Be very wary of politicians such as Peter Dutton sounding the youth crime alarm

Opinion piece by CCA CEO, David Crosbie, published in the Canberra Times, 20 April 2023

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and the “no” Voice campaigners appear keen to make the link between youth crime, child abuse and the Voice – I for one am struggling to make the connection.


Firstly let’s look at the issue of youth crime and wellbeing. Because here Dutton is returning to an established pattern of alarmist politicking. Youth crime is apparently out of control again, a national emergency that needs a quick fix. Or so we are being told. 


The first major academic paper I ever delivered was at a national criminology conference. I was a probation officer and a teacher who had taught in Pentridge Prison and Turana Youth Centre. My paper was about young offenders and the power of positive engagement. 

In the 30 years since, I have seen the political weaponisation of crime, particularly youth crime, repeated many times by many different politicians. In the narratives behind most law-and-order platforms, we rarely hear words like equality, hope, opportunity. This applies whether we are talking about Western Sydney, Townsville, or even Alice Springs.


In the 90s I was directly involved in developing responses to alcohol-fuelled crime in Alice Springs. I chaired forums of local businesses, police, officials, charities, and various Indigenous communities. No one believed the solution to youth crime was turning Alice Springs into a police enclave with gated communities. Everyone wanted their kids to have more opportunities than they experienced. The highest priority strategy across the many interest groups was creating meaningful and workable pathways to employment, particularly for Indigenous young people. 


I have little respect for politicians who call out crime, while at the same time promoting strategies that will further discriminate against marginalised young people. Prisons and youth training centres should never be seen as garbage dumps for our troublesome youth, places where we can punish and hide away those we deem to be the failures and misfits, the impoverished and unhealthy.


Across all our communities, we offer advantages to some of our children and disadvantages to others. We may think we are a fair go society, but young people across Australia experience vastly different opportunities to succeed.


Of course, there is no excuse for crime. Every offender I have met has a reason for their crime, but that doesn’t justify their actions. The most important question is how we react to offending and alienation from our communities. Ignoring or justifying crime is not a solution, but neither is further marginalising and withdrawing opportunities from young people. 


There have been thousands of studies around the world on youth crime and we know what works. If politicians are serious about reducing youth crime, they can start by putting aside the megaphone politics, the law-and-order campaigns, and the cheap shots at people doing the best they can. Listen, not just to the outraged who can provide alarmist talking points, but to the kids themselves. Take the time to know them, find their strengths and build on them. 


We can draw on the positive power of youth, including positive youth justice which has now proven to be effective in international research and practice. We know that investing in strength-based programs reduces crime, increases wellbeing and productivity. 


Unfortunately, in Australia most of the charities and community groups running strength-based programs lack the resources to operate at scale and document their impact, so they are not valued for the work they do. At the Community Council for Australia we see this every day – programs that are making a real difference in people’s lives often struggle to find the money they need to keep operating.


And so to the Voice. Mr Dutton and the “No” campaigners are right to say the Voice is not a magic wand, a quick fix, an instant solution to youth crime, child abuse, domestic violence, lack of housing, employment, healthcare or better educational outcomes. But they should also acknowledge that the Voice is a way to try and improve our ongoing failure to address Indigenous disadvantage across our communities. The Voice does not compel any government or senior official to do anything, other than listen.


How effective the Voice can be, whether or not it can impact Indigenous youth crime, child abuse and other issues, is likely to depend on governments themselves. Will they be prepared to invest in the under-funded local organisations that are making a difference? The one thing we know for certain is that it is charities and community groups who will be left to pick up the pieces after the alarmist politicians and their media entourage leave town.