“If Abbott were to seriously take on the incarceration issue, he would have to openly and actively confront the issue of ongoing systemic discrimination against Indigenous Australians, and acknowledge its historical causes, including colonialism and racism.
That would mean talking to the nation plainly about deaths in custody and acknowledging the fact that a black man can still face violent treatment and be left to die in “protective custody” without police facing serious punishment.” Max Chalmers
According to the latest national figures, indigenous young people – who comprise just 5 per cent of the population – were detained at a staggering 31 times the rate of non-indigenous young people on an average night in June 2012. Most were yet to be sentenced (see report below)
School attendance is a far less controversial topic than Indigenous incarceration rates.
No wonder Tony Abbott made it the centrepiece of his ‘Close the Gap’ speech.
In the lead-up to the 2013 election, Tony Abbott took a brief moment out from his relentless denigration of the government to broach a policy area that usually doesn’t make the debate.
Cautiously, he vowed to be a prime minister for Australia’s first peoples.
“It is my hope that I could be, not just a prime minister, but a prime minister for Aboriginal Affairs,” he said
In an address to Federal Parliament yesterday, Abbott took a tentative step towards positioning Indigenous Affairs alongside the government’s holy trinity of policy talking points.
His government is “no less serious [about Indigenous Affairs] than it is about stopping the boats, fixing the budget, and building the roads of the 21st century.”
Putting Indigenous Affairs on the national agenda is a move that should draw praise. But the way Abbott has chosen to frame the issue raises questions about how serious his government really will be in its efforts to help overcome the outrageous disadvantage Indigenous Australians continue to experience.
Indigenous groups were quick to point out one particularly glaring omission from Abbott’s remarks.
“Today, Australia’s national shame is the mass imprisonment of Aboriginal people, particularly young people. Australia’s Aboriginal children are detained at the world’s highest rates,” Phil Naden, the NSW and ACT Aboriginal Legal Service CEO noted in a press release.
“More than half of the young people in detention today (over 52 per cent) are Aboriginal, and most are unsentenced.”
Indigenous incarceration indeed remains a national shame. The Australian Bureau of Statistics paints a bleak picture, with rates of incarceration continuing to rise markedly between 2002 and 2012. West Australia is beyond crisis point, with the rate of incarceration for Indigenous Australians 20 times higher than non-Indigenous.
Despite the 1991 Royal Commission, deaths in custody have increased, along with the surging incarceration rate. There is little reason to think that the next generation of Indigenous Australians will fare much better.
Instead of raising the issue of justice, Abbott framed his address around education. Truancy rates must be reduced, he said, and the time for excuses was over.
“Generally speaking, the more remote the school, the more excuses are made for poor attendance,” he observed, before pledging to end the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years. No reference was made to a similar standard with which to target improvements in justice outcomes.
“We were very surprised to hear there was no bipartisan commitment today towards incorporating justice targets into the Government’s Closing the Gap strategy,” Naden said on Wednesday.
Improving rates of Indigenous school attendance is an easy sell to white Australia. Everybody can get on board with sending kids to school; there is an implicit blame placed on Indigenous communities for failing to enforce school attendance, or teach their children adequate patterns of civil behaviour.
“One of the worst forms of neglect is failing to give children the education they need for a decent life,” Abbott said, following the statement up with a list of state and federal government programs designed to lower truancy rates.
But like his entire address, the line was left open, raising the question of who exactly is responsible for that neglect? This is the Liberal Party’s characteristic approach: the individual is to blame for their personal failings and societal causes don’t rate a mention.
If Abbott were to seriously take on the incarceration issue, he would have to openly and actively confront the issue of ongoing systemic discrimination against Indigenous Australians, and acknowledge its historical causes, including colonialism and racism.
That would mean talking to the nation plainly about deaths in custody and acknowledging the fact that a black man can still face violent treatment and be left to die in “protective custody” without police facing serious punishment.
It would mean taking on the state and territory governments – especially the Liberal ones – whose tough on crime policies disproportionately affect their Indigenous constituents.
It would mean investigating and policing routine police brutality, such as the recent taser attack by police on an Indigenous woman in Queensland, in which she lost an eye.
And it would mean facing off against a host of other powerful actors, like the Australian Hotels Association, who have succeeded in reversing the NT government’s efforts to limit liquor supply.
Abbott’s record on the issue is not strong so far. One of the Coalition’s nastiest election eve announcements was the decision to slash $42 million from Aboriginal legal aid, a figure that was significantly reduced after the election but will do much damage.
If he decides to pivot on the issue, and to devote the state’s energy and resources to lowering the almost unbelievable rates of incarceration, he will find a host of allies who are ready to take up the challenge. There is a growing awareness that by focusing state resources on policing and prisons we do nothing to attend to the causes of incarnation.
The justice reinvestment movement is starting to make this case publicly. There are also scores of Indigenous communities finding local solutions to the localised and diverse causes of incarceration.
There is some evidence to suggest the government will start to take an interest in such programs. Warren Mundine, the head of Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council today announced a program to help provide jobs training for Indigenous teenagers in WA.
Abbott has frequently used his time in outback Indigenous communities as evidence that he can succeed where so many previous PMs have either failed, or failed to even try. But if he is serious about using his position to help reverse the shameful disparity in living standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, he must make justice a top priority
Biana Hall SMH
Imagine if more than half the young people detained in Australia today were from Sydney. Imagine if they were white. Newspaper letter writers would whip themselves into a frenzy, GetUp! would run a national campaign and tens of thousands would take to the streets to march for the freedom of Australia’s children.
Instead, 53 per cent of young people in detention are indigenous. And instead of a national outcry, Australia is gripped by a national silence.
According to the latest national figures, indigenous young people – who comprise just 5 per cent of the population – were detained at a staggering 31 times the rate of non-indigenous young people on an average night in June 2012. Most were yet to be sentenced.
Last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivered a heartfelt speech on the government’s progress on the Closing the Gap goals to improve indigenous people’s health and life expectancy.
The news wasn’t good. Abbott said there had been ”almost no progress” in closing the decade-wide gap between the life expectancies of indigenous people and non-indigenous people. There had been ”very little improvement” towards halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy, and indigenous employment ”has, if anything, slipped backwards”.
”We are not on track to achieve the more important and meaningful targets,” Abbott said.
Declaring that Australia’s challenge was to ”break the tyranny of low expectations”, Abbott announced that from next year, indigenous school-attendance data would be included in the government’s Closing the Gap measures.
He set an ambitious target to lift the attendance rates of all schools to more than 90 per cent within five years (in very remote communities, just 31 per cent of children are meeting the minimum attendance standards).
It’s a very welcome start, but some observers were dismayed at what he didn’t say: that cutting the incarceration rate of indigenous people should be at the forefront of attempts to close the gap.
The NSW and ACT Aboriginal Legal Service has long called for justice targets to become part of the Closing the Gap goals.
Chief executive Phil Naden described the ”mass incarceration” of indigenous people as Australia’s ”national shame”.
“Disadvantage robs Aboriginal people of a long, healthy life, and the incarceration of Aboriginal people affects all targets.”
In 2011, a parliamentary inquiry recommended that justice targets become part of the overall Closing the Gap strategy. Contact with the justice system, it said, ”represents a symptom of the broader social and economic disadvantage faced by many indigenous people in Australia”.
”We have reached the point of intergenerational family dysfunction in many indigenous communities, with problems of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, inadequate housing, poor health and school attendance, and a lack of job skills and employment opportunities impacting on the next generation of indigenous Australians.”
So how, we should be asking, can we pretend the national shame of mass Aboriginal incarceration isn’t symptomatic of other problems?
For a moment, it looked like the federal government might act. Before last year’s election, Labor said it would include justice targets in the Close the Gap measures. In August, the Coalition’s indigenous affairs spokesman Nigel Scullion raised expectations when he told The Australian: ”We will be looking carefully at that and doing research to see how you implement another gap measure around this justice issue.”
But on Wednesday, the Prime Minister – who in December oversaw $13.4 million in cuts to indigenous legal aid funding over four years – made no mention of justice. Abbott said: ”I am confident of this: amidst all the mistakes, disappointment and uncertain starts, the one failure that has mostly been avoided is lack of goodwill.”
What we have so often lacked is political will