Moriarty Foundation CEO: Indigenous perspectives must be heard in the law

Joanna Shulman on what the legal profession can do about the high incarceration rates of First Nations people

Moriarty Foundation CEO: Indigenous perspectives must be heard in the law
Joanna Shulman

For Joanna Shulman, it is critical for Indigenous perspectives to be incorporated in the law given the high rates of incarceration among First Nations peoples. While initiatives are in place to enhance Indigenous representation in the law, she believes the legal profession has a long way to go.

In the second part of this interview, Shulman explains the essence of law, and what modern day Australia can learn from Indigenous communities. 

Do you feel that in recent years, the legal profession has gotten better at handling issues involving First Nations peoples?

I think there is a greater recognition and understanding of the importance of concepts like codesign in programs impacting Indigenous peoples. But as a profession, I still think we have a long way to go. Incarceration rates for Indigenous peoples are not going in the right direction.

Funding for organisations, like the Aboriginal Legal Service is also not increasing – it's actually going the opposite direction in terms of addressing needs. 

There are some great programs that are starting to be set up in terms of scholarships and other initiatives to encourage Indigenous peoples to study law and to work in law firms. But I think until we have systems in place that allow the structures themselves to be changed, to incorporate more Indigenous perspectives into things like the structure of the legal system, sentencing options, bail laws, we've got a long way to go.

In your new role as Moriarty Foundation CEO, are there any specific programs or initiatives that you’re especially eager to get into?

There are some great initiatives at Moriarty Foundation, and I was really excited to be working with the Foundation because of its approach of centering community and community-led solutions in its work. It's really challenging to do that work through the law – Western legal systems are not particularly good at incorporating Indigenous approaches to justice, with the exception of a few initiatives.

Moriarty Foundation has successfully co-designed programs with Indigenous communities that address systemic issues, and I'm really excited to be working in an organisation that's a leader in doing this. 

John Moriarty Football (JMF), for example, employs and trains local Indigenous coaching teams to deliver a football (soccer) skills program to Indigenous school kids from remote areas. But they don't just deliver football skills, they're also impacting education and wellbeing outcomes, and the power of sport to achieve this is well documented.

We had a recent evaluation that found 80% of 70 classroom teachers, principals and heads of departments across the 20 public schools JMF delivers to, believe JMF improves school attendance, concentration, readiness to learn and positive behaviours on the days JMF is provided. Relating that back to the legal system, with increasing rates of imprisonment of Indigenous young peoples, I'm really excited about this program. It's a form of diversion from the criminal justice system, it also promotes early intervention and youth wellbeing. 

Another program that Moriarty Foundation runs and that I'm also really excited about is Indi Kindi, which has been co-designed with community on Country. This early years program for birth to 5 years olds in remote Aboriginal communities is achieving significant outcomes for the education, health and wellbeing of the Indigenous communities where it operates.

Early years education is so important in terms of delivering outcomes for kids. Indi Kindi is run 100% by Indigenous educators, outdoors on Country. The program incorporates Aboriginal approaches to pedagogy combined with best practice Early Childhood Education frameworks.  

  • Deloitte Access Economics recently evaluated the program, and found that the early years can have the greatest influence on life trajectories for Indigenous children and where the return to investment is the highest. Without the right experiences in  formative periods before five years of age, the likelihood of positive health, educational and social outcomes to later childhood in adulthood is reduced.

Indi Kindi has consistently improved these outcomes in Borroloola, NT, where Indi Kindi began, surpassing outcomes for similar neighbouring communities, including longer term education, employment and health outcomes.

So that's a really exciting program, and it's one that's disrupting the worsening trends in the Closing the Gap targets on early childhood, and children not being developmentally on track.

The other thing Moriarty Foundation does which is great is the Moriarty Cup, which runs in September every year at the Allianz Stadium in Sydney. It is an opportunity for corporate teams to put on some football boots, join some teams and play against some wonderful Indigenous football players and some other football greats as well.

How can the legal profession better address the issues surrounding the high incarceration rates of First Nations peoples?

I think the legal system does not incorporate Indigenous worldviews into its structures and systems very well at all, and what we need to do as a profession, and as other professions are starting to do, is meaningfully engage and learn from Indigenous perspectives in our work. So I would say that the law at its essence is about social order. And Indigenous communities have been, for centuries, successfully creating social cohesion and sustainability in Australia. Now more than ever, and given the state of Australia and the world, we've got a lot to learn from them. 

So we need to ensure that Indigenous perspectives are heard in the law. This might be through hiring more Indigenous lawyers, supporting Indigenous businesses, ensuring that we spend time in remote communities and immerse ourselves in the Country's ancient wisdom and continually ask ourselves the question, how can we incorporate Indigenous perspectives into our work and in the design of the legal system? And how can we change systems and structures to ensure that Indigenous voices are heard? So, I'd encourage looking at employment practices, immersion experiences for workplaces, supporting Indigenous students to study law, and signing up to the Moriarty Cup in September, which will support the work of organisations like Moriarty Foundation in the community.

As the new Moriarty Foundation CEO, what kind of legacy would you want to leave on the organisation and the legal industry as a whole?

I believe deeply in the work of Moriarty Foundation because it is Indigenous led, Indigenous designed and Indigenous delivered. So in terms of legacy, I actually think it's not my legacy that's important – it's the legacy of the Indigenous employees, workers, communities that it works with that are important. So taking it in the direction that they dictate is something I'd like to see. 

But having said that, I think it's a program that's been shown to work. I would love to see it expand across Australia. I think it's a powerful program in terms of early intervention and setting Indigenous kids up to thrive. And it's had proven results, so that's what I would love to see, in terms of Moriarty Foundation.

I would love to see the legal profession engage with programs like Moriarty Foundation to a greater extent. Moriarty Foundation’s long term legal partner, MinterEllison has been a wonderful supporter and is always looking to learn more and promote the work we do, its impacts and our approach.

So really just think outside of our siloed work of the law and think more expansively in terms of how we can support and get involved in cross-sector solutions. And by that I mean, looking at early intervention programs, diversionary programs, supporting structures that allow kids to stay away from the legal system.

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