There is a word that comes up when people start talking about what’s changed in Bourke, the frontier town in north-western NSW: it’s ‘courage’. The word is simple, prone to overuse and frequently applied inappropriately. But not in Bourke. Not now, after the Bourke community looked to itself to tackle the problems of rising crime rates and social disadvantage.
In 2013, the local Indigenous leaders formed Maranguka (meaning ‘caring for others’ in Ngemba language) and partnered with Just Reinvest NSW as the first steps in shifting their future. The philanthropic support came from the Dusseldorp Forum and the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, who committed multi-year seed funding to the core costs of what became the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment team and the first justice reinvestment initiative in Australia. Six years later, the partnership has been recognized with the 2019 Large Grant Award.
The transformation across the six years has been remarkable. Here was a town that was isolated, not just because of where it was in the dry and hot NSW hinterland but also because of its reputation. Shutters were on main street windows. There were high rates of crime and imprisonment. Stories appeared in the mainstream media that compared Bourke’s crime rate with United Nations’ data and concluded Bourke was the most dangerous place in the world.
Local Alistair Ferguson, who had been working as a state public servant in the town, knew things had to change. “It didn’t seem overly ambitious to be a safe city,” Alistair says. “It comes down to expectations and lifting our standards, especially for our young people, to show them there was life beyond the levy banks of Bourke.”
The key to making the most of the new approach sounds simple, but it took perseverance, commitment and courage. For Alistair, the initiative’s key was that it is placed-based and community-led, which is why, he says, Bourke is demonstrating the early signs of what success looks like.
Maranguka is a First Nation’s model for self-governance that enables the community to determine its priorities and agenda for government and non-government services. By deciding to join up with Just Reinvest NSW, it meant the Bourke community was also committing to a place-based and data-driven approach to reduce crime and address its underlying causes.
Alistair left the security of his state government job to help co-ordinate the new initiative. He is the Founder Executive Director of the Maranguka Community Hub. But he was unemployed for eight months until it was financially up and running. In the interim, Alistair refused to go on Centrelink and he kept talking to the local community about the changes that were needed: young locals had to stay out of jail, family violence had to stop, and police needed to look more often at the causes of crime.
The concepts are not new: they date back to the recommendations from Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 20 years ago. But this time, it was different.
“What we’ve managed to do is involve the community and encourage the community that there’s a better way,” Alistair says. “Indigenous communities are often expected to align to other people’s versions of self-determination.”
The results are remarkable: a 42 per cent decline in the number of days adults spent in custody, a 39 per cent decline in domestic violence incidents reported to police and an 84 per cent increase in the VET course completion rate. An impact assessment found that the new approach had saved $3.1 million in 2017, driven by savings in the justice system but also social services and healthcare costs.
The practical aspects of the initiative were often simple and produced results: a learner driver program was implemented, which helped lead to fewer driving offences. Other changes involved communication and support: police would visit known family violence offenders and talk to them about how to reduce risk, by either drinking mid-strength beer or staying away from home when they drank. Collaboration, communication and community became the watchwords, between locals and the police.
One of the other important innovations has been the establishment of a unique governance structure that is embodied in the Bourke Tribal Council that represents the breadth of local Indigenous family and language groups. Alistair believes the philanthropic support has effectively provided the means for the Tribal Council to assert and apply cultural authority to the processes and procedures involved in the program.
Dusseldorp Forum executive director Teya Dusseldorp says that the changes are more likely to be sustainable because they are community led.
“When you hear as a Foundation that the community is committed to lead the change required, you really want to get behind them,” she says. “You can’t underestimate the courage required to do this. It can often come at a great personal cost.”
But she can see the difference that it makes. “As an outsider, I now go to Bourke and can see hopefulness, energy, excitement and possibilities for the future,” Teya says.
A local Aboriginal family has just opened a café in Bourke, which represents a significant expression of optimism. The protective shutters that have been on the windows on the main street shops remain, but the mood has changed.
Alistair believes that such “small wins can become big wins”. “I have a high level of optimism about the future,” he says. “Justice for Aboriginal people comes in all shapes and forms. And our Bourke community is engaged and participating like never before.”
This award is sponsored by Deakin University.