The first Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA1 2000-2006) was developed in response to recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and subsequent 1997 National Ministerial Summit on Indigenous Deaths in Custody. The Victorian AJA is a long-term partnership between the Aboriginal community and the Victorian Government. The signatories of the Agreement are committed to working together to improve Aboriginal justice outcomes, family and community safety, and reduce over-representation in the Victorian criminal justice system. Each subsequent phase of the AJA has built upon its predecessors (AJA2 2006-2012, AJA3 2013-2018) to further improve justice programs and services for Aboriginal people.
Building on a robust foundation
The 18-year AJA partnership between government and the Victorian Aboriginal community provides a robust foundation to build upon. Professor Chris Cunneen, a leading criminologist specialising in Indigenous justice, noted in his 2010 study into the role of Indigenous Justice Agreements nationally that “the Victorian AJA structure has been independently evaluated, with Indigenous input, as being effective in building, and embodying the goals of effective partnerships.”[i] The AJA is the longest-running agreement of its kind in Australia and has enabled the establishment of significant initiatives. These include Aboriginal programs, positions, plans and business units that operate specifically to address the needs of the Victorian Aboriginal community. The AJA’s wide-reaching impacts, along with its strong partnerships, are its greatest strength.
The evaluation of AJA3 found the AJA partnership has reached a level of maturation not replicated elsewhere. It has been instrumental in effecting real change in terms of embedding cultural awareness and the adoption of an Aboriginal lens for the development of new strategies, policies and initiatives. It has facilitated and enabled the development of strong and durable relationships between agencies and with members of the Victorian Aboriginal community. The partnership has evolved and there are now high levels of trust between the partners. This has not led to complacency on the part of any of the partners, and there remains a high demand for accountability and action[ii].
Strong Aboriginal leadership and voice
Critical to the development of the AJA was the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee. Under the leadership of its Chair, the late Dr Alf Bamblett, the Committee worked tirelessly with government and paved the way for the AJA as it exists today. This bold leadership set the foundations for an amplified Aboriginal voice at both local and state levels, exemplified though the Koori Caucus, now known as the Aboriginal Justice Caucus. The Aboriginal Justice Caucus, a self-determining body, has now been in existence for 18 years and staunchly represents the voices and issues of Aboriginal communities and the Aboriginal community sector. Strong leadership has also driven AJA3 over the past five years in the regions. The Caucus members play a crucial role as the conduit between community and government and between the wider community and the Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committees, which they chair.
The Victorian Aboriginal community continues to demonstrate its strength and resilience, despite facing significant challenges. As partners to the AJA, the community remains committed to improving outcomes through innovative approaches that build on community strengths. The community takes a holistic view of wellbeing, which considers the impact on the collective and not just the individual. As the 2017 report on Aboriginal self-determination and the Victorian justice system notes, “there is enormous capability and expertise in the Aboriginal community that is waiting to be utilised”[iii].
[i] Allison F, Cuneen C. 2010, ‘The role of Indigenous Justice Agreements in Improving Legal and Social Outcomes for Indigenous People’ Sydney Law Review vol. 32 no.4.
[ii] Clear Horizon Consulting, 2018, Evaluation of the partnership arrangements of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 3 prepared for Department of Justice and Regulation, Victoria State Government.
[iii] Behrendt L, Jorgensen M, Vivian A, 2017, Self-Determination within the Justice Context, Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, University of Technology Sydney, prepared for Department of Justice and Regulation, Victoria State Government.