In the lead-up to the 2013 election, Tony Abbott took a brief moment out from his relentless denigration of the government to broach a policy area that usually doesn't make the debate. Cautiously, he vowed to be a prime minister for Australia’s first peoples.
“It is my hope that I could be, not just a prime minister, but a prime minister for Aboriginal Affairs,” he said
In an address to Federal Parliament yesterday, Abbott took a tentative step towards positioning Indigenous Affairs alongside the government's holy trinity of policy talking points. His government is “no less serious [about Indigenous Affairs]than it is about stopping the boats, fixing the budget, and building the roads of the 21st century.”
Putting Indigenous Affairs on the national agenda is a move that should draw praise. But the way Abbott has chosen to frame the issue raises questions about how serious his government really will be in its efforts to help overcome the outrageous disadvantage Indigenous Australians continue to experience.
Indigenous groups were quick to point out one particularly glaring omission from Abbott’s remarks.
“Today, Australia’s national shame is the mass imprisonment of Aboriginal people, particularly young people. Australia’s Aboriginal children are detained at the world’s highest rates,” Phil Naden, the NSW and ACT Aboriginal Legal Service CEO noted in a press release.
"More than half of the young people in detention today (over 52 per cent) are Aboriginal, and most are unsentenced.”
Indigenous incarceration indeed remains a national shame. The Australian Bureau of Statistics paints a bleak picture, with rates of incarceration continuing to rise markedly between 2002 and 2012. West Australia is beyond crisis point, with the rate of incarceration for Indigenous Australians 20 times higher than non-Indigenous.
Despite the 1991 Royal Commission, deaths in custody have increased, along with the surging incarceration rate. There is little reason to think that the next generation of Indigenous Australians will fare much better.
Instead of raising the issue of justice, Abbott framed his address around education. Truancy rates must be reduced, he said, and the time for excuses was over.
“Generally speaking, the more remote the school, the more excuses are made for poor attendance,” he observed, before pledging to end the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance within five years. No reference was made to a similar standard with which to target improvements in justice outcomes.
“We were very surprised to hear there was no bipartisan commitment today towards incorporating justice targets into the Government’s Closing the Gap strategy,” Naden said on Wednesday.
Improving rates of Indigenous school attendance is an easy sell to white Australia. Everybody can get on board with sending kids to school; there is an implicit blame placed on Indigenous communities for failing to enforce school attendance, or teach their children adequate patterns of civil behaviour.
“One of the worst forms of neglect is failing to give children the education they need for a decent life,” Abbott said, following the statement up with a list of state and federal government programs designed to lower truancy rates.
But like his entire address, the line was left open, raising the question of who exactly is responsible for that neglect? This is the Liberal Party's characteristic approach: the individual is to blame for their personal failings and societal causes don't rate a mention.
If Abbott were to seriously take on the incarceration issue, he would have to openly and actively confront the issue of ongoing systemic discrimination against Indigenous Australians, and acknowledge its historical causes, including colonialism and racism.
That would mean talking to the nation plainly about deaths in custody and acknowledging the fact that a black man can still face violent treatment and be left to die in “protective custody” without police facing serious punishment.
It would mean taking on the state and territory governments – especially the Liberal ones – whose tough on crime policies disproportionately affect their Indigenous constituents.
It would mean investigating and policing routine police brutality, such as the recent taser attack by police on an Indigenous woman in Queensland, in which she lost an eye.
And it would mean facing off against a host of other powerful actors, like the Australian Hotels Association, who have succeeded in reversing the NT government’s efforts to limit liquor supply.
Abbott’s record on the issue is not strong so far. One of the Coalition's nastiest election eve announcements was the decision to slash $42 million from Aboriginal legal aid, a figure that was significantly reduced after the election but will do much damage.
If he decides to pivot on the issue, and to devote the state’s energy and resources to lowering the almost unbelievable rates of incarceration, he will find a host of allies who are ready to take up the challenge. There is a growing awareness that by focusing state resources on policing and prisons we do nothing to attend to the causes of incarnation.
The justice reinvestment movement is starting to make this case publicly. There are also scores of Indigenous communities finding local solutions to the localised and diverse causes of incarceration.
There is some evidence to suggest the government will start to take an interest in such programs. Warren Mundine, the head of Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council today announced a program to help provide jobs training for Indigenous teenagers in WA.
Abbott has frequently used his time in outback Indigenous communities as evidence that he can succeed where so many previous PMs have either failed, or failed to even try. But if he is serious about using his position to help reverse the shameful disparity in living standards between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, he must make justice a top priority.
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