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Finding the Moree Way

Aboriginal people in the town famously visited by the Freedom Ride are taking an innovative approach to their community’s problems

Originally published by Inside Story 11 June 2021. Author: Robert Milliken

Moree might be booming thanks to cotton and other crops, but many of the benefits haven’t yet reached the local Aboriginal people, the Kamilaroi, who comprise at least a fifth of its 9000 people. “It’s still very much a town of the squattocracy,” says Lyall Munro, a local Kamilaroi leader. In this northwest NSW town his people have embarked on Australia’s latest bid to overcome that imbalance through a process known as justice reinvestment. It involves Aboriginal people themselves determining solutions to high crime and imprisonment among young black people in towns like Moree, after generations of governments have squandered the chance.

The project resonates with Moree’s history. Mention Moree to many, and one phrase crops up: the Freedom Ride. In 1965, inspired partly by civil rights campaigns in America, a busload of students from the University of Sydney spent a fortnight driving through northern New South Wales. The Student Action for Aborigines group included Charles Perkins, later a leading Aboriginal bureaucrat, and Jim Spigelman, later a chief justice of New South Wales.

The group set out to “publicise the appalling conditions under which our Aborigines live,” wrote journalist Fred Wells in the Canberra Times. The paper described those conditions as “shanty towns, where most blacks lived without sanitation, electricity and often water.”

Just seventeen years earlier, Australia had helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the racial segregation the freedom riders found in far-flung towns was shocking. In Walgett, about 200 kilometres west of Moree, the RSL club banned Aboriginal patrons except on Anzac Day, including those who had fought two decades earlier in the second world war. Cinemas in Walgett, Bowraville and elsewhere treated Aboriginal people the way America’s Deep South treated black Americans, forcing them to enter by separate doors and to sit in separate seats from whites. When a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal girl tried to challenge the ban in Bowraville, the theatre’s owner reportedly declared that it had always been policy to segregate, “and he would continue to enforce it.”

In 1955, a decade before the Freedom Ride hit Moree, the local council had passed an ordinance banning Aboriginal children from the town’s swimming pool. Amid a stand-off with police and hundreds of angry white townsfolk, Charles Perkins took in a small group of Aboriginal kids, and joined them in the pool. The freedom riders faced anger on the road, too. After they left Walgett for Moree late one night, a truck overtook their bus and tried to force it off the road. Bill Packenham, their driver, later quit the tour because it had “become too dangerous.” Another driver flew in to replace him.

Nothing like the Freedom Ride had been attempted in Australia before. It became something of a turning point in exposing the scope of inequalities and racism in Australia. In an editorial, the Canberra Times called for change: “The people of Moree and Walgett are especially angry because they know in their hearts that what the students say is true. There is colour prejudice in these towns, and in practice a round and ready kind of apartheid is the rule.”

Some Kamilaroi people credit the Freedom Ride with helping to trigger the constitutional referendum two years later, in 1967, in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to transfer power over Aboriginal affairs from the states to the Commonwealth.

To many, though, old attitudes and hurdles remain. The growing support among Aboriginal people and many legal experts for an approach like justice reinvestment could help solve problems that governments have largely ignored since the days of the Freedom Ride.

My own drive from Walgett to Moree last month was more peaceful than back then. Three years earlier, in 2018, I had visited Bourke, about 440 kilometres west of Moree along the same outback highway. Bourke had embarked on what has become Australia’s most successful bid by its Aboriginal people to use a justice reinvestment approach.

The town once had the highest conviction rate for Aboriginal children and teenagers in New South Wales. The state government’s response was to build more prisons.

Alistair Ferguson, a prominent Aboriginal figure in the town, was inspired by a different idea from the Open Society Institute, a New York think tank: devote the money instead towards resolving underlying causes of crime, and try to keep people out of prisons. His community formed a partnership with Just Reinvest NSW, a Sydney-based body advocating this “justice reinvestment” approach as public policy.

Its logic has defied governments, but it has helped Bourke’s “Maranguka” exercise become something of a showcase. In late 2018, five years after it started, the accounting firm KPMG reported substantial falls in juvenile offences and domestic violence, and a sharp rise in year 12 student retention rates. The project, it estimated, had saved Bourke’s criminal justice system about $3 million a year.

About twenty other Aboriginal communities, keen to do similar work, had already approached Just Reinvest NSW. A small grant from the state’s justice department helped produce a Justice Reinvestment Toolkit to give communities a better idea of what it was about. But limited funds have confined work so far to just two communities, Mount Druitt, a sprawling suburb in western Sydney, and Moree.

Mount Druitt and its surrounds (rather than Redfern, as many think) is home to Sydney’s largest Aboriginal population, about 9000 people, making it a strong candidate to test how justice reinvestment could work in a big urban area. Julie Williams, an Aboriginal woman who grew up in Mount Druitt, joined Just Reinvest NSW last year. Poor relations with police and high fine rates for young black people are the biggest problems, she says. Working with Baabayn Aboriginal Corporation, a group of western Sydney Elders, she and grassroots colleagues in the Western Sydney Watch Committee have started meeting with police in a bid to “reset the relationship.”

Work in Moree is further advanced. Located on the Mehi River, the town is a big business centre for the Gwydir River valley. Drawn by the region’s rich black soil plains, white settlers started arriving in the 1830s and, for the most part, have never looked back. It’s been a different story for the Kamilaroi people, said to be the second-biggest Aboriginal nation in eastern Australia after the Wiradjuri.

Fifty-six years after the Freedom Ride, inequalities remain deplorable. According to the 2016 census, fewer than half of Moree’s Kamilaroi people aged between fifteen and nineteen were in schools, compared with over two-thirds of non-Kamilaroi teenagers; less than a fifth of Moree’s Kamilaroi adults had completed year 12, compared with over twice that proportion for non-Kamilaroi people; just a quarter of Kamilaroi households were buying or owned a home, compared with almost two-thirds of other residents; and fewer than half of Moree’s Kamilaroi households had internet connection, compared with almost three-quarters of non-Kamilaroi people.

After the 1965 Freedom Ride, Charles Perkins told the press its “most important” aspect had been the “surprising degree of active support from the local Aboriginal people themselves.” Communities had anticipated their arrival with “strong interest”: Aboriginal people near Nambucca Heads, on the NSW north coast, had stood lookout on a hill for two days, watching for the students to come.

These attitudes were harbingers of what justice reinvestment is trying to achieve now: Aboriginal people determining their own approaches to solving problems, free from the directives of governments in faraway capital cities.

For Just Reinvest NSW, Moree seemed a logical place to help the local community start pursuing such an approach in 2019. After the Freedom Ride, Kamilaroi people had helped to form bodies like the Aboriginal Legal Service. Yet problems like high crime rates and school suspensions among young people seemed intractable. In late 2019 the NSW ombudsman reported that over a third of Aboriginal students at one Moree primary school and over half of Aboriginal students at a secondary school received short suspensions in 2017, the second-highest rates in each case among fifteen state “Connected Communities Schools.”

Experts talk of a “school to prison pipeline,” suggesting that children having trouble at school are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. The Australian Institute of Criminology calls it a “potential association between school experiences, including suspension, and later antisocial and violent behaviour resulting in incarceration.”

Similar problems plagued Bourke before justice reinvestment began to work. Moree faces the challenge of assembling a leadership group to pull together “a lot of moving parts,” as Alistair Ferguson also found in Bourke. And Moree’s overall population is about five times bigger than Bourke’s, making for a more complex task. So the Kamilaroi people are working out what they call a “Moree way” for justice reinvestment.

I arrived in time to hear how this is evolving. Among the several community leaders who had gathered for a meeting at the Dhiiyaan Aboriginal Centre in Moree’s main street were two local Kamilaroi women who now work for Just Reinvest NSW in Moree, Judy Duncan and Mekayla Cochrane. Duncan, “Moree born and bred,” has worked in the area for almost forty years, “through education and government,” as she puts it, and has “done time in the criminal justice system.” Cochrane, her younger colleague, joined Just Reinvest NSW late last year. “As a way to provide a platform for Aboriginal people, it’s a no-brainer,” says Cochrane. Joining them at this meeting were Jenny Lovric and Nicole Mekler of Just Reinvest NSW in Sydney.

“We’re trying to work out what the ‘Moree way’ is,” says Just Reinvest NSW’s Judy Duncan. Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

The local participants have set up working groups to enable Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal figures, police, school officials and others to talk to each other more productively and come up with locally designed approaches to problems. Like their counterparts in Bourke, they’ve also started building data to help track the problems.

“School suspensions and other education issues are big underlying problems in Moree,” Judy Duncan tells me. “We’re trying to work out what the ‘Moree way’ is. It’ll be Moree looking out for Moree, not government looking out for Moree. A community leadership group is starting to emerge on this. I love my community. It’s time we got things right. If the Aboriginal community can get it right, the rest of the community will, too.”

Just Reinvest NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Service have initiated a project with the Moree police aimed at cutting the number of young people who wind up in prison simply for breaching bail; a similar project is planned in Mount Druitt. Too often, young people are arrested for breaching bail conditions that are too onerous or that they can’t meet. The police have agreed to take a fresh approach by notifying the Aboriginal Legal Service of bail conditions earlier than before, allowing it to request amendments in certain cases.

“So far, it’s working,” says Helen McWilliam, officer-in-charge of Moree police, who presides over a staff of about fifty. “The last thing we want to see is more kids in the juvenile justice system.” Roger Best, crime manager of the New England police district, which embraces Moree, says twelve-year-olds were among the most prolific juvenile offenders, and that reoffending had been common. “But you can’t arrest your way out of these problems,” he adds. “Instead, justice reinvestment is about spending the money to address causes, so you can avoid spending money elsewhere later.”

Opening dialogues with the town’s big players is showing positive signs here. But some people at the Dhiiyaan centre tell me of other things that seem stuck in the past. More than sixty state and federal government services are located in Moree, but Kamilaroi people complain of trouble accessing them. Many feel that racist attitudes persist in everyday town life.

The Moree pool, the town’s flashpoint during the Freedom Ride, remains contentious. Owned by the shire council and run by a separate board, it was added to the list of National Heritage Places in 2013. The citation notes that the baths were a “stark example of official segregation” in 1965.

Many Kamilaroi people believe the exclusion goes on, in the form of a $9 entry price per person, making it unaffordable to poorer families, especially women looking after grandchildren over hot summer months. A Guardian Australia survey of public swimming pool fees in 129 local government areas last year found the Moree pool to be one of the two most expensive in the state.

“In the sixties you were excluded if you were black,” Judy Duncan says. “Now you’re excluded unless you’re rich.” Some reckon the two forms of exclusion are connected. Lyall Munro tells me, “The attitude lingers from the local government by-law in the 1950s that allowed segregation in this town. Nothing has changed for equality and liberty in Moree. It’s as though the Freedom Ride never happened.”

There’s growing support among legal experts for justice reinvestment as a way of keeping people out of prison and saving the criminal justice system money. The Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee have all called on governments to promote the idea and to back it with funds. For the most part, governments have declined to do so.

Almost a decade after it started, Bourke’s Maranguka exercise recently received a federal grant awarded to community projects in far-flung places, although Bourke’s appears to have been the only grant for justice reinvestment. The funds were modest: $35 million shared among ten communities over five years.

The work in Moree and Mount Druitt relies almost entirely on the goodwill of private philanthropists. The backers comprise a diverse mix of family foundations, legal firms and finance firms. The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Bill and Patricia Ritchie Foundation are supporting work in both places. The Paul Ramsay Foundation is supporting Just Reinvest NSW and site-based work. The Charitable Foundation, a private fund chaired by Steve Killelea, is involved with Moree. Herbert Smith Freehills, a law firm, is funding the Bail Project in Moree and Mount Druitt. Other law firms help with pro bono work. IAG, an insurance company, is funding some work in Mount Druitt. The Dusseldorp Forum, another family foundation, and one of the first funders at Bourke, is still involved there.

Most philanthropists prefer to keep the amounts they’re giving confidential. At least two others have given in-kind support: Dell Computers, with help from the law firm King & Wood Mallesons, gave one hundred laptops to Moree so students could keep schoolwork going remotely when schools closed amid the pandemic.

After learning of the Bourke project three years ago, VivCourt Trading, a Sydney finance firm, met Sarah Hopkins, co-chair of Just Reinvest NSW, to learn more. “We were inspired,” says Rob Keldoulis, VivCourt’s founder. The firm now supports a community-led OzTag team for Aboriginal men in Mt Druitt and youth advocacy in relation to policing and the criminal justice system. It has also helped Just Reinvest NSW save on rent by extending the lease on premises in Potts Point, Sydney, that VivCourt was vacating. “They can create roots and it gives them certainty,” Keldoulis says. “If we can help scale justice reinvestment up this way, hopefully governments can get behind it.”

The Justice Reform Initiative, an advocacy group launched last year, is calling for similar reforms to the criminal justice system, but on a broader scale. Chaired by Robert Tickner, a former federal Aboriginal affairs minister, it argues that governments have long used imprisonment as a “default response to disadvantage.” In early May, the group launched their campaign in Tasmania where the state governor, Kate Warner, hosted a reception.

Tickner is impressed by work in Bourke, Moree and Mount Druitt: “The Aboriginal people have been forced to do the heavy lifting for criminal justice reform.” But, he says, the next crucial step is missing: government support.

To gauge local government support I visited the mayor of Moree Plains Shire Council, Katrina Humphries, at Fishabout, her seafood shop in East Moree. Humphries has a strong political pedigree: thirteen years as mayor, she is the daughter of the late Wal Murray, a former NSW National Party leader and deputy premier.

Fishabout seems to be Humphries’s unofficial office, making for more relaxed chats with visitors than a slightly intimidating council chamber. As I arrive, she’s finishing a meeting at a dining table with Craig Jenkins, director of the NSW government’s regional office for New England and the state’s northwest. Jenkins happens to be a Kamilaroi man who grew up in Moree, and is back in town to discuss two big projects.

“We want Australia to know how important it is for Aboriginal people to have a say about their own lives”: the Moree Local Aboriginal Land Council’s Lloyd Munro.

Moree will be the hub for one of six Special Activation Precincts the NSW government is planning across the state to encourage investment in regions. Some of these precincts, including Moree’s, also lie along the route of the proposed Inland Rail from Melbourne to Brisbane, one of Australia’s biggest infrastructure projects. Humphries expects the first freight train on this line to roll into Moree in 2024–25. The master plan for Moree’s precinct, launched in May, claims it will create jobs by supporting local industries in what it says is already the most productive grain region in Australia.

What are the prospects of its creating jobs for Kamilaroi people? “Enormous,” Humphries replies. Her council includes no Aboriginal members, but she says it aims for 20 per cent of its employees to be Aboriginal. I ask about disquiet that Moree pool’s high entry fee still makes many Kamilaroi people feel excluded. She explains that the shire’s three pools, including Moree’s, have combined “community service obligation” costs of about $700,000 a year. The $9 fee, she adds, is “not as expensive as a packet of cigarettes.”

Humphries doesn’t shy away from identifying Moree’s broader problems: petty crime; drugs, which she notes are not confined to the Aboriginal community; too few case workers for vulnerable young people; and too high rates of Aboriginal incarceration. Her response is straightforward. “I’m a capitalist,” she says. “I believe people need to work, earn their own money and be proud of that.”

It doesn’t sound like the sort of collegial approach that drives justice reinvestment, but Humphries supports that exercise nonetheless. She’s “very interested” by what’s happening in Bourke and says, “The way forward is that our Aboriginal community has to be run by Aboriginal people. We can’t keep doing things in a cycle that’s doomed.”

Craig Jenkins was unavailable for an interview, but people involved in Moree’s justice reinvestment project who met him in town say he seems “passionate” about the Aboriginal community’s benefiting from the Special Activation Precinct.

So far the signs look promising, according to Lloyd Munro, Lyall’s brother, who is vice-chairman of the Moree Local Aboriginal Land Council. The Munro family have played distinguished roles for at least two generations, fighting for Aboriginal rights in Moree and around Australia. Lloyd’s father, Lyall Munro Senior, received a state funeral in Moree last year to honour his work. As children, two of Lloyd’s brothers responded to the Freedom Ride. Lyall Munro Junior recalls joining a bus to town from the mission where they lived, “and the townspeople pelted us with stuff.”

Encouraged by Charles Perkins, Dan Munro was among the first Aboriginal children to get into the Moree pool. Noeline Briggs-Smith, a local Aboriginal researcher, has recorded Dan Munro’s account: “We were just nine-year-old kids and we were crying, we were upset, we didn’t know where we were going. But even when we got into the pool we were uncomfortable because we knew, as people, we weren’t supposed to be there. We were shamed, but the students took the shame away from us and let us know we were part of this world.”

Lloyd Munro wants justice reinvestment to be a further step in making Kamilaroi people “part of this world.” Through the Aboriginal lands council, he’s having regular talks with Inland Rail and Special Activation Precinct officials to make sure the Kamilaroi people are part of the story. About seven Kamilaroi people already work at a new village for Inland Rail workers built on Carmine Munro Avenue, a street named after his mother; it’s a small proportion of the 300-odd workers the village is designed to accommodate.

He agrees education is still a “key problem” for Kamilaroi teenagers. For this reason, he’s excited about a youth forum that Moree’s justice reinvestment participants are planning in November, followed by an education summit soon afterwards. “I don’t think Moree has ever had events like this. It will be a very significant chance to address underlying issues.”

Committees, boards and NGOs have long run young Aboriginal people’s lives, he says. Now “it’s time to get youth involved. They can come to these big gatherings. We want Australia to know how important it is for Aboriginal people to have a say about their own lives.” •

The publication of this article was supported by grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

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