providing counsel to young people. In bemoaning the loss of the lives of three young men in as many months, one Aboriginal Elder stated ‘their lives were over before they’d really started’.[23] In this community, Elders are very clear about the role cultural camps can play in the development of positive esteem and in anchoring young people to the land and to their community. Cultural camps provide opportunities for young and older Aboriginal people to draw strength from each other through teaching and learning cultural practices.

Of the four night patrols evaluated, three involve indigenous and non-indigenous people working together as volunteer patrollers. At least one patrol community voiced the opinion that these interactions provide opportunities for non-indigenous people to learn about the local Aboriginal community and indigenous ways of relating to each other and responding to crises. These interactions can encourage cultural understanding and in turn, help contribute to the reconciliation in their locale.

A Glimmer of Light

Despite being imperfectly conceived and facing many hurdles, including under funding, there is a glimmer of light when it comes to Aboriginal night patrols. This light ignites notions of citizenship that value economic, social and culture rights. If taken seriously by governments, night patrols provide an opportunity to create and fund important ‘jobs’ in regional communities, helping to directly address an acute unemployment problem facing Aboriginal communities. Anecdotal evidence from a number of communities suggests that night patrols which transport young people from public places to their homes (or safe places) have had a positive effect on reducing juvenile involvement in the criminal justice system. As an Aboriginal community initiative, night patrols value the principles of self-determination. The broader community has a responsibility to protect such values. Based on principles of social justice and human rights, night patrols present an opportunity for Australians to recognise difference in expressions of citizenship.

Lynda-ann Blanchard, a non-indigenous Australian, is the Research Officer at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Leah Lui, a Torres Strait Islander, lectures in Indigenous Studies at the Koori Centre. The authors are colleagues at the University of Sydney.

[1] The authors wish to acknowledge the warm welcome extended by NSW Aboriginal communities and thank key contributors for their insights.

[2] Peterson N and Sanders W (eds), Citizenship and Indigenous Australians: Changing Conceptions and Possibilities (1998) 27.

[3] Anderson T, Campbell S and Turner S, Youth Street Rights: A Policy and Legislation Review, (1999). Atkinson L, ‘Detaining Aboriginal Juveniles as a last resort: Variations from the theme’, in Australian Institute of Criminology, Trends and issues in crime and criminal justice No.64 (1996). Luke G and Cunneen C, Over Representation and Discretionary Decisions in the Juvenile Justice System (1995).

[4] Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council, A Fraction More Power: Evaluation of the Impact of the Children (Protection & Parental Responsibility) Act on Aboriginal People in Moree & Ballina Research & Evaluation Series No 1 (1999). Available:

[5] CCG, NSW Government Programs for Aboriginal People: Service Efforts and Accomplishments, Council on the Cost of Government (1998) 80.

[6] AJAC, above n 4.

[7] CCG, above n 5, 51.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid 67.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them home: A guide to the findings and recommendations of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their families (1997) 19.

[12] Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal (1992) 16(2)14-15. Film by Kantor, Munga Wardingki Patu Night Patrol (1997).

[13] Over an eighteen month period interviews were conducted with between 15 - 50 citizens in each of the regional locations. Interviewees included local indigenous and non-indigenous residents (ranging in age from youngsters to Elders) who were involved in government, business and community roles. A report was produced for the NSW Attorney General's Department: Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Koori Centre, The Impact of Aboriginal Night Patrols as a Juvenile Crime Prevention Strategy: An evaluation of four pilot programs in NSW (2000a). Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Koori Centre, Draft Guidelines for Establishing a Night Patrols (2000b) were also produced as a project outcome.

[14] Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Koori Centre (2000a), above n 13, 37, 40.

[15] Ibid 15, 43.

[16] Ibid 40, Table 1.

[17] Cedric, Narrandera.

[18] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 1999 (1999) 12.

[19] Maxine, Kempsey.

[20] Barry, Narrandera.

[21] Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and the Koori Centre (2000a), above n 13, 8, 50.

[22] Ibid 27.

[23] Cedric, Narrandera.

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