Malcolm Turnbull is no doubt justified in initiating a Royal Commission into the treatment of young people in the Northern Territory’s detention centres. The inmates of these facilities have been treated appallingly and we need to see that the welfare of the young men incarcerated in these institutions is protected. No civilised society should condone the indignities, insults and the physical and psychological assaults carried out against them by those charged by the Northern Territory to supervise their incarceration and hopefully assist in their rehabilitation. Let us hope that something good comes from it and it doesn’t become yet another grand gesture in support of our indigenous fellows which delivers little or no benefit on the ground. And unfortunately, I fear that will likely be the case.
But let’s not equivocate about the rightness of ensuring those incarcerated for whatever reason are treated with humanity. Our society is demeaned by these awful practices. But on the other hand let us not pretend that this intervention will have any meaningful impact on indigenous disadvantage.
If we are to progress the lot of indigenous people we need to look at some facts squarely in the face.
No doubt the Royal Commission will again highlight the disproportionate number of indigenous youth incarcerated in the detention centres which will cause a great gnashing of teeth by many of the key players in the Aboriginal industry who will berate us for treating indigenous people unjustly and remind us that our historic sins against the indigenous population is the cause of all their great disadvantage.
(I wonder how many generations need to pass before indigenous people can put this aside and concentrate on doing something for themselves to positively improve their welfare, rather than relying on the edifice of victimhood that is so eagerly promoted by those more interested in promoting ideology than indigenous welfare?)
Whatever facts the Royal Commission might elucidate about disproportionate indigenous internment, I can guarantee that it will not be able to obfuscate the facts concerning disproportionate indigenous offending! It is of great concern that indigenous people break the law more often than most other Australians and it is of greater concern that the victims of many of their worst violations, murder, rape, domestic violence and so on are most likely to be other indigenous people.
If we put aside the issue of ethnicity for a moment, we could probably all agree that disaffected youth from whatever background are a growing malaise for our society. The problems emanating from this source give us cause for concerns about our physical safety, our property rights, and our cohesiveness and productivity as a nation. It fuels not only our fears for the maintenance of ordinary human welfare, but at the extreme interferes with democratic processes and can be a basis for terrorism.
Most of the issues surrounding this phenomenon can be traced back to societal failure. It comes from parents not living up to their responsibilities, the failure of families and traditional social support mechanisms and a propensity to avoid direct responsibility by assuming the mantle of victimhood. This is a form of cultural degradation that not only condemns many indigenous people to pointless lives but also provides fertile ground to propagate other societal ills (in other groups resulting in, for example, Islamic terror activities).
Now whilst this is not exclusively an indigenous issue, and most of the non-indigenous youth in detention centres will have come from similar dysfunctional backgrounds, the problem is far more widespread in indigenous communities. The communities that these young indigenous offenders come from, usually exhibit high levels of violence, excessive use of alcohol and drugs, and low employment. The young folk ensconced in these communities have few positive role models, coming from broken and dysfunctional families where several generations have often gone unemployed. They do not meet the basic standards of numeracy and literacy because their school attendance is spasmodic and infrequent.
In some of the work that I was involved with in the past, trying to find employment opportunities for such young people, we found (understandably) they lacked basic interpersonal skills, their personal presentation was poor and often their personal hygiene was found wanting. In this way they lacked many of the social attributes which they needed to present themselves well before a prospective employer. What’s more many of them confessed to never having sat at a table for a meal with their family and had no knowledge of how cutlery was intended to be used! These might seem relatively trivial things, but it goes to show that many of the attributes that we take for granted are learned socially from our early family and community experiences. And this is where the real work of rectifying indigenous disadvantage must start.
Many of the young men in detention centres are not learning how to be considerate and respectful of others, to acquire education, to seek employment, to treat women well (refer Jacinta Price’s lecture which I recently quoted) and to take a meaningful place in society. They are learning through the example of their families and communities to be criminal offenders, often violent, uneducated and unemployed abusers of drug and alcohol who treat women appallingly.
The countless studies and reports commissioned by governments and welfare agencies have not led to improvement in the lot of indigenous people largely because they have often reinforced the ingrained feeling of victimhood and have not been courageous enough to tread on the sacrosanct ground of Aboriginal culture. That is why I have little faith that a Royal Commission will make a substantial difference to the lot of indigenous people in the long term.
Besides, this government does not have a great record when it comes to Royal Commissions. The recent Royal Commission into Trades Unions provided it with voluminous evidence of union thuggery and criminality. The Government has done very little to prosecute those findings. So what confidence should we have that they will have the courage to address some of the underlying issues identified by this Royal Commission that will really make a difference to indigenous lives?
So, perhaps to summarise, by all means let us have a Royal Commission into the mistreatment of juvenile offenders (largely young indigenous males) in the Northern Territory detention centres. It is important that we don’t let these young people be treated inhumanely.
But let us not turn a blind eye to the greater problem. Indigenous researcher, Anthony Dillon, in a letter to The Australian (28/7/2016) pointed out that many of these young indigenous people experience as much or more violence as they encounter in the detention centres in their own communities and there seems little appetite to intervene there!
It is fitting and proper then that Malcolm Turnbull should act to ensure that young people in detention centres aren’t abused by their jailers. But what we really need is a concerted effort to keep them out of these centres in the first place. And if that is to be achieved the sacred cows of victimhood and Aboriginal culture which provide the platform for dysfunctional behaviour in many indigenous communities need to be confronted.