713. Background. The Strelley Community, comprising 500-600 people, is situated about 40 kilometres inland from Port Hedland (WA) although in recent years there has been a great deal of movement away from Strelley Station so that people are now spread over a number of properties. It is a very self-contained and independent community with strong leadership. No police are stationed there. Strelley has a unique background. The Aboriginal people living there are part of a large group of Aborigines who walked off pastoral properties in the area in 1946. In part the strike was in protest at working conditions and the treatment to which they were subjected, but it was also a protest against the repeal of the Constitution Act 1889 (WA) s 70, which had provided a guarantee of public expenditure on behalf of the colony’s Aboriginal population. This walk-out breached a number of Western Australian laws, in particular the Native Welfare Act 1905 (WA), and resulted in a number of persons, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, spending time in gaol. More recent events have included various mining ventures and the purchase of a number of pastoral properties. The Strelley Community now runs several pastoral properties which employ approximately half the people living there.
714. Decision-Making and Dispute Resolution. This struggle for survival has strongly shaped the community’s approach to management of its affairs. Decision-making is on a communal basis: decisions are made in regular meetings involving the whole community, with everyone being given the opportunity to participate. Even dissolution of marriages are apparently formalised or settled at community meetings. The resolution of disputes and the hearing of cases involving offences against local law and order are dealt with in this way. It is not clear if the procedures at community meetings are the same for the different matters dealt with. The Commission has been told that meetings to hear evidence against offenders and to consider punishments involve persons present sitting in a large circle in positions according to their skin group and family relationships. The accused persons will sit inside the circle strategically placed according to the position of the accusers and of their own families who may have to speak on their behalf. Certain persons are assigned the role of negotiators. The meeting is highly organised and all attending understand their role.
It is not a free-for-all; it is not a lot of people accusing — the protocol and the structure is every bit as clearly defined as in a courtroom.
715. ‘The Ten-Man Committee’. In order to deal with law and order problems the community selects what is called the ‘ten-man committee’. The committee’s function to apprehend and bring wrongdoers before a community meeting. The meeting will then consider the behaviour of the offender and determine an appropriate punishment. The ‘ten-man committee’ cannot, however, act unilaterally:
… it cannot go off and act by itself. It must have the agreement of the community. In other words, the Committee does not initiate the action; the community initiates the action.
The jurisdiction of the ‘ten-man committee’ is not limited to the boundaries of the community. It regularly visits Port Hedland and other localities to apprehend persons. The range of offences for which persons may be picked up and returned to the community are quite broad: some may involve breaches of kin or community obligations but many are alcohol related. Some young persons are picked up because their drinking habits are considered detrimental to their health and welfare. Alcohol is certainly perceived by the people at Strelley as a major destructive factor to Aboriginal people and their culture.
716. Links with the General Legal System. While the activities of the ‘ten-man committee’ in Port Hedland or elsewhere have no official sanction from the general legal system, the members of the committee have on occasions been assisted by the local police. The extent of this assistance depends, it seems, on the particular personnel stationed at the Port Hedland police station from time to time. The activities of the ‘ten-man committee’ and the lack of any formal liaison with the local police can mean that a person will be dealt with under both systems: by the ordinary courts and by the Strelley community. The Commission had discussions at Strelley about the possibility of formalising the role of the ‘ten-man committee’ in some way, for example, by its members wearing a uniform or badge of some kind. It was suggested that this may improve the police understanding of who they were and what they were doing and perhaps prevent problems resulting from non-recognition. A further difficulty, of course, is the possibility that certain of the actions of the ‘ten-man committee’ could involve breaches of the law and leave members of the committee liable for prosecution. Some official recognition of their role may, perhaps, prevent this. There was no clearly expressed view of the community members on the desirability of such changes, most implying that because the system worked satisfactorily at present there was no need to change it.
717. Sanctions. While the Commission has little information on the format of the public meetings held at Strelley it has been told of the following sanctions:
ridicule or shaming;
banishment from the community (usually to one of the neighbouring communities);
In rare cases physical sanctions are administered (‘a little bit of a hiding’) but the community apparently does not approve of spearing. On occasions, the community will pay the fine of a person who has come before the Magistrate’s court. If this happens the person is regarded as being in debt to the community and may have to perform some community work as a result.
718. Comment. Information about the processes of decision making and the informal justice mechanisms at Strelley is limited, but it gives some idea of the way in which the attempts are made to resolve problems and to interact with the general legal system. The reality of the broader legal system is accepted and accommodated, but is not regarded by the people as the way in which they would seek to resolve all their problems. In a similar way to Yirrkala, it seems that certain matters are seen as being within the jurisdiction of the general legal system, while others are to be resolved locally.