Human rights

Mounting abuses in youth detention need Indigenous-led solutions

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With ever more reports surfacing about child abuse and torture in Australia's detention centres, Bruce Haigh says it's time for Indigenous empowerment.

INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS are yet again asking to be empowered.

Requesting government, ever so politely, to be given the power to shape their lives.

It should not be a big ask but it is.

Colonial paternalism is alive and well. Noblesse oblige still buzzes around inside some carefully coiffured white middle-class heads. The "dear little black baby" syndrome still also exerts some pull.

But overriding all notions and motivations of duty on the part of bureaucrats, churches, non-government organisations, social and anthropological research institutions and business groups, is the sure fire and fixed belief that Aboriginal people cannot handle money.

All of the above will tell you, that many Indigenous Australians have a propensity to burn it up, piss it up and give it away. Maybe they do, but then when you treat people like children, they tend to behave like children. When you offer people no respect, they tend not to respect themselves and then when you are racist you tend to make people angry.

Now the white man may not believe him or herself to be racist, they may go out of their way not to be racist, they may suppress it in non-white company but the person who is not white and middle class will pick it up in a flash. It’s the condescension, it’s the awkwardness, it’s the body language and it’s the conversational tone. It’s the inability to converse in any meaningful way, to get on the wave length. It’s the lack of understanding of others lives, struggles and pain. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.

And there are those who are down and out racists, cruel and crude or those who are conniving and calculating who want to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

But what they all of the above have in common is that Aboriginal people are not allowed to make mistakes with money, so they are often not allowed to manage it or even to have it. Never mind that less than "well intentioned" white people are allowed to manage the money, pinch it, or rip it off with poor quality work in housing and other infrastructure. Some black people have joined forces with white Australians and steal and rip off their brothers and sisters. That’s what happens when you put a race of people in a metaphorical ghetto and create conditions where the only way "out" is over the backs of those brothers and sisters.

Not being allowed to make mistakes or being cut any slack means that a lot of Indigenous people are put in prison. For some young men it is a rite of passage — cruelly so, as we saw recently in the Northern Teritory. This has been followed by a recent Amnesty International report of widespread abuse of minors, amounting to torture, in Queensland. Shame, Australia!


Abuse of drugs and alcohol and each other is common in some Aboriginal communities. It always is among the dispossessed and marginalised. People behave badly when stripped of hope and denied respect. Working class East Newcastle in the late 1940s could be a cesspool on a Friday night. Booze, fights, the sound of breaking glass, women screaming, kids running — low pay and no hope. Aboriginal people don’t behave badly because they are Aboriginal — although listening to John Howard and Adam Giles you would think so. They behave in relation to the way they have been treated from the time of white settlement until today.

So what about empowerment? Well it’s not happening because an industry has developed around Aboriginal despair and hopelessness. It’s now sustained by fleets of Prados and zealous white middle class and middle-aged white people, who know what is best for the dispossessed.

Funding policies are designed in Canberra and Sydney with scant regard to empowerment. These projects are designed to rescue the natives from themselves. From breakfast programs to foster care, to housing, health and education, white public servants and NGO service providers know best. They know that Aboriginal children should not be taught in their own language and so scant resources are spent on developing educational tools around language. Nor are kids and parents consulted on the most appropriate way of teaching. White teaching models are dumped on Indigenous communities.

Millions of dollars are wasted on white superimposed programs, not least of all on salary packages. White middle class "social workers" and other "experts" are paid packages of between $90,000 to $150,000 to administer their paternalism. This allows them to maintain their white middle class status and standard of living and bolsters their sense of entitlement. Off duty, most do not mix with their"‘clients". They deliver and then desert.

Many, if not most, Aboriginals in remote communities want to continue to live there. Whites, who control the purse strings, say no. Most whites don’t want to live in remote Aboriginal communities any longer than is necessary to see out generous contracts or collect the benefit of some housing or infrastructure scam. Of course, there are exceptions — there always are.

Many Indigenous Australians are warehoused in prison. In fact, thousands are. The population of Australia is 24 million, of which 500,000 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. That is about three per cent of the population. However, more than 28 per cent of the prison population is Indigenous — 15 times higher than the non-Indigenous population. The rate of incarceration is 2,340 per 100,000 of Indigenous Australians — probably higher. The national average is 200 per 100,000 of the Australian population; there are 38,000 people in detention in Australia, not counting refugees. (Source: ABS).

Aboriginal youths are imprisoned at a rate 24 times greater than white youths. In WA, one in 13 are in prison. Clearly the white "programs" are not working. This industry exists to hand out money; accountability revolves around who has received the money rather than the long term effectiveness of the hand outs. It is easy to hand out money.

If just some of the money that is devolved to the white Prado brigade was directed to Aboriginal empowerment, some of the incarceration rates might begin to fall. With such a large proportion of the Indigenous population in prison, the opportunity might be taken to run empowerment and education programs within prison, including with the partners, children and relatives who "camp" around the prisons. It would seem logical that such empowerment programs should be run by Indigenous Australians.

The white Prado brigade should be aiming to marginalise themselves out of work. If Aboriginal mentors had been within the walls of Don Dale prison in the Northern Territory, the children would not have been abused by the white prison officials.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who has worked in the Kimberly, Port Hedland and Broome. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceHaigh2.

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