Hazel Buchanan

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Who are we punishing: the children or ourselves?

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 27 July, 2016 at 16:40 Comments comments (3)

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s statement on ABC News radio on Tuesday morning, that children should always be treated humanely, raises two important questions. Firstly, is showing compassion and benevolence to children a realistic ambition while simultaneously consigning them to a facility like Don Dale in the Northern Territory? And, secondly, is ‘humane treatment’ a worthy standard for the custodians of troubled, damaged children to aspire to in Australia in 2016?


Following the exposé by Four Corners on Monday evening, Australians far and wide are vocally expressing their outrage, horror and shock at the documented treatment of children in custody in the Northern Territory. And yet, it seems, the most pertinent question is still not being asked. A child who perpetrates assault, damage to property, or theft, is a child in trouble. If the child is caught, they are in trouble with the ‘Law’; but on a far deeper level, such behaviours indicate conflict with society, family, community and, indeed, with self. A child in trouble is a child who needs our help. As parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, as grown-up children ourselves, we are rightly disgusted and appalled by the violence, abuse and mistreatment we were confronted with in our lounge rooms on Monday night. But surely the question we ought to be asking is, ‘Why are we locking children up at all?’ What endemic failures in our society and our criminal justice system have allowed us to accept the premise that a child of ten should be imprisoned for stealing a car? Who among us could cogently argue that locking up an already troubled child in the harshly intimidating environment of a prison could ever result in their rehabilitation?


Children, as we all know in our hearts, need loving care. Children respond positively to warmth, kindness and love, and thrive when given clear and reasonable boundaries and the appropriate opportunities to succeed. Children who are treated with scorn and contempt learn to disrespect others; children meet anger with anger; children who learn to be frightened of adults look for opportunities to put others in fear. When we choose to lock up our most deeply troubled children in an environment that offers them no prospect of rehabilitation, in the short term we are inflicting a devastating punishment. In the longer term, we are punishing ourselves.


When a child commits an offence for which he or she is caught, society is presented with a golden opportunity - the chance to intervene, to make a difference not just to one life but potentially to many. As a nation, it is entirely up to us whether or not we choose to squander that opportunity.

What About When They Come Out?

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 31 May, 2016 at 4:05 Comments comments (0)

With the election into its fourth week, the focus continues to be the state of the economy and which party is touting the most reckless ‘Spending versus Revenue’ plan. But did you know that it costs a billion dollars a year to run the correctional facilities in New South Wales alone? And that’s before escalating capital expenditure. Actually, it's a billion dollars and counting, given that the state’s prison population grew a staggering fourteen percent during 2015. Those two figures alone should surely be enough to make our politicians question what exactly is being achieved. Shouldn’t we, as ordinary citizens, also be asking what our tax dollars are paying for? At the very least, wouldn't you like to know whether you are getting value for money?

In order to measure the system’s success, there first has be a statement of intent: a declaration of the underlying justification for the sanction of imprisonment. In other words, what is our purpose in locking people up? Are we sending people to prison as punishment or for punishment - how much do we intend them to suffer? And what do we expect the outcome to be? Do we as a society have any genuine desire to rehabilitate offenders or are we merely seeking vengeance?

If the goal were retribution pure and simple, the current system could arguably be said to be meeting its aim. Despite the claims that are spuriously made from time-to-time likening modern prisons to motels and holiday camps, the truth is that, for the vast majority of people, prison is a punishing place to be. But even theories of retributive justice require that the punishment ‘fit’ the crime. Lawmakers go to some lengths to estimate the seriousness of the harm caused by a particular offence, and then attempt to translate that into a ‘fitting’ sentence. In reality, of course, the resulting level of injury from a crime varies according to the victim. Equally, the full impact of the punishment imposed may correlate far more closely to the offender’s own innate characteristics than it does to the nature and seriousness of the crime they were convicted of.

Does that matter, though? If imprisonment is all about punishment, does society care if some convicted criminals are effectively dealt with more harshly than they ‘deserve’? The answer would surely have to be a resounding ‘No’. But the flip-side tells a different story. The outrage commonly expressed when an offender is perceived to be ‘getting off lightly’ demonstrates that some concept of fairness is important after all. But where do we stand on rehabilitation? The very title ‘Corrective Services’ implies that deterrence and rehabilitation are intended to be part of the system. Indeed, the official guidelines spell it out. Custodial correctional services apparently exist ‘to assist the rehabilitation of prisoners and offenders by providing opportunities…to reduce offending behaviour’. The same document states that prisoners should be ‘Actively engaged to make positive behaviour change (inclusive of accessing intervention programmes, education, vocational education and work opportunities) with the aims of preparing them for their participation in and return to the community, as well as reducing re-offending behaviour’.

Fact or fantasy? The statistics speak for themselves. Sixty percent of those currently being held in Australian prisons have been locked up before. And in New South Wales, nearly half of all adult prisoners released are back inside within two years. On these measures alone, it is clear that the system is dramatically failing, the implication being that for a significant proportion of people, sending them to prison simply doesn’t work. They are neither being rehabilitated nor deterred.

The knee-jerk reaction of politicians, when faced with unpalatable crime rates or a perceived increase in lawlessness, is to seek to lock more people up for lesser offences and a longer stretch of time. That is certainly what has been happening in Australia for years, despite the studies that show how ineffective it is. The result of flying in the face of the research is the ever-increasing problem of overcrowding in our prisons. Governments are spending a fortune, with no end to the funding increases in sight. And when three men are forced to share a cell designed for one, is it really any wonder that riots break out?

So what about these ‘programmes’, and the ‘positive behaviour change’ that is supposed to be being wrought? Many of the inmates of our jails are there on remand. As remand prisoners, they have no access to rehabilitation programmes and are highly unlikely to be given the opportunity to work. Convicted inmates are expected to work, although there are rarely enough jobs to go around. The majority of tasks are menial and require little or no training. Rehabilitation programmes are available only to inmates serving sentences of six months or more. The waiting lists for these programmes in most Correctional Centres are so long that it is not uncommon for an offender to have finished their sentence or to have been transferred to another facility by the time their name comes up.

There is just so much potential, given the general population of our prisons, to improve the outcomes not only for a lot of very disadvantaged people but also for the communities they are eventually going to rejoin. It is hard to imagine finding a better opportunity to address a whole range of social issues - drug and alcohol dependency, lack of education and training, poor nutrition and dental health, inadequate life skills, a diversity of mental illnesses, rock-bottom self-esteem. Instead of paying inmates a pittance to fix Qantas headsets, why isn’t more emphasis placed on helping them find gainful employment after their release? Why is the chance to get involved in a trade open to so few? Why is the funding so limited for improving inmates' life skills and teaching them to read. Why would you lock anyone up only to release them back into the community hardened, perhaps brutalized; quite possibly infected with Hepatitis C; maybe even HIV positive; and in possession of a greater criminal skill set than when they went in?


Where is the sense in that? Where is the economic value? Let alone the morality.

Spare a thought for those inside

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 24 May, 2016 at 4:35 Comments comments (0)

With the election campaign now into its third week, it is clear what the major topics for discussion are shaping up to be. One of those issues, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, is looking no less divisive, and we are apparently no closer to achieving any meaningful resolution. While the focus is squarely on offshore detention centres and the awful predicament of those inside, the only significant mention of Law and Order, so far in this campaign, has revolved around border security and potential acts of terror. For once, crime statistics and other issues associated with more conventional offences have not had a look in.


The appalling situation Australia has created for itself with regard to offshore processing is surely one that deserves to keep making the headlines. There is a risk, though, that in focusing on the would-be Australians we detain, we overlook the ever-increasing number of people confined in our jails. Admittedly, prisoners are a group who have traditionally been easy to ignore. 'Lock them up and throw away the key' is the age-old cry. And the one thing on which all politicians can agree is that 'there are no votes in prisons'. Generally, as a society, we would rather not trouble ourselves with what goes on inside. Most of us believe that prison is a place where wrong’uns go to be punished. And frankly, if a criminal doesn't want to be there, they should have thought of that before committing the crime.


In my experience, the vast majority of the people who hold those views have never been inside a prison. Without question, there are hardened vicious criminals for whom long-term imprisonment is the only viable sanction. But even the most cursory look around a correctional centre reveals a disproportionate percentage of the sort my grandmother would have described as ‘less fortunate’ than herself.


Mental health, having finally been afforded some column space in the media in Australia, is beginning to gain a fraction of the public and government awareness it so desperately deserves. Spotlights are regularly being shone these days on bipolar disorders and suicide rates. New commissions are recording the most horrifying details of childhood sexual abuse. Stories of domestic violence and ice-induced psychosis are daily in the news. Distasteful as they are, we need to know about these issues. We need to discuss them, consider the underlying causes and work out how to address the problems that threaten our society. But while we do, it is also worth remembering that there is a wretched group of individuals who never make the headlines. People who, right from the outset, have never been given a 'fair go'; people whose formative years were so abusive, drug-affected or neglectful that, while their own poor choices are never excusable, they may at least be deserving of a little understanding. And perhaps even our help.

Three questions I would like to ask Turnbull and Shorten

Posted by Hazel Buchanan on 26 April, 2016 at 3:30 Comments comments (0)

Whatever the official government line, everybody knows the Federal Election campaign is already upon us. In the lead up to 2nd July, as the media interest inevitably intensifies, there is a strong likelihood that public disaffection will proportionally grow. Why? Because over the last ten years, political standards in Australia have nosedived, particularly in terms of quality, respect, leadership and, as a consequence, authority. To bastardize a favourite Turnbull line: there has never been a more pertinent time to be cynical about Australian politics.

The argument is occasionally floated that we are inclined to expect far too much of our politicians; the implication being that we are setting them up to fail. But is this really true? Coming from Britain (where MPs are still inclined to conduct their debates with a modicum of decorum) to Australia in the Hawke/Keating era was an eye-opener for me. It was years before I was prepared to take either of them seriously. Listening to the way they spoke both to and about other people, they were easily dismissed in my mind as 'Yob' and 'Thug'. Now I see it differently. Hawke's popularity is still something of an enigma to me, although I do get the 'fallible man of the people' idea. Keating, I admire for his enormous intelligence and passion, his incredible ability to think on his feet, and his merciless wit. Were it an option, my vote would go to him.

It seems then that, as a nation, we don't demand politeness, tact or even sobriety from our politicians. We are willing to accept their human traits and that they are going to make mistakes. What we can't abide, as Rudd, Gillard and Abbott found out, is being lied to, feeling conned or being treated with contempt. Does that really amount to an unreasonable expectation?

Of course, Keating and Howard, and the others before them, enjoyed the tremendous advantage of being covered by a far more respectful and tolerant media. Whether Howard could have survived for as long as he did in the current climate has got to be a moot point. Leaving the Fairfax/Murdoch politics well out of the equation, it seems to me that the intrusive, urgent fascination of the media for every crumb of a political story isn't necessarily such a bad thing in itself. What destroys the process is the media's insistence on adding sensationalism to everything like a dose of chicken salt.

So great is the focus of attention on trapping politicians into making ill-judged 'newsworthy' comments, even the top interviewers of the day are largely failing to elicit any actual information. In fact, it has gone well beyond that. Most politicians are now so scared of being misquoted, taken out of context or accidentally giving something away, they simply regurgitate that day's chosen slogans and meaningless messages regardless of the question they have been asked. Which actually doesn't do anybody any favours.

With regard to the current election, I have two specific gripes. For the first, I hold the journalists who interviewed Tony Abbott during and after the 2013 campaign particularly responsible. Why, oh why, did they let him get away with pretending that the last Federal Election was a ballot on climate change? Why, when he claimed ever afterwards that the Australian people had given his government a mandate to reverse all of Labour's policies on the environment, was the obvious never pointed out? If there was one major issue in the 2013 campaign which facilitated the voting-in of the most unelectable PM in our country's history, it certainly wasn't climate change. It was Labour's unprecedented and utterly embarrassing stint of stabbing one another in the back.

The result of this failure of the media to hold Abbott to account is the now established precedent that governments can claim to have an unequivocal mandate for every single policy they take to an election. As a piece of logic, let alone a political argument, it is flying in the face of reality. And it raises my blood pressure, besides.

The other is more of a plea. If the media is determined to inflict on us an ever-increasing number of political interviews over the coming weeks, could it please become journalistic policy to interrupt every time a politician mentions the failures, real or imagined, of another politician or political party? That way, we might just have a chance of learning whether or not they actually stand for anything themselves.

In the interests of moving forward from the stalemate position we are in, below are three of the questions I would like the leaders of the two major parties to be asked.

Questions for Malcolm Turnbull

1. With the benefit of hindsight, has it been a worthwhile exercise to trade-off the principles so many ordinary Australians used to applaude you for, namely your stances on climate change, marriage equality, asylum seekers and refugees, the NBN and data retention laws, in order to pacify the right-wing of your party and gain the keys to the Lodge?

2. If you win the 2016 Federal Election, what specific strategies, if any, do you intend to implement in order to move forward on those erstwhile principles of yours outlined above?

3. If you were to lose this year's Federal Election, would you consider yourself then to be in a stronger or weaker position vis-à-vis your party's right?

Questions for Bill Shorten

1. Given that the vast majority of public school funding is already allocated and distributed by State governments, would it not in fact be far more efficient and cost-effective for the States to take over management of the whole amount?

2. Do you, as a Federal politician, believe that the current political strategy of publicly decrying one's opponents rather than focussing on making a statement of one's own beliefs and intentions is capable of raising a politician's standing in the public eye?

3. What do you believe is the future for hospital funding in this country given that costs are expected to rise exponentially in the coming decades?