Human rights

NT detention: Just another atrocity

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The Don Dale abuse, while horrific, is just another atrocity to add to a long list of systemic oppression endured by Indigenous Australians, writes John Passant.

THE HORRIFIC scenes on Monday night's Four Corners of abuse of kids in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre have shocked millions of Australians. 

Kids beaten, gassed, shackled …. and yet the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and Northern Territory Senator, Nigel Scullion, said that previous reports about abuses in the Northern Territory correctional system (and there were many) did not "pique his interest". He didn’t even watch the show until Malcolm Turnbull phoned him. 

Let that sink in. For years the gross mistreatment of Aboriginal kids by the authorities was of no interest to the Commonwealth Minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs. 

John Elferink was, until Tuesday, the Northern Territory's Corrections and Justice Minister. Chief Minister Adam Giles removed him from this position but he retains his other portfolios, including Health, Children and Families and Mental Health. Yep, the man on whose watch kids were tortured is in charge of children and families and mental health.

As ABC reporter Kate Wild makes clear, for years there have been two responses by the Northern Territory government to the reports of abuse — nothing to see here and anyway, they deserve a bit of tough love. Such tough love on (Aboriginal kids’) crime plays well to some white voters. 

The Ministerial indifference also reflects the racism of the Northern Territory State and its institutions and the Commonwealth.

Abuse by authorities is part and parcel of everyday life for many Indigenous Australians — and not just for those held in prisons and remand centres.

In Western Australia, the Barnett Liberal Government is closing down and stopping support for many remote communities and destroying thousands of lives. In 2007, based on false information, John Howard launched the Northern Territory Intervention. Far from saving children, this was about stealing them, about driving Aboriginal people off the land and testing out the BasicsCard.

The Intervention is, according to Professor Jon Altman and the Castan Centre for Human Rights, a failure.

As Altman says:

According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data, Indigenous people made up 3% of the population but 27% of the prison population, and 52% of all young people in detention. In the NT, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 86% of the adult prisoner population and 96.9% of young people in detention. Incarceration rates are up 41% since the start of the intervention.

Health outcomes are third world. Suicide is an epidemic.

The Northern Territory Intervention is racist.

Then Liberal prime minister John Howard suspended the application of the Racial Discrimination Act to the Intervention. Labor supported both the Intervention and its exclusion from the Racial Discrimination Act.

Prime Minister Turnbull responded on Tuesday morning by announcing a Royal Commission into the Northern Territory correction system and the shocking abuse at the Don Dale centre. Will this be enough?

Twenty five years ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its findings.  Nothing has changed — it has worsened.

Similarly, with the Bringing them Home Report, the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. This, at least, identified the theft of children as genocide. 

The Report said:

‘When a child was forcibly removed that child’s entire community lost, often permanently, its chance to perpetuate itself in that child. The Inquiry has concluded that this was a primary objective of forcible removals and is the reason they amount to genocide.’  

The Inquiry made a number of recommendations which have not been followed through. Now the State is stealing Aboriginal children again.

There is a reason why these Royal Commissions and government Inquiries do little to address the problems. Those problems are systemic. Australia, and its dominant economic system, is built on the genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.  

The genocide continues. The dispossession continues. The theft of children continues. The deaths in custody continue. The poverty continues. The life expectancy gap of over ten years continues. The criminalisation of Aboriginality continues.

A Royal Commission is a rich white man’s solution.

I have a novel suggestion. Let’s ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what their solutions are. In among their specific suggestions will be solutions for the overall, systemic problems. A treaty. Sovereignty. Paying the rent.

These demands challenge not just the systemic racism of Australian capitalism, they challenge the system itself and important sections of capital within it. Indigenous Australians won’t win justice unless there is a militant response to the 228 years of genocide and the consequences we see today, captured in the brutality of Don Dale. 

Maybe the time has come for black and white to unite and, following on from the lead Melbourne protesters gave us in 2015, to shut down the centre of the major cities to win justice for Indigenous people.

John Passant is a former assistant commissioner of the Australian Tax Office. Read more by John on his website En PassantYou can also follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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