My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Aboriginal levels of incarceration in Australian prisons have never been higher. In fact, country-wide rates of imprisonment are worse per capita for the black population than during apartheid South Africa. These numbers are also largely ignored. This silence, which stretches across the country only to reach the highest levels of the political and media elites, is arguably Australia’s greatest outrage, and a stain on our projected global image as an egalitarian state with justice for all.
Over 40% of all adult Western Australian prisoners are Aboriginal, and deaths behind bars remain too common. During a visit to Western Australia this week, I heard first-hand the reality of these failed policies, and the ways in which politicians in both the Labor and Liberal parties wilfully ignore measured recommendations to treat Aboriginal men and women as equals.
The recent apology in Perth’s parliament house for Aboriginal man John Pat, whose death in 1983 was one of the reasons behind the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, was a welcome but far too late acknowledgment that the state and its authorities have an incurable racism problem.
This is not an issue about the past, like the Stolen Generations or the White Australia policy, but a living and breathing example of codified bigotry. Those stories go uncovered, with editors thinking the public don’t care or are sick of hearing about Aboriginal disadvantage. The vast bulk of the coverage in our press features stereotyping that reinforces images of Indigenous dysfunction. I’m not questioning the vast problems that exist – including substance abuse and domestic violence – but the lazy ways in which reporters cover it. I’ve seen rampant alcoholism amongst young Aboriginal men in Derby, a few hours from Broome, and it’s not these faces and stories we hear about when political leaders and their media courtiers praise the “fair go” mentality in Australia. It’s true if you have power or access. Most do not.
So we look away. We don’t want to know.
Our racist history isn’t to be worn like a badge of white guilt, though Aboriginal people deserve far more than our soothing words. I’m thinking of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s formal apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, which while important, provided no compensation for past losses and occurred at the same time his government was deepening the Northern Territory Intervention – treating Indigenous people as different, worthy of discrimination and racism.
Years on from this policy, there’s no evidence to show any progresstowards greater education or health care outcomes. And yet prime minister Tony Abbott’s government, after Labor’s boosting of the Intervention policy, is set to expand it. This is bi-partisan extreme ideology dressed up as compassion.
Labor MP Ben Wyatt told the West Australian parliament on 25 September this year, during his apology to John Pat, that, “as far as justice for the Aboriginal community goes, nothing has changed [since the Royal Commission in 1993] because we have still got horrific incarceration rates”. Mavis Pat, John Pat’s mother, told ABC News that, “me and my people have tolerated so much since 1788, and I’m still going through what my old people went through. Even today we still get the same treatment now and again by specific police, some are good and some are bad, and we’re going to have to accept that.”
This lack of justice isn’t an accident; policing zeroes in on Aboriginal men and women for largely minor infractions. It’s a daily occurrence, and it is targeted. As just one example of constant harassment by authorities of Indigenous people, Marc Newhouse, the Perth-based chair of Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in Western Australia, told me that West Australian police routinely target Aboriginal funerals to impound cars, citing legal breaches, instead of regularly engaging with elders to address any perceived or real problems. This is how Aboriginality is criminalised when white citizens aren’t equally chased.
The facts speak for themselves. In May, The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released a study that found a doubling of Aboriginal Australians in jail and a rise in deaths in custody in the last five years. The vast bulk of the Royal Commission recommendations have been ignored. About 30,000 people are behind bars and Aboriginal prisoners form a quarter of the prison population yet only around 3% of the general population.
Newhouse tells me that “prison should be a last resort but is too often the first port of call” for the court and government, adding that “we need to address the root causes, social, political and cultural, but instead racism is ubiquitous across the state.”
Newhouse, who grew up under apartheid South Africa and worked with former black prisoners to gain voting rights after transition to democracy in 1994, sees worrying parallels between his former homeland and Australia. “We are pathologising the problem”, he says, “and media-favourite Indigenous leaders such as Warren Mundine, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are going after welfare dependency and not the bigger picture, the structural issues.” He highlights the push for ever-greater privatisation of prisons by corporations such as Serco, and the deafening silence on the side of politicians.
I was surprised to find that even former newspaper editor of The West newspaper and presenter on Perth’s 6PR radio, Paul Murray, agrees with me that free marketeers such as Serco may be a threat to democracy. These corporations shouldn’t under-estimate public anger when they fail to deliver what taxpayers are expecting (as evidenced by Serco inadequacies in Western Australia).
The mass privatisation agenda in Western Australia, led by Liberal Premier Colin Barnett, is the strongest in the country and provides a model for the Abbott government’s upcoming fire-sale of public assets. The record in the West, including with Indigenous prisoners, shows that privately-owned assets are routinely delivering hefty profits to share-holders and not the best care for inmates because the bottom line depends on delivering the least amount of support.
With grim irony, Western Australia is suffering from prison over-crowding, leading to violence and other social ills, and yet the offered solutions by governments and business lobby groups is more outsourcing. This is worse than a faulty band-aid; it’s akin to treating a wounded person with a battle axe because the bleeding is so serious.
Making a profit from ever-greater Indigenous incarceration is the ugly side of vulture capitalism. But there are alternatives, such as citizen juries and a shift towards “smart on crime” instead of “tough on crime” initiatives. Newhouse says that justice re-investment is one model that should be examined – his organisation is leading a Build Communities Not Prisons campaign.
Meanwhile, in a bid to save $500,000, the West Australian state wants to restrict permission for prisoners to attend funerals. This deeply affects Aboriginal people who often have to travel large distances to mourn their dead. Another day, and another headline that will be soon forgotten. It doesn’t have to be this way. Until it changes, Australia has no right to call itself a civilised democracy.