The Barr Government’s announcement yesterday of a free City Loop bus in Civic highlights the utter contempt and disregard shown to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged Canberra residents.
Oaks Estate, the government’s own ghetto, continues to have no ACTION bus whatsoever, free or not. But Civic, already saturated with ACTION bus routes providing abundant access will now benefit from a free, 5.2km City Loop bus provided 49 times a day to people over distances they could easily walk. In most cases, it will take people less time to walk CityLoop distances than to wait for the meandering bus.
Oaks Estate needs public transport far more than most areas: Oaks Estate is 54% public housing, compared to an ACT average of 7%. Functional (real) unemployment is over 40%. Since 2010 the ACT Government has concentrated a rehabilitation and reintegration program for parolees with complex mental health issues in Oaks Estate. There are currently 50 parolees dumped into remote public housing and abandoned, left to fend for themselves, and the ACT Government shows little interest in helping to rehabilitate or reintregrate them.
For the last 5 years, the ACT Government has repeatedly refused to provide an ACTION service despite the explosion in crime and drug use. Previous Transport Minister Shane Rattenbury actually said to one constituent, “a bus isn’t going to change anything, it’s not going to stop the [IV drug] needles”.
This parolee program needs to be treated far more seriously by the government.
Canberra’s failed jail has been overcrowded since opening and was 25% over capacity for years, making AMC far more violent. Inside AMC, drugs are abundant but the government refuses to take effective measures to curb drug use. The Auditor General shredded the operation of the jail last year as “ineffective”, “inadequate” and “compromise[d]”, citing the yawning chasm between the 30 hours of diversionary, drug treatment and rehabilitation programs inmates should be offered, and the 5 hours they actually get. Rehab programs matter, when 73% of AMC inmates have substance abuse issues and 69% have experienced suicidal ideation.
And now an inmate who was viciously bashed in jail last year and feared for his life has died there, in a tragedy made more so by how easily it could have been avoided had the government simply responded to the alarm bells ringing for years.
That is what parolees emerge from – an overcrowded and violent environment with drugs flowing freely and far too little education and counselling available to help inmates break the cycle.
They emerge into the parolee program in Oaks Estate, a remote suburb ringfenced by the current ACT Government’s refusal to provide public transport. Crime doubled since the program started in 2010. There is precious little access to jobs or training, to medical and support services, to cultural institutions, to family and friends. The link between social isolation and mental health is well known, as is the link between clustering disadvantaged men and crime. Simon Corbell made this last point in parliament, but it appears to have been no more than lip service.
So the government’s dogged refusal to provide an ACTION bus despite dumping scores of parolees in Oaks Estate should be seen for what it is: setting these guys up to fail, out of sight, out of mind. People coming out of prison should not be cut off from society and left to fend for themselves. How society treats them defines who we are. This budget makes clear who Andrew Barr is.
The five key things parolees need in order to break the cycle, and successfully rehabilitate and reintegrate are all secured and reinforced by ready access to public transport: education, employment, access to healthcare, transitional support services, and appropriate housing. Ring-fencing such a high-risk high-needs cohort should never have happened, but this budget should have stopped that disaster from continuing.
Sure public transport costs money (as does a free City Loop bus), but the return is significant: reduced recidivism and improved employment and treatment outcomes. This should matter in Canberra, given the ACT has the highest rate of recidivism in Australia by a mile (table C4). And the government should be serious about reducing recidivism, given that the ACT Police have the lowest clearance rates for crime of any police force in Australia (table C7).
How tragic that another alarm bell has been ringing for years but the government remains deaf to it, preferring instead an unnecessary and expensive free bus in an area which needs it least at the expense of those who needs it most.