Politics Opinion

Amending Australia's shame through a unified Voice

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Voice Referendum gives Australians a chance to right the decades of injustice towards the First Peoples and a Constitution tarnished by bigotry, writes Gerry Georgatos.

THIS IS THE LAST article I write on the suicides and unnatural deaths in custody – prison and police custodial settings – of the descendants of the First Peoples of this continent. I am hoping governments of the day will soon hear first-hand the ways forward. When we disaggregate to a “racialised lens”, we find ourselves the mother of all the world’s gaolers of Australia’s First Peoples.

As we go west, we find even higher rates of racialised incarceration — Western Australia being the worst. Australia reports a higher rate of gaoling of its First Peoples than the United States of America has of its descendants from Africa, of its Latinos and of America’s descendants of its own First Peoples.

Western Australia is the nation’s backwater – with the Northern Territory not far behind – and both are shamed by the nation’s awkwardly higher Indigenous gaoling rates.

In an unconventional manner, I live in a binary; the courage of the tens of thousands of descendants of the First Peoples I have met over the decades in the remote, in homelands, in town camps, in regional and urban Australia. I have been moved by the Black struggle since the power and land rights movements of the early 1970s.

I have lived a life among the marginalised and impoverished — catastrophes borne of the sins of an invader-acquired nation, of unearned assets stripped from the First Peoples, thousands of generations old, and which underwrite an ill-gotten privilege to the modernist foreparents of today’s so-called innocent, who are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the invaders.

I was writing my PhD in Law, in part on Australian Deaths in Custody, which I aborted to relinquish the restraints of academia and instead make as much difference on the ground as possible. I was able to negotiate with the Commonwealth of yesteryear to fund for three years the establishment of the Custody Notification Service (CNS) in state and territory jurisdictions.

As a result of this, the deaths of the descendants of the First Peoples in police watchhouses have zeroed, as they have in NSW, when police ensure the CNS is put into contact with the detainee as soon as the detainee is at the lockup.

This at least has stopped Black deaths in custody in police watchhouses. The CNS brings on the watchful eye, accountability, support and legal assistance. My negotiations with the Commonwealth half a decade ago led to the rollout of the CNS in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.

However, we have a long way to go to address the sins of a nation, which led to Australia as the world’s worst gaoler of First Peoples. We have today agency among the descendants of the First Peoples that was denied decades ago, that has acquired firepower among sister and brother First Nations, that there is no longer a need for allies such as me.

The roll call of First Nations voices is increasing, including powerful advocates such as Megan Krakouer.

The affected, suicide-affected families and loved ones lost to unnatural deaths are speaking out, their voices amplified by mainstream media, the likes of never. I cannot deny the courage of anyone, many who for so long had nowhere to turn. It is the universal we all seek, equality in all its forms and freedoms.

Western Australia is the mother of the nation’s most draconian injustices. The Northern Territory is little different. If there is a Mason-Dixon line in Australia, it runs along the borders of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

I have always felt the ache and harrow of being seen as different. I cannot live the Black struggle, but I understand. Where identity was made a liability, who were denied being who they are and punished for their very existence, where the sins of those who came to their lands uninvited, without any delay, by force, murderously took their homelands and murderously went about excluding them.  

To this day, many are still seen as different and we say this to each other in inherent understanding. Oh, we still understand that they are seen as different. They fill the gaols, not just the shanty towns. Instead of resonance, many Australians are hostage to dissonance. Instead of connection, there is disconnection.

Inclusion of the First Peoples in the Constitution has been much maligned. Throw of the dice mantras, dishevelling the prospect of harmony and redress. The Voice to Parliament is made out to be more than it is. It should be much more, and the Australian nation should be supportive instead of a languishing laggard in inequalities, disparities and reprehensions.

In fact, what is being asked of the Australian people in reference to the preamble inclusion of the First Peoples in the Constitution and the advisory Voice is a bar so low, that everyday Australians will walk over it without noticing. But it is a step in the right direction, to amplify voice, to take steps toward righting a Constitution tainted by racism and bigotry.

We cannot be proud of a nation that disgraces itself with the world’s highest incarceration rates of its First Peoples – who also are likely the world’s highest suicide rate and highest child removal rates – and who for so long were among the highest deaths in custody rates in the world.

The Alabama of Australia

I once described Western Australia as this nation’s Alabama. On 28 September, it will be 40 years since the death of John Pat. The unjust death of Yindjibarndi youth John Pat in 1983 condemned Roebourne to Western Australia what Birmingham was to Alabama two decades earlier.

On 28 September 1983, in the Pilbara town of Roebourne, 16-year-old John Pat was bashed to death by an off-duty police officer. According to witnesses, when John Pat stepped in to pull out his friend, Ashley James, from a brawl between four police officers and a First Nations police aide, the off-duty police officer beat him to death. In 1986, an all-White jury acquitted all five police officers.

The Voice would be able to give a peak representative body immediate condemnations and the repository of solutions to the Commonwealth Government, to the lawmakers. Everyone would be surprised if they did not. They would be speaking directly.

The Voice will not be a nameless sea of words but a light in the dark bringing forth the shadows. Without light, there are no shadows. The Voice can be a dividend of change agency, a lifting of the lid, a spurring of understandings, the turnpike to reform. We must not nestle a crafting of sorrow for sorrow’s sake. We must not be lassoed, corralled into the tidal waves of silences and in fear of pugnacious institutions.

Many of us the world over have broken free, but till all of us are free, we must act as if none of us are free. Nothing more than equality is sought and certainly not dominion or one would be no better than an oppressor. We must seek universalism — and till the Constitution is universal, it is no constitution.

The descendants of the First Peoples seek universalism, not assimilation and homogeneity. Equality is sought; liberation, not disparities and subjugation, as sections of the Constitution remain tainted with, and which will have to be amended in time, once compelled by the inclusion of the First Peoples.

We must not hide in endless banalities and torrents of self-centredness, where with coward-like fashion we merely court in a seeming endlessness of reports and recommendations, channelled in the bypasses and venous alleyways distant from the executive. We must not remain part of what has been, of what stonewalls and betrays. Why would we deny voices direct to the behemoth?

I am moved by the Black struggle through the offences of oppression, through the sins of laws, through muttering depths of crushing poverty. No conscionable argument emphasises any clarity as to why any number of the descendants of the First Peoples should not be directly raising issues with the government of the day. Some of them will excel in descriptions by the hundreds of testators, thousands for some, who walk impoverished, laboursome with the sins of the reform-starved nation.

They will describe the Black struggle to keep their children. We do not argue for the perfect system — that is never possible. What I am arguing is that this imperfect system has been in place for generations and is a system so destructive that it has led to record levels in terms of weight and toll of children removed from their families at the likes and rates never-before-seen.

We have a century of malfeasant, horrifying rates of child removals and yet the rates increase despite the recalcitrant oppressor’s apologies. In comparative terms, the oppressor today removes children today at rates higher than yesteryears. The oppressors, from government to departmental bureaucrats, act as imperators.

I have long argued that with child protection, the thresholds or balances of proof have no proximal value to judicial equivalencies in terms of thresholds of proof. There is a hideous scaling down to gossipy sinews and the naked eye’s narrow-mindedness. Instead, there has been long crafted an investiture of faith by children’s courts of child protection workers. Concomitantly laws have been changed so children’s courts reflect the power imbalances that child protection workers are anointed with and armoured.

There is no other like investiture of faith to this dangerous extreme, nowhere else. Not even with police and adults before adult courts. If there was a similar investiture in police by adult courts, our already overfilled adult prisons would triple or quadruple the national adult prisoner population.

I describe this amoral power imbalance as tyranny. The Voice will be a positive for all Australians. It is a freedom of speech, which is yet to be included in the Australian Constitution. It will set precedents, positive for all Australians. It charters a course to improve human rights and safeguard warrants for us all.

There are obscene power imbalances in the Constitution so crushing that effectively silence voices, further marginalising the affected and the impoverished. The power imbalance is so huge, it crafts censorship by omission. It is acutely traumatising, can be and has been debilitating. The Voice is a step for freedom of speech, for compelling protections for Australians to be pursued.

Nearly all of the children removed and of children and families brought to the attention of the child protection departments are people living below the poverty line, impoverished, in the lowest quintile of income base, and marginalised in crushing poverty. There is an intersectionality so gregarious in aggressively compounding damage and trauma and so cumulatively dangerous, treacherously, of poverty and racism where the sins of a nation that brought about and perpetuated this intersectionality are immutably disregarded.

This corrosive intersectionality keeps hostage people to the most unsupportive circumstances and in sermon-like muddle-mindedness and endless unsupportive circumstances as if in rusted gilded cages.

By 2030, the total number of Black children removed will double. This is catastrophic, but as the doubling we have reached in the present compared to less than a decade ago was also predictively descriptive of catastrophe, we are living in a humanitarian crisis. The truth is often implausible to the present and becomes dissociated. When future generations try to unravel the past, when the burden of today is left to the future, those of today affected are not just forgotten peoples, it is too late for our present.

We did not do enough. We cowered in not being “radical”. We cowered in not being “ostracised”. We chose to work futilely from the “inside” and never go public nor blow the whistle. We chose “funding” and “job security” instead of doing everything we could to expose and change systems that are in fact putridly rotten to the core. We are guilty of all the good we did not do and not just the horrible wrongs we did, pretending we have learned from the past or, even worse, pretending we are working for real change.

If we do not act in the present, then of what value are these damnations and indictments of those who are now long gone? Let us speak of truth and in the journey, let us speak of togetherness and love and then therefore of the redemptive and the restorative. For if we know what is right and we do not do it, and if we know who to help and we do not help them, then who are we and what is this life all about?

If we knowingly betray those who reach out for help, this is the worst form of cowardice. I will vote for the preamble to the Constitution to forefront the First Peoples. I will vote for their descendants of the First Peoples to have freedom of speech to this nation’s highest citadel.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.

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