High Court's William Bugmy ruling 'a good call?
It is always sad when a person's self-worth diminishes into a life of criminal activity or poor mental health but it is somewhat reassuring that the High Court has set a precedent and disagrees with the Criminal Court in that suffering does not diminish in time. Suicide and self harm rates show that mental illnesses which manifest later in life stem from entrenched personal issues—or negative mental tapes.
In the William Bugmy case before the High Court where lawyers for the defence argued that Mr Bugmy's cultural history should be considered in sentencing him for an assault on a Police Officer, such a conclusive defence was disregarded. The High Court did however agree to take into account Mr Bugmy's ill mental health in the decision making which, and like Mr Bellear (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-10/bellear-aboriginal-disadvantage-and-the-law/5011950) said to the ABC's Drum blog, the outcome is nothing new in determining sentences as many courts will consider mental illness, however to have the precedent set by a High Court judge means that in all courts the mental health and background of a person should be considered in the present. In respectful contrast to Mr Bellear I believe that this aspect of the case's outcome should indeed be celebrated.
The High Court didn't factor in ancestral, historical or heritage related suffering and rightly so in my view (and yet again in respectful difference to Mr Bellear), while an injustice anywhere is an injustice to everybody everywhere, the right way to go about addressing current or prior injustices to a people is to fight for a better future. Lapsing into criminal behaviour may stem from mental illness but it grows from personal circumstances; heading down a road of crime on behalf of the struggles of our people is not respecting our people and it should never be used as a defence for criminal grievous behaviour.
Behaviours stemming from poor mental health have a personal catalyst not a cultural one (as in the Bugmy case), behaviours of activism and civil disobedience is a different matter and should be (depending on their severity) able to be defended in a cultural context. Just because you're a First Australian does not mean all your negative actions are defensible by your cultural history. In short, if one's personal background is one of Stolen Generation, forced adoption or missionary abuse and personally directed cultural denigration by the State or Church, then in that sense the "greater" cultural struggle should be relevant in one's sentencing. On the other hand, if one's background is simply of low socio-economic, perhaps a home of substance abuse and misuse, low quality of life due to lack of mainstream education and employment opportunities—as is now the contemporary circumstance by and large, then simply being of Aboriginal heritage should not excuse you over someone of another ethnic background but has similar life circumstances.
Our first priority is to be accountable for our own actions and further to support the healing of those who suffer from poor mental health. I hope that combination of sentiments is what people take away from the High Court's ruling in this case.
Jack Andrew Wilkie-Jans
A&TSI Affairs Advocate