The carefully weighted decision of a Cairns judge not to impose custodial sentences on nine men found guilty of rape of a ten-year old girl has caused a predictable political firestorm. State Premier Anna Bligh said she was appalled at the sentence and has stood down the crown prosecutor in the case. Meanwhile federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said she was “sickened” by the lack of a jail sentence. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also joined the chorus of disapproval saying he was “disgusted and appalled”.
Cairns District Court judge Sarah Bradley did not record convictions against six teenage attackers and gave three others aged 17, 18 and 26 suspended sentences over the rape of a 10-year-old girl in Aurukun in 2005. Bradley said the sentences were appropriate and were in line with what was requested by the prosecution. The Queensland government is appealing the sentences and has ordered a review of around 75 sexual assault cases in Cape York over the past two years.
Although Queensland state officials said they were not aware of the case until it was reported in the media on Monday, Anna Bligh has admitted her government’s child safety officers have failed in their duty of care. The child was gang-raped at the age of seven and was later put into foster care with a non-Indigenous family in Cairns. However child safety officers returned her to Aurukun, where she was raped again three years later. Bligh says the officers made the wrong decision in removing the child from foster care. The girl contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the latest assault.
The case has heightened calls for the NT intervention to be brought into Queensland. But the inevitable result will be an increase in the prison population of Aboriginals. Aboriginal people now make up almost 90 per cent of the Territory's prison population. In 2005 the national rate of imprisonment of Indigenous people was 12 times higher (1,561 per 100,000) than the rate for non-Indigenous persons (129 per 100,000). Queensland has already the second highest number of incarcerated Aboriginals.
The crown prosecutor would have been aware of this when he decided against seeking jail time for the nine offenders in Aurukun. He described the crime as "childish experimentation" and consensual "in a general sense" though not “in a legal sense”. The publicly released court transcripts showed that prosecutor Steve Carter described the incident as "consensual sex". He said the girl had pre-arranged the sex with the nine males and they had not forced themselves on her or threatened her. He asked for custodial sentences not to be given. "My submission in relation to this particular offence is the same that I make in relation to children of that age ... they're very naughty for doing what they're doing,” he said. “But it's really - in this case, it was a form of childish experimentation, rather than one child being prevailed upon by another”. This is not an uncommon experience in Aurukun.
Aurukun is about 100km south of Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula and looks out west on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Aurukun is the centre of the Wik native title claim and is the home to a population of about 1,200 mostly Indigenous people. The Aurukun Shire Council has applied mainstream town planning principles to create rows and columns of residential block houses. But Aurukun people have made their own use of space. Individuals generally occupy houses according to family networks (sometimes more than 20 people in each house) and regional cultural affiliations such that inland groups occupy housing towards the eastern end of town. However, most Aurukun people are dissatisfied with these housing arrangements.
Aurukun was the scene of several riots this year. In January this year,a riot broke out which involved a quarter of the population. The riot began after a local man was arrested by police. Another 31 people were arrested after a squabble between two clans in September. In this riot, 200 people pelted houses and cars with projectiles, including spears, and lit fires.
But people have lived peaceably here for thousands of years. The locals fiercely guarded their bit of tropical paradise and armed warriors turned away Dutch sailors in the 17th century. Nearby Cape Keerweer takes its name from the Dutch word “to turn back”. The first mission was founded in Aurukun in 1904. It was managed under the provision of the Queensland Aborigines Act by the Presbyterian Church. Aborigines were forced to move into the mission settlement. In 1978 the community fought the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government plan to abolish the reserves and take control of the land. All the adults in Aurukun signed a petition they sent to Governor-General protesting the decision: “We know this place is our land. Our great, great grandfathers lived here in this land for a long time. It is our mother. It brings us food and everything. The world is good. We want to live in a useful way. Why do you not want to give us back our tribal land?”
Today Aurukun is chronically under-resourced in the most basic infrastructure and services. As well as chronic overcrowding in housing, facilities are old and decrepit, food is expensive and low quality, jobs are few, skills are rare, drug and substance abuse is common and there are no doctors or dentists. It is doubtful today’s elders would agree with the 1978 petition that “the world is good”. Bligh, Macklin, and especially Kevin Rudd should remember this before they rush in to condemn lenient sentencing.