Politics Opinion

WA's horrid cycle of injustice must end

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Homelessness and Indigenous suicide continues to rise in Western Australia (Image by Salvio Bhering | Pexels)

We cannot sit idly by and allow Western Australia to leper the homeless and carry on as the mother of all jailers of First Nations peoples, writes Gerry Georgatos.

WESTERN AUSTRALIA is the nation’s backwater. Draconian, it is the mother of injustice and inequality.

Western Australia and the Northern Territory leave the have-nots so far behind, that for many their lot appears irreparable. If there is a Mason-Dixon line in Australia, it runs along the borders of the Northern Territory and Western Australia — and it is a bloody firmament. 

Western Australia has a recent history of secession calls. If this had occurred, it would have been akin to the 13 Confederate States of America that sought to preserve racism and exploitation.

The more west we trek across this continent, the more catastrophic the scale of tragedies. The more west we go across this continent: the higher the suicide rates, the higher the suicidality, the higher the homelessness, the more poverty, the more acute and crushing the poverty, the higher the incarceration rates and the less likelihood of the have-nots ever becoming haves. 

And of course, these hits are scandalously disproportionately higher for First Nations peoples — but also for migrants born from non-English language and culturally diverse backgrounds. 

During the austere stretch of lockdowns nationally, due to the war on COVID-19, Western Australia lagged far behind the rest of the nation in responding to its homeless.

While New South Wales and Victoria were accommodating their homeless into hotels (thousands of street-present homeless were accommodated in the interim), the rednecks of Western Australia spruiked their social justice credentials with a reprehensible effort to accommodate a miserly number of 20 homeless individuals, wait for this... in a “30-day trial”.

While thousands of homeless people continued to be accommodated in hotels for months across the rest of the nation, believe it or not, the Western Australian Government came back with a clanger at the end of the 30 days and stated the trial had failed. The “program” was disbanded. There has been no word since. 

The number of street-present homeless continues to mount, not only in Perth but across Western Australia. The number of deaths on the streets of the homeless in Perth now exceeds 40 for this year. This means that about 5% of all Perth’s street-homeless died in 2020. Their average age at death was in the 40s. Depleted half-lives. Harrowed living.

Per capita gross state product (GSP), Western Australia is the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation. Despite COVID-19, the lockdowns and the border shutdown, Western Australia still delivered a budget surplus. To understand Western Australia’s wealth, we must also understand that Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest nations – 13th largest economy and among the highest median wages – in the world. It was ranked number one in the world in 2018 for highest median adult wealth.

According to the Global Wealth Report 2018 (Credit Suisse), the median wealth of adult Australians was $264,903. The median wealth of the world’s adults was $5,820. The divide between Australia’s haves and have-nots is stark. The divide between Western Australian haves and have-nots is one effectively of affluence alongside grinding poverty. 

In Western Australia, there are 14,890 applications for a public housing rental, with 2,097 priority listed. The waiting list represents more than 40,000 people and the majority are children. In March 2017, the Labor Party swept in to govern in a landslide, promising much. 

During this time, public housing declined by nearly 1,200 from 44,087 to 42,932 homes. Western Australia’s adult median wealth was in excess of $300,000. Finland had an adult median wealth of $45,606 but managed in almost doing away with street-homelessness in Helsinki. In the last decade, Finland has reduced homelessness by 40%. 

The richest state in Australia can afford to build 15,000 social housing rental homes for those waiting, of who I remind the majority are just children. I am yet to meet a person who lives or lived on the streets and not said that it is the hardest, darkest, scariest and worst of living.

Western Australia can afford to spend $9 billion dollars to build 15,000 houses. Victoria, in order to inroad into unmet need, will spend $5.3 billion to build between 9,000 to 12,000 public houses. By the time these Victorian houses are complete at the end of the decade – unless there is a spike – 15% to 20% of their waiting lists will have been reduced. They too should spend as much as is needed to house everyone as soon as possible and not penny-pinch and deny people a roof over their heads. 

Why does Western Australia cruelly lag so far behind the rest of the nation in terms of the right thing to do by people? Babies and children, the vulnerable young and older, should not be hostage to street-present homelessness. 

I once described Western Australia as this nation’s Alabama. Despite making that statement more than three decades ago, sadly it still holds steadfastly true.

On 28 September 1983, in the Pilbara’s Roebourne, 16-year-old Yindjibarndi youth John Pat was bashed to death by an off-duty police officer. On that occasion, four police officers and an Aboriginal police aide bashed into Yindjibarndi youth. According to witnesses, when John Pat stepped in to pull out his friend Ashley James from the brawl, the copper belted him to his death. In 1986, an all-White jury acquitted all five police.

A couple of years later, just before the establishment of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) I said: “On 28 September 1983, Roebourne became to Western Australia what two decades earlier Birmingham was to Alabama.”

The highest number of Australia’s police and prison custodial (unnatural) deaths have been in Western Australia. Of police watch house deaths in Western Australia, 100% have been of First Nations people. Yep, that is racism on a plate.

I defend my argument of a Mason-Dixon line in describing Western Australia and the Northern Territory as akin to America’s confederate slavery, where human beings were reduced to oppressors and the oppressed, to the lowest common denominator, to the cruellest of obscenities — to intergenerational criminalities.

Western Australia, a wealthy jurisdiction in one of the world’s wealthiest nations – despite being billions of dollars in surplus year after year – suffers from the bastardry of those refusing to repay or compensate victims of the Stolen Wages. (Tens of thousands of First Nations workers who, even over a lifetime of working, had the majority of their wages effectively withheld by state governments.)

The story of the Stolen Wages is well known and established. From the 1920s to the 1970s, effectively indentured First Nations people were turned into slaves, in many cases on wages less than a quarter of what counterpart White privilege earned. They suffered the evil of a further hit — the majority of their wages withheld. One Western Australian government after another perpetrates intergenerational criminality, denying to compensate the claimants — those in their fading light or their children. 

The original sin of racism is not yet over and burns brightly in the west, where the sun sets.

Sadly, it may take the class action that has been launched against the Western Australian Government for the Government to either come to right-mindedness or be dragged kicking and screaming to finally do the right thing and pay up lost earnings and compensation for decades of unpaid labour.

I think of the arduous journey for slivers of social justice and it breaks the heart. I think of Western Australia, of its lesser self, of its cruelties to others, of its brutal public spectacles in refusing redress and systemic repair, as akin to the ruthless intemperance of the U.S. cotton fields of Georgia and the Mississippi. Let us remember that up until the 1970s in Western Australia, First Nations' lives were effectively controlled and permissions for all sorts of matters needed.

The original sin of racism is not yet over and burns brightly in the west, where the sun sets. The more we know about Western Australia, the less we respect. The more we know about Western Australia, the more we can pursue the change.

Western Australia’s social housing quotient is the lowest in the nation. Only 3% of all Western Australian households are social housing — public housing rental homes. We cannot sit idly by – idleness of the most inexcusable reprehensibility – and allow Western Australia to leper the homeless, to incarcerate people at the nation’s highest rate and to carry on as the mother of all jailers of First Nations peoples.

Not just in this nation but anywhere in the world, it is unacceptable to leave behind so many sisters and brothers, the majority of whom are children, and deny them the light and the hope that should shine on all of us. 

Western Australia’s horrid cycle of intergenerational injustice, of intergenerational oppression, criminalities and carceral hits on the poorest among us, must end. 

If a society is geared to serve the economy, it will fail people. Instead, the economy must be geared to serve society and leave no one behind.

Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP).

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