Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Fulton, Ms Roseanne

7:10 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak in support of Roseanne Fulton. Specifically, I speak in support of the release of Roseanne Fulton from prison in Western Australia. She is in prison without conviction. This is a disgraceful situation. She should be released immediately.

People may be familiar with the plight of Roseanne, as it has been featured in the media in recent days, particularly on the ABC's Lateline program. I have been advocating on behalf of Roseanne and her supporters since January, when I first became aware of this issue. By way of a brief background, a court found that Roseanne was unfit to plead because of a mental impairment that Roseanne has had since birth—foetal alcohol syndrome. Foetal alcohol syndrome can occur as a result of high levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Someone found by a court to be unfit to plead guilty should not be imprisoned. However, Roseanne is currently in Kalgoorlie prison. Her imprisonment is in breach of the law and her basic human rights. Her advocates have requested that she be accommodated at the Alice Springs secure care facility, which was custom built to accommodate people with complex care needs, such as Roseanne.

Roseanne grew up in Alice Springs and so she should be looked after in an appropriate facility there. The secure care facility was constructed to accommodate people whom a court had determined unfit to plead guilty, just like Roseanne. The secure care facility was constructed by the previous Northern Territory Labor government so that it could meet its legislative obligations in relation to people declared unfit to plead. However, in June last year, the new Country Liberal Party government decided to turn over half of the facility to an alcohol prison. They decided that the best way to deal with people with an alcohol addiction was to lock them up against their will. Every single expert in the field of treating alcohol addiction told the Northern Territory government that this approach would not work, but they pressed ahead regardless.

At the time the government announced that half of the secure care facility would be used for a forced alcohol treatment centre, the Northern Territory health minister said in a press release on 18 June last year:

The demand for adult secure care in Central Australia is well short of capacity.

So, in June last year, demand was well short of capacity, yet now we are getting the ridiculous excuse that the facility does not have the capacity to accommodate Roseanne Fulton. In January this year, I wrote on behalf of Roseanne to the relevant Northern Territory ministers, including the Minister for Health and the Attorney General. All I received from both offices were bureaucratic excuses. It was very clear that there was absolutely no will on the part of the government to have Roseanne released from prison. Remarkably, the email I received from the office of the Minister for Health, Robyn Lambley, even described the forced imprisonment of Roseanne in Western Australia as 'currently in care'. She is not in care. She is in prison.

I have heard a lot of bureaucratic jargon in my life but to describe someone in prison, against their will, without any conviction as being 'currently in care' is unbelievable. Unfortunately, this is typical of the current approach of the CLP government. They deal with health and social issues via the criminal justice system. If they can lock someone up then they will do it. Their mentality seems to be one of: when a difficult situation arises, the best response is to put the problem behind bars. Prison is seen as the solution to health and social issues. The government simply put all of these issues into the too-hard basket and then throw the basket into jail.

The Northern Territory government has introduced a raft of new laws in the last 18 months that all treat health and social issues with a criminal response. The mandatory alcohol treatment legislation means that people who have committed no crime, no offence at all, can be locked up against their will for having an alcohol addiction. Alcohol protection orders mean that people who have not been convicted of any crime or offence other than drinking can be sentenced to a prison term. Let me state very clearly that anyone who commits alcohol related crimes should face the consequences of the law. But I am talking about people who are simply drunk, people who have issues with alcohol, people who have committed no crimes but who are locked up all the same. There has also been the introduction of mandatory sentencing provisions, and all of these new laws will clearly lead to an increase in the incarceration of Aboriginal Territorians.

Aboriginal incarceration rates in Australian prisons have never been higher. In fact, countrywide rates of imprisonment are worse per capita for the black population of Australia than they were for the black population of South Africa during apartheid. If the Country Liberal government had decided 18 months ago that they wanted to lock up as many Aboriginal people as they possibly could, they would have not have done much differently from their current approach. They could not have done a much better job than what they are doing now. It is disgraceful.

Now we are seeing it again. In response to Roseanne's situation, the Northern Territory government have floated the idea that they will criminalise drinking while pregnant—yet another example of dealing with a health issue with a criminal justice response. The government could have said that they would increase education and awareness programs to actually help address the situation of women drinking whilst pregnant. They could have said they would put support structures in place to ensure that these women are taught about the dangers and implications of doing so and to encourage them not to drink whilst pregnant. And perhaps they could have asked the women why they are drinking when pregnant: what are the underlying issues here? But, instead, they decided that the best approach is to lock them up. The Northern Territory government are cutting education rather than investing in it. They say they care about the child, but is being born in prison really the best solution?

Legislation seems like a cheap, short-term response. It does not cost much to pass new laws. In the short term, it certainly costs less than education and awareness programs. But, in the long term, we know the costs of high incarceration rates are enormous, and that is what happens when you deal with health issues through the criminal justice system. Mr Vince Kelly is the head of the Northern Territory Police Association and the Police Federation of Australia. He summed it up best when, earlier this month on 7.30, he said:

… the fact of the matter is no matter what legislation we introduce, we're not going to arrest our way out of alcohol abuse and Aboriginal disadvantage in the Northern Territory.

In summary, I call on the Northern Territory and Western Australian governments to immediately release Roseanne Fulton from prison; I call on the Northern Territory government to reinstate the secure care facility to serve the purpose it was originally built for; and I call on all governments to stop responding to health issues by locking people up.

I would like to thank all of the people who have supported the call to have Roseanne Fulton released from prison. Over 100,000 people have signed the petition to free Roseanne. There is absolutely no doubt that the government would prefer that she was forgotten, but, much to the government's displeasure, Roseanne's advocates have certainly not forgotten her, and there are many of them—as I said, more than 100,000. I want to sincerely thank them for the work that they are doing to pressure these governments into doing what is right and just. Let's free Roseanne Fulton.