It seems children might show Canberra the way to becoming a "restorative community" – that was one of the themes to emerge from an event this week at the ACT Legislative Assembly.
If the term restorative practice has not come your way so far, you're going to be hearing it more and more. (Chances are you already engage in it, under another title.)
The concept poses some key questions: Why do the transformation at all? How could it be done? What would the outcome look like?
Those were the key points put to a high-powered audience at the Assembly under the banner, "Towards a restorative community." The audience members were keen to hear speakers explain what the concept was and how it works.
Restorative practice works to ensure everyone is heard, everyone who has a stake in a problem is included, solutions are worked out together and everyone has a part to play in making the solution work. These principles are already being practised – both formally and informally – in many places in Australia, such as schools.
The ACT Government is keen on the concept and has been running a restorative justice program for a decade, mostly under the radar.
Juvenile offenders are given a choice: go to court or come face to face with their victims. It's a confronting scene for all concerned and there's nowhere to hide for the offender. But it is producing excellent results and is being expanded.
Canberra has an internationally recognised expert in this field: Professor John Braithwaite, founder of the Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet) at the ANU.
He was a key speaker at this week's event, hosted by Attorney-General Simon Corbell, who said the government wanted to expand its thinking about restorative practices.
"The government has just committed to investing $2.1 million over four years for the expansion of the ACT's restorative justice scheme, to make this justice process an option that is available to all victims of crime in our community," Mr Corbell said.
"We know, after 10 years of operating in the juvenile justice area, restorative justice processes have proven overwhelmingly positive for participants, who have reported satisfaction rates of 97 per cent over the past three years.
"Given the success of this scheme, we should ask ourselves, 'Can restorative principles be extended to other areas?'
"We tend to think about restorative practices as only applying to the domain of justice, when in fact we could be thinking and asking questions about what a restorative approach would look like in the places we live, learn, work, play and pray; what would restorative approaches look like in our processes, in human resource management for instance, on our university campuses, in our directorates when dealing with each other, as colleagues or with those who are recipients of the services we provide.
"What might our sporting and recreational clubs look like if we adopted a restorative philosophy as a starting position?"
The audience included many well-known Canberra thought leaders: Chief Magistrate Lorraine Walker, Human Rights Commissioner Helen Watchirs, Relationships Australia chief executive Alison Brook, Victims of Crimes Commissioner John Hinchey and Canberra Raiders great Don Furner.
They convened to inject momentum into the campaign and to hear the thoughts of a star in the field, Professor Jennifer Llewellyn from Dalhousie University in Halifax. Her address was accompanied by short presentations from local representatives who use restorative practices.
One was Jan Day, who had retired the previous week as principal of Kingsford-Smith School at Holt. "I can't think of a more inspirational way to spend the first day of my retirement," she said, to sustained applause.
Ms Day had supervised the introduction of restorative practices to build a safe environment and introduce a culture of problem-solving.
"We wanted to focus on harm done rather than just the breaking of rules," she said. "However, I learned that moving from a punitive to a relational restorative paradigm is hard work."
She related a restorative conference, involving a kindergarten student and a year 2 tormentor, and their families.
Usually, the school would be considering a punishment but the kindergarten child didn't want that.
"What they wanted was for the year 2 child who had been teasing them to come and find them every morning when they arrived at school and to say to them, 'Hello, everything's going to be okay' – what a solution and what a very different way to what a punitive paradigm might have come up with," Day said.
Another speaker who demonstrated how wise children are was Rudi Lammers. The ACT Chief Police Officer related an event from 33 years ago when he was called to a burglary in Narrabundah.
The thief, caught holding a pillow slip full of Lego, was the boy from next door. But the nine-year-old victim offered the would-be thief half his Lego and invited him to come and play any time.
"But can you come through the front door, because Dad gets really cranky when you come through the window?" the boy said.
It was a life-changing event for the boy, who had climbed in the bedroom window several times. He appreciated the opportunity, changed his ways and is now making a success of his life.
Such good news stories are too rare.
In her keynote address, Professor Llewellyn cited the city of Hull where schools which have embraced the restorative approach to community have witnessed huge reductions in teacher absenteeism and significant improvements in student achievement.
"The breadth and depth of the group in this room is a fabulous starting place for this work, to bring together and share what you have done and are already doing that can form a basis for your shared knowledge, experience and commitment to taking a restorative approach to the whole of life in Canberra, that it might mark what it means to be a community here," the international visitor said.
You could be forgiven for thinking the professor was preaching to the choir, but the appearance of this leading figure in restorative theory and practice was a key motivating factor – she told the group Canberra's experience with restorative practices was recognised internationally.
And her message was that developing Canberra as a restorative community needed more than just expanding programs.
"One of the things that becomes clear through restorative work within the justice system is that securing just relationships needed for wellbeing, the wellbeing of individuals and communities, is not the work of the justice system alone," she said.
"Indeed this is the work of social/community services, child protection, health, education, economic development. This is the work of our social and political systems that have been created to help us flourish as communities, as a state.
"Meeting this challenge requires more than expanding existing programs or establishing new restorative programs.
"I think it requires an appreciation of the significance of a restorative approach as a different way of thinking about this common work across our social and political systems and structures.
"It requires an approach to the way in which we think about our communities, institutions and systems and how we work within them."
The visiting expert said a restorative approach started from a relational understanding of human beings, and what they need from one another.
"This means more than just that we live in relationships with one another. Of course this is true, but it says something more fundamental – that not only do we live this way but we could not live otherwise and that relationships are fundamental and formative, that who and what we are, who we can become, is formed and developed in and through relationships," she said.
"Once we see that we are relational, that we live in webs of relationship, some intimate and some broader social relationships, then we can also come to see that relationships can be positive or negative. For good or bad we are in this together.
"Indeed, isn't this the very core of the vision of a restorative community? The truth and knowledge of your connection to one another and how important it is to support and nurture good connections if you are to succeed together?
"But for as much as this is a story or picture of ourselves that fits with our lived experience, our knowledge of ourselves, it is not a truth that is reflected in many of our political and social institutions.
"We actually live, work and play in institutions, systems and community that are powerfully influenced by another story about who we are as people and what we need – a story of individualism.
"That says we are – or aim to become – independent individuals, able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, who should make our own decisions, see freedom as meaning lack of interference by others, as being left alone to do as we wish, who choose our relationships based on our self-interest and who need rights to protect us against the interference of others.
"When something goes wrong, we seek the individual who is responsible and ascribe blame and punishment, which is often about isolating or removing them from others in order to protect and deter.
"This story has profoundly shaped and affected our social and political institutions and our communities – in education, child protection, human resources, social services, human rights and justice.
"Yet despite the power of this story, our instincts and knowledge about who we are and what we need reveals itself in our frustrations with our existing systems and has resulted in significant innovations and reforms within systems.
"Insofar as our systems and structures are based on a story of who we are as people, that is not true they will fail, and continue to fail, all of us.
"Real change then requires changing this story, and efforts at reform and innovation need to understand that what needs changing is not just what we do within the system but the logic and approach of our systems, structures and institutions, or our ways of doing things themselves.
"More than tinkering within the system is required. Change must be rooted in a different way of thinking about human beings and about what it means to be a community and how to build healthy and strong communities, restorative communities.
"It is focused on asking, 'How can we live and work in ways that foster the connections to one another that we need to be well, to be safe and to flourish?'
"Being a restorative city then means more than using lots of restorative practices; it has to be about more than the way you do things but about why you do them that way.
"It is a vision of what it means to be community, to live in community, to be part of the Canberra community."