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When jail looks like a lifestyle option

By Jennifer Clarke - posted Wednesday, 19 July 2006

I can still remember the first time I met a young Aboriginal “promise” wife.

She was about 18, married to an ex-stockman in his 50s, with a couple of little kids on her hip (or his shoulder). In the weeks that I spent in their pastoral station “community” trying to progress a land rights claim so they could get better houses, I saw nothing to indicate that this union was anything other than a normal marriage - one which offered the girl considerable social security. This was in 1989.

I soon discovered that I was surrounded by other “promise” wives - older women married for longer, many already widowed, some living next to their husband's first wives. More than once, I was impressed by the status and independence which these arrangements offered both women as they aged.


A lot has changed in a decade and a half. Rural decline, the generation gap, the sexual revolution, improved communications and influxes of tourists and evangelists into these small, marginalised villages have caused re-evaluation of these relationships. If girls are unwilling to marry this way any more, it is difficult for their communities to make them. The erosion of “customary law” which began with colonisation is being completed by other globally driven processes.

But there are some important certainties about “customary law”:

  1. people to whom it remains meaningful won’t give it up just because legislation “abolishes” it;
  2. because its operation is now so locally specific, courts (whatever their failings) are in a better position to evaluate it than Canberra-based politicians; and
  3. “Abolishing” it will not “solve” Aboriginal crime, because “customary law” is not a significant cause of Aboriginal crime.

The causes of crime among Aboriginal people are the same as the causes of crime in ghettos of disadvantaged people the world over. Culture does play a role, but too much emphasis on it allows us to avoid facing the implications for other people, like the residents of Macquarie Fields or Snowtown.

The underlying causes of Aboriginal crime are social inequality and economic stress - themes which, as NATSEM pointed out recently, often play out in Australia through rurality. Crime rates are high in many other parts of rural Australia: a 1990 study claimed Gippsland’s child sexual abuse rate was 2.5 times the Victorian average.

We don’t know as much as we should about non-Aboriginal rural crime, partly because not many non-Aborigines live in the country any more. However, studies confirm that many other rural communities contain a culture of non-complaint by victims. Isolated country people are denied opportunities and services - jobs, income, doctors, counsellors, police, cinemas, mobile phone coverage, preschools, universities - which the rest of us take for granted. Remote Aborigines are just at the extreme end of this spectrum.


One unique factor, however, is Aboriginal demography: there are a lot more people of criminal offending age in the Indigenous population than the wider population, and a high ratio of children to adults. Both factors tend to produce more crime.

The proximate causes of Aboriginal crime are the consequences of this social inequality and economic stress. These include disrupted parenting bonds (stressed parenting techniques override or bring out the worst in traditional parenting norms, which favour affectionate and non-controlling parenting), association with delinquent peers, truancy, not succeeding at school and having a lot of family members who have gone to jail and none who have gone to university.

Again, the Indigenous difference is just one of degree: in remote communities, home conditions can be so bad that jail looks like a lifestyle option. If Aboriginal men abuse other people sexually at unusually high rates, it’s likely that this bears some relationship to their very high incarceration rates (15 times the Australian average): a 1990s study of NSW prisoners found that a quarter of men aged 18-25 had been sexually assaulted in custody.

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First published in the Canberra Times on July 3, 2006.

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About the Author

Jennifer Clarke is a Canberra lawyer

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All articles by Jennifer Clarke

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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