Abbott's Little White Lies: What Would Jesus Do?


Tony Abbott once infamously remarked on ABC’s Q&A program that in relation to asylum seekers, Jesus knew that everyone had a place, and it was not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.

Yesterday, when news broke that the Abbott Government had lied – again – to the Australian people about cutting funding to an Aboriginal legal service program, I found myself wondering what Jesus thought about locking people up.

Matthew 25:35-46 proved helpful: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

My knowledge of the Bible is very limited, but even I can see there doesn’t appear to be a lot of wiggle room in that. Jesus clearly wants Tony Abbott to visit people in goal.

And given Abbott is the self-proclaimed ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’, I predict he’s going to very, very busy in the coming months and years, particularly after his new budget kicks in.

Speaking of which, in the lead-up to the May budget, Australians were promised that “no frontline” Aboriginal legal services would be affected by a routing of the Indigenous affairs budget.

How then to explain the fact the NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service will lose half a million dollars to fund ThroughCare, a modest program which aims to help transition Aboriginal people from jail to society.

With the notable exception of the Guardian, the story has been all but ignored by mainstream media. It seems when Tony Abbott tells little white lies, that’s big news. But when he tells little black ones….

There are two main reasons why ThroughCare is an important program.

Firstly, recidivism rates – the rate at which people who’ve already been to prison find themselves back there – are 77 per cent among Aboriginal offenders, set against 51 per cent for non Aboriginal offenders.

Obviously, it makes good sense to target resources, however modest, towards Aboriginal men and women trying to make their way on the outside. In fact, it’s a no brainer.

Secondly, First Nations incarceration rates in Australia are world beaters. We have the highest Indigenous incarceration rates on earth – and they’re climbing.

And this is where things get ugly. When the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was launched in 1987, Aboriginal people had an incarceration rate of 1233.9 people per 100,000 people. That is, for every 100,000 blackfellas, about 1,200 of them were in prison.

A generation later – and with the expenditure of billions of taxpayers dollars – that figure is almost double. But it’s much worse than it appears if you break it down state-by-state.

All states and territories have seen their incarceration rates almost double (except Tasmania, where rates dropped significantly) over the last generation. But the Northern Territory, which had the second lowest rate in 1988, now has the second highest rate. It’s almost 13 times greater today that it was 25 years ago.

In the ACT, it is 16 times greater.

Factor in Aboriginal prisoners as a percentage of the inmate population, and things are even more alarming.

In Western Australia, the prison population is 40 per cent black. In Queensland it’s 31 per cent. The Northern Territory, however, is in a class of its own – 86 per cent of the prison population is Aboriginal.

That means that when you visit a prison in the NT, almost nine out of every 10 inmates you will see will be black. No jurisdiction on earth can claim that sort of stunning, overt racism.

Nationally, 27 per cent of the prison population is black. Unless these rates are arrested, within a decade one in three people in prison are likely to be Aboriginal, despite making up just one in 40 of the general population.

And it gets worse.

If you actually consider the black prison population set against the mainstream population – ie. the people we haven’t locked up – the figures are mind-numbing. Nationally, Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people. In Western Australia, the figure is 21 times.

In fact WA has the highest Indigenous jailing rate on earth. Black males are jailed at a rate around eight times greater than black males under Apartheid South Africa.

There are 1,000 ways to crunch these numbers, and all of them are appalling.

In the first half of 2008, there were 6,605 Indigenous people in prison. At 30 June last year, there were 8,430. That’s roughly a 5.5 per cent growth, year-on-year. Over the same period, the growth rate in the number of Aboriginal people enrolling in tertiary education grew at around 3.3 per cent.

Report after report after report has been written about this. The 1987 figures above come from a paper written 16 years ago by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

And yet things continue to get worse. We are clearly failing, and spectacularly so.

Whatever the reasons for an Aboriginal person’s incarceration, lessening the chance they return to prison should be a major priority of government. Spending $500,000 to help achieve that is not even petty cash. But the priorities of the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ appear to lie elsewhere.

For example, the cost to host the G20 Summit in Brisbane later this year will be around $370 million. And while Abbott rips more than half a billion dollars out of Indigenous affairs spending generally, including the $500,000 for ThroughCare, he’s set aside $245 million to ensure that chaplains who preach the Prime Minister’s brand of religion are able to target Australian kids.

ThroughCare provides services to around 70 former inmates per year, at a cost of just $500,000. That’s just over $7,000 per person.

At the same time, it costs well over $100,000 per year, per prisoner to keep Aboriginal people locked up. In other words, the $7,000 spent to keep an Aboriginal person out of prison represents the same cost for keeping him in prison for less than a month.

Abbott has robbed Peter to pay Paul, and he’s lied about it in the process.

Clearly, our jailing rates of First Nations people are a matter of national shame. Clearly, it is a national emergency. But unlike the Howard Government’s Northern Territory intervention – a ‘national emergency’ that resonated with voters – our incarceration rates do not.

You don’t win any votes by keeping Aboriginal people out of prison. But you do win votes by keeping them in. That’s why cutting programs aimed at reducing incarceration rates has caused no mainstream anger.

But just to be safe, at the same time, the Abbott Government is also defunding Aboriginal advocacy organisations best placed to analyse and expose these outrages.

Funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has been axed in the budget. So to has funding for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. NATSILS is the nation’s peak body for Aboriginal legal services, and it was at the forefront of the fight during the Howard years to expose a gross under-funding of Aboriginal representation in the criminal justice system.

It leaves you wondering what Jesus would have thought of it all. Abbott’s spin on that would certainly be interesting, although don’t hold your breath waiting for mainstream media to ask.

So we’re left, once again, to turn to the Bible for answers, in this case, Psalm 146:7: “Who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free.”

Just not in Australia, apparently. And particularly not if you’re someone who, as Jesus apparently knew, didn’t belong here.

* New Matilda is an independent Australian news media outlet. It relies almost entirely on reader subscriptions for its funding. If you enjoyed this piece, you can help fund New Matilda by clicking here. And if cash is tight, you can help us grow by tweeting this story, and sharing it on social media.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.