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HomeIssue 31Mandatory sentencing or not, that is the question

Mandatory sentencing or not, that is the question

UPDATE Thursday, Aug 9, 11am
Trish van Dijk (pictured) has confirmed that her question to Adam Giles was about “mandatory sentencing per se”. It was not about the old regime that existed under the CLP when it was last in government, as suggested by Simon Walker in his comment below. She told the Alice Springs News Online this morning: “I just asked a simple question: Are you going to pursue mandatory sentencing? And the answer was ‘no’.”
Now you see it, now you don’t. The Country Liberals’ policy is to introduce minimum sentences for certain categories of assault. That’s mandatory sentencing, but according to candidates Adam Giles and Matt Conlan at yesterday’s Meet the Candidates forum in Alice Springs, mandatory sentencing is  “not happening”.
“We won’t be pursuing mandatory sentencing”, said Mr Giles to a question from Trish van Dijk at the forum.
Mr Giles went on to speak with feeling about the very high incarceration rate of Aboriginal Territorians about which he is “emotionally disturbed”. His party’s intention is to tackle the root causes of crime, including by mandatory and voluntary rehabilitation of chronic drunks, he said, but when asked whether all this meant “a definitive no” to mandatory sentencing, he again ruled it out.
Mr Conlan joined in: “It’s not happening,” he said.
Today Mr Giles ‘clarified’ his understanding of the policy for the Alice Springs News Online: “Mandatory sentencing is a catch-all for everyone on all things. We’re talking about minimum sentencing for assault on front-line service staff.”
Yet clearly, if parliament passes legislation requiring minimum sentences for certain crimes, then that is mandatory sentencing. Just last week the Country Liberals’ leader Terry Mills reiterated that the “clear choice on crime” his party is offering includes “a three-month minimum sentence for anybody convicted of an aggravated assault on workers who provide a public service”.
A minimum sentence is a mandatory sentence. It takes discretion away from judges; for the category of crime that it covers; no matter what the circumstances are, the judge must impose the  prescribed penalty on the convicted person.
Mandatory sentencing does continue under the Labor Government, most notably for murder which attracts a minimum 20 year sentence (reduced from mandatory life in 2005).
Under the last CLP Government mandatory sentencing targeted property crime. The party’s focus may have shifted to crime against the person or a certain category of person, but it clearly does still see a role for mandatory sentencing.
Apart from this, law and order issues received only minimal attention at the forum and alcohol measures, even less. The focus was much more on economic development, perhaps not surprising given that the forum had been organised by the Chamber of Commerce.
The responses from candidates of all stripes in this domain were noteworthy for their lack of a single precise proposal for infrastructure development. This was despite a focussed question, prepared by the Chamber following a business survey. It said: “Can you please advise your view on what infrastructure development is needed in Alice Springs as well as the Growth Towns as that will assist in the economic development of the region?”
Mr Giles spoke of his party’s decentralised approach, including a regional council model replacing the shires, investment in housing on outstations ($5200 per dwelling), re-engagement in Asian relations, the establishment of a Tourist Commission “owned by the industry”, and an “alignment” of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the Aboriginal Benefit Account, and Indigenous Business Australia to get better infrastructure investment in remote communities.
Ken Lechleitner, for the First Nations People’s Party (FNPP) –  he has yet to decide in which electorate to stand, Braitling or Greatorex – spoke emphatically all evening about the necessity for Aboriginal lands to be used as collateral for economic investment and development of joint ventures. This is allowed under Section 77A of the Land Rights Act, he said, which provides for traditional owners’ consent [ED: “as a group, to a particular act or thing”]. However, he did not get specific about what kind of ventures could be envisaged. On the question of tourist ventures, he said that “most of us” have never been tourists: “Give us the opportunity to have a look at what is the expectation of being a tourist and then we may be able to provide,” he said. It wasn’t clear who would be required to do the giving of the opportunity.
When discussion returned to the possible sale of Aboriginal land, Mr Lechleitner said that’s what would make for “sound business”. Labor’s Rowan Foley referred to the Section 19 leases that are available under the Land Rights Act – “normally for 20 years or less” so that consent of the Minister is not required. He also said that “technically” 99-year leases are available. [ED: 99-year leases are commercially attractive and the foundation of land tenure in the ACT, for example.]
Deborah Rock for Labor read out the record of the Henderson Government’s expenditure on infrastructure, including the aquatic centre and upgrades to schools. But, like the Country Liberals, neither she nor her colleagues had any kind of specific promise or even aspiration for the future up their sleeve.
Phil Walcott, independent for Greatorex, stressed decentralisation; Colin Furphy,  independent for Braitling, wants to see more effective marketing campaigns for tourism which will benefit the whole economy.
Barbara Shaw for the Greens (in Braitling, she has decided) spoke in general terms about the infrastructure needs “out bush” being identified by the people who live there.
No-one mentioned the Growth Towns. Despite the Chamber’s question they remain out of sight, out of mind.
During questions from the floor, Mayor Damien Ryan asked the major parties about their plans for retirement facilities in Alice Springs.
Mr Giles said the Country Liberals’ proposed Planning Commission would be looking at all infrastructure development needs and seeking to engage to private sector in the necessary investments. No commitment.
Labor’s Adam Findlay said a Labor Government will gift land to a private developer of a facility for self-funded retirees. A commitment.
The Country Liberals got an attempted drubbing from a man on the floor over the Intervention. He wanted to know what the party’s policy is, having raised it at their Sunday markets stall and having been told that it was a federal matter.
Robin Lambley tried to answer him in terms of their policy regarding child protection. He wasn’t going to have a bar of that, interrupting her more than once, refusing a “political answer” and concluding that the Liberals don’t have a policy.
Mr Lechleitner made comment about the tarring with the same brush of all Aboriginal men as child abusers, but said the Intervention has done some good in some areas.
Peter Solly of Tourism Central Australia wanted to know what the Country Liberals’ Tourism Commission would look like and what Labor would do to ensure that the industry has a greater voice.
Ms Rock replied sweetly that “as general manager of Tourism Central Australia, you are our voice” and that a Labor Government would look forward to continuing to work closely with him.
Mr Conlan said that the proposed  Tourism Commission would be a “stand-alone” body, “at arm’s length from government”, not “enslaved” to the Department of Business. He referred to the “fantastic campaigns of the ’80s and ’90s”, disrupted by the Martin Labor government in 2005. Tourism is a huge part of the NT economy and Central Australia should be it’s capital as the industry here operates 365 days a year, he said. That was as specific as it got.
Mr Foley attempted to make mileage out of recent cuts to the public service by conservative governments in the eastern states, particularly in Queensland. The CLP have foreshadowed a similar approach with their promise to cut waste, he said. We should be wary in the NT and as “we all rely on government dollars to one degree or another”, he said, and “the economy starts at home and that’s your wage packet”.
Shifting the emphasis back to making money, rather than simply receiving and spending it, Dallas Frakking on the floor wanted to know what the candidates would be doing to sort out the blockages to development on the Melanka site. Would they go to Queensland (where the site-owners are based) to help get the development off the ground?
Mrs Lambley broadened the focus in her reply, stressing the huge Territory debt ($3 billion currently), and the Top End focus of the Labor Government’s approach to economic growth, with no significant projects “south of Berrimah Line”. She returned to the issue of public service cuts, saying that only those on salaries of more than $110,000 and not in essential services would be looked at.
Ms Rock again cited a list of Labor Government investments in Alice Springs, such as the hospital upgrades and the future redevelopment of the Greatorex Building for use by police. With regard to the Melanka site, if she gets into government, she’d love to get on a plane to Queensland, she said.
The Country Liberals will also “get over there”, said Mr Giles, describing such smoothing of the creases as “the job of government”.
Photos from top: Adam Giles makes an impassioned point. To his right are fellow Country Liberals Robyn Lambley and Matt Conlan. Nearest to the camera are (from right) the Greens’ Barbara Shaw and Evelyne Roullet. The moderator, the ABC’s Rohan Barwick, is at far left. • Deborah Rock in full flight with fellow Labor candidates Adam Findlay (at right in the photo) and Rowan Foley. • First Nations’ Ken Lechleitner makes a point with feeling.• Colin Furphy (independent)  gets a laugh from Edan Baxter (First Nations, at left in the photo) and Phil Walcott (independent).
Related reading: Kieran Finnane’s recent interview about mandatory sentencing with president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, Russell Goldflam.


  1. What a joke the reporting by the Alice Springs News is. Always looking to make nothing into the next Watergate.
    I was at the forum last night and it was absolutely clear that the question regarding mandatory sentencing was in relation the previous regime in place under the CLP before their election defeat in 2001. A policy that included children in the capture all policy. The room was left with no illusions that what Giles and Conlan were talking about was a revisit to the old policy. If your reporters failed to pick up on that then I suggest changing jobs. Mandatory sentences already exists in the Territory for a range of crimes such as homicide and repeated violent assaults.
    In any case the previous mandatory sentencing policy applied to minor property crimes which in some cases incurred a jail sentence of three weeks. This is what Giles and Conlan were referring to and this was the thrust of the question. But I guess that is just a little too straight forward for an online diatribe like the Alice Springs News publish.

  2. Another ‘head in the sand’ denial of the economy of alcohol-abuse in Central Australia, while focussing on economic development issues and talking up tourism as if alcohol-abuse has no causal influence on its likely ability to drag itself out of a time-warp.
    Alcohol-abuse currently costs the NT in excess of $600m p.a., but if you factor in the loss of productivity via Centrelink’s support of the free-trade alcohol supply industry, it becomes a figure that puts the Victorian alcohol-abuse figure of $4.3b p.a. in the shade.
    I’m beginning to think that NT political leaders and aspirants are intellectually challenged, rather than electorally challenged on the cost of alcohol-abuse.
    They seem to lack the ability to grasp alcohol management as an economic issue relating to NT prosperity, kidding themselves that it won’t continue to fester in Treasury as well as the community.

  3. Simon Walker, can I suggest that such a forum is a time for giving clear and precise answers that do not require conjecture as to their thrust? I also spoke to Mr Giles today to get clarification, as reported. In a perfectly civil exchange, he told me he did not accept that minimum sentencing for categories of assault is mandatory sentencing.
    For the benefit of readers, here is a transcription of the exchange between Trish van Dijk from the floor and Adam Giles, with a final comment from Matt Conlan.
    Trish van Dijk: I would like to ask Adam Giles and the CLP generally, but to Adam Giles perhaps, given that the prison is absolutely chock-a-block and overcrowded to the maximum, and given that there are 90% or thereabouts of Indigenous people in the prison, and I know law and order is a big [item on your agenda], would you be considering bringing back mandatory sentencing which would exacerbate the matter to an almost impossible rate. And probably do no good because the recidivism out at the prison is very, very high too. So, given that it’s a legal challenge that maybe mandatory sentencing is not legal, would the CLP be pursuing that agenda as they have promised to do?
    Adam Giles: Thanks, Trish, for the question. No, we won’t be pursuing mandatory sentencing. I can say I am emotionally disturbed by the level of Indigenous incarceration and the recidivism rate. I think in 2012 in a nation such as Australia the level of Indigenous incarceration is appalling. I’ve been around politics long enough, I know that if it was a Liberal Government and this was happening, Labor would be singing from the rafters, absolutely bagging us about what was happening.
    We lock up black Territorians seven times more than they ever did under Apartheid in South Africa and [inaudible]. It is disturbing what is happening. There are fundamental problems in our social psyche across the Territory. We know many of those issues and we’ve got to put in place reform at the structural level to try to fix some of these things.
    We’ve spoken about the Planning Commission, housing, outstations, regional councils, economic development. There’s a range of areas we need to address to try to get to the root causes of some of the problems. I believe we need to do a number of things and that’s why we’ve got a policy around mandatory rehabilitation and voluntary rehabilitation for people who have got chronic alcohol misuse or abuse problems. So that anyone picked up three times in a six month period will have to go to either voluntary rehabilitation or mandatory rehabilitation. We don’t want people clogging up our police stations night after night, getting washed in and washed out because they’re drunk on the streets. We want to try and help people, we don’t want those people ending up through the prison system which is what’s happening now as a result of breaking into people’s houses or commercial premises to get grog. It’s not working under the current alcohol regime. All we’re doing is locking up black Territorians and I’m not happy with it.
    Trish van Dijk: So is that a definitive no?
    Adam Giles: No, right at the start, no.
    Matt Conlan: No, it’s not happening.

  4. I was unable to attend the Meet the Candidates forum because of a prior work commitment, so thank you Alice Springs News for providing such a detailed report.
    There is an inaccuracy in your story: You say, “Mandatory sentencing does continue under the Labor Government, most notably for murder which attracts a minimum 20 year sentence (reduced from mandatory life in 2005).” In fact, murder attracts a mandatory minimum life sentence, with a mandatory minimum 20 year non-parole period (or in some “aggravated” cases, 25 years).
    As to the debate about whether the Country Liberals’ latest policy announcement regarding a minimum three months sentence for assaults against a person working in a public setting amounts to “mandatory sentencing” or not, make no mistake: it does.
    It is a different policy, targeting a different type of offending, from the mandatory sentencing laws passed by the CLP in 1997. But if enacted, it would, like its discredited predecessor, inevitably lead to serious injustice, without achieving any benefits. Whether you call such laws “mandatory sentencing”, “minimum sentencing” or “compulsory imprisonment”, their effect is similarly obnoxious: Courts are prevented from doing their job, which is to exercise judicial discretion; and some minor offenders end up being unfairly imprisoned.
    The Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory is opposed in principle to mandatory sentencing, whether it be Labor’s current mandatory life sentencing of murderers, the mandatory imprisonment of all property offenders under the former CLP government, or the Country Liberals’ current proposal to compulsorily imprison a broad range of violent offenders.
    We already have the toughest sentencing laws in the nation. We also have the highest rate of recidivism (re-offending) in the nation. The more people we send to prison, the more repeat offenders we will produce. In these circumstances, passing laws which needlessly and unfairly send minor offenders to prison will in all likelihood result in not a reduction, but an increase in crime.

  5. Some confusion, but it is clear CLP does intend to introduce mandatory sentencing for some offences if they win Government. Not for the property offences that Shane Stone’s govt targeted back in the 90s … but the effects will be the same, to remove judicial discretion which exists to take into account all the circumstances of a matter. This is a populist response to the common community perception of court’s handing out ‘slaps on the wrist’ … a misinformed view based on lack of knowledge and understanding (and promoted by tabloid local media outlets) but it allows a party of opportunists to attempt to wedge Labor to gain votes.
    Been a good strategy in Alice Springs for over 30 years, why stop now? Long been a way for blow-ins from down south to come into town, sniff the breeze, and play to the crowd. Achieves nothing in terms of crime reduction, but that is not the point is it? We need and deserve a better approach. Would be good to get some bipartisanship on this. Possible under a leader like Jodeen Carney, but look what happened to her. We are stuck with LauraNorder self-serving opportunists.

  6. @ 9/8/12 post by Ian Sharp.
    And have, in hindsght, the policies of the Henderson government and their fairly blind support for Johnnie’s Intervention really achieved much, Ian Sharp?
    The education statistics are not much to crow about … yet. For better or for worse, the intervention is a permanent, assimilationist policy.
    In the short term, this has created a police state resulting in the gaols being overfull mainly with black men as a result of the war on grog. The suicide stats. just can’t be ignored in this election.
    I know Labor has done lots but you gotta wonder if the CLP could do any better.

  7. For the readers information these are questions I have sent to the two main candidates for Braitling.
    “I am concerned about what I am hearing about this process of fracking and its possible impact on the groundwater supply in Central Australia especially the town of Alice Springs and its surrounds. Could you please let me know your parties position and/or policies on this issue, the following questions come to mind on this matter:
    Is horizontal or vertical fracking allowed anywhere near the Alice Springs water supply aquifers?
    Is horizontal or vertical fracking allowed anywhere near cattle stations, farms or other potential food producing properties or lands where groundwater is available?
    If it was allowed in these areas is it possible that fracking at, under or near a water supply could allow the ground water to vanish into voids or spaces created by fracking at a greater depth?
    Will the chemicals or other substances used during the fracking process contaminate the groundwater supplies in these areas?
    Will the voids created by any subsequent mining, oil or gas extraction be filled by the groundwater leaking into these voids through fracture in ground created by fracking?
    Will the water used for fracking be at the expense of domestic use, stock use or any food producing water?
    If your party forms the next NT Government will you be approving any present or future applications for fracking?
    Would an Environment Management Plan for fracking or a mining process which may include fracking be able to guarantee the survival of existing groundwater supplies in or around any mining or exploration lease?”
    Note: According to Wikipedea online “In 2011 France became the first nation to ban hydraulic fracturing.”

  8. Ian Sharp or “Sharpie” as he is known is diminishing all the people of Alice Springs who don’t vote for Labor (about 75% at last count). Accusing them of falling for some “self serving Laura Norder Opportunists.” As if to suggest they don’t have a brain to think for themselves. As if to suggest that the CLP can work such wizardry that no matter what policies they put forward, people will follow them without question. This is the very reason Labor have failed for nearly four decades in Alice. Then CLP don’t need to wedge Labor to gain votes. And who are the blow-ins you talk about? Conlan? Giles? Lambley? Well how about Rock? Findlay? Foley? “Sharpie” why don’t you put your opinions where your mouth is and run for Parliament? … Didn’t think so!
    As for Your good mate Jodeen Carney, well she quit and left the Territory! She was never cut out to lead the CLP.

  9. Mandatory sentencing, mandatory rehabilitation (See CLP advertisement in today’s NT News). Terry Mills hasn’t costed his grog policy, but one thing’s certain, he intends to give the alcohol industry free rein while we taxpayers pay the costs, whether we’re responsible drinkers or tax-supported problem drinkers.
    Even a Darwin Hospital surgeon connected with the Australasian Body of Surgeons recommends a floor price, restricting availability and reduced trading hours, but is Terry listening? Noooo! “The BDR’s not working.” The surgeon reckons it helps, as do the police and of course it’s not enough, but NT Labor’s moving forward on alcohol management – the CLP is going backwards while the prisons are set to overflow with their ‘tough on crime’ policy.
    I’ve just come from the Alice Springs ACL webcast that lost its Darwin feed. All we got was about 60 secs of Terry saying that it was up to us to tell him what we wanted.
    Unbelievable! In the McNair Anderson media ratings surveys, media managers used to rely on what people said they wanted and what happened was that the whole show got dumbed down to the populist denominator.
    Give the people what they want. And charge them accordingly so that the promise of affordable housing can’t possibly be kept. Unreal! Vote for the CLP and watch how crazy it gets.

  10. I want to know that my family and myself are safe and protected. Yet the court systems have twisted and turned so much that people are experiencing crimes against them by criminals that have long histories of offences of similar criminal behavior against so many other persons. This has to end. We currently promote poor crime … give him a break and to the victim. We currently have a knowledge that we don’t factor because without the temptation that we put in their way we are responsible for their criminal behavior. Crap! Commit a crime do the time. Time for governments to protect the people and punish the criminals.

  11. @Russell Guy, posted August 9 2012 at 10:12 pm
    “Unreal! Vote for the CLP and watch how crazy it gets.”
    Your words Russell, my thoughts exactly. On the national scale this NT election is pretty small beer. There are so many issues but not a lot of controversy bar the attack on an 18 year old named Jesse the other weekend in Darwin.
    D. R. Chewings aka THE lone dingo.

  12. David @ August 15. My comment is in relation to the CL alcohol policy and how it will effect many of their election promises in other portfolios. The economy of scale relating to alcohol consumption and subsequent cost to taxpayers through over-supply (a link which critics fail to understand) is not exactly “small beer.”
    In relation to your comment about the NT election and the national interest, it would be great if we could send a positive message about the Aussie drinking culture spiralling out of control, but instead, we have negative consumption and abuse figures across many social indicators, specifically in violence and self-harm.
    This should challenge those ideologically opposed to see the sense in NT Labor’s alcohol policy direction, but addiction works against sensible outcomes and outright rejection of evidence-based data appears to be a case of the blind leading the blind into a deepening ditch. You seem to be aware of this.


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