Skyrocketing rates of Aboriginal imprisonment, child removal and social catastrophe have been produced by resurgent assimilationist policies argues Paddy Gibson.

The graphic video footage of Aboriginal children and youth being tortured in the Don Dale juvenile detention centre aired on ABC’s Four Corners has sparked international outrage.

The footage showed children as young as 11-years-old being brutally assaulted by guards. We saw the “Behaviour Management Unit” (BMU) in Don Dale, where children were placed in tiny, hot and filthy solitary confinement cells without running water for all but half an hour a day. Particularly shocking were scenes of six children being tear gassed by guards, an act of collective punishment after one of the boys had tried to break free from the BMU.

The stories of abuse in Don Dale are not new. Youth detention in the NT has been the subject of three inquiries in recent years, reports have been delivered to the NT government since 2011 and many of their findings have been reported in the press.

This violent persecution of children is not just the result of rogue guards. It was driven by the Country Liberal Party leadership, senior bureaucrats and the judiciary.

Even while receiving reports of the horrors in Don Dale, NT Chief Minister Adam Giles was pushing through legislation that ensured more children would be locked up and abused. This includes laws this year which introduced a presumption against bail for youth who are “repeat offenders” and legalised the use of “restraint chairs” on children as young as ten years old.

Most of the violence seen on Four Corners was perfectly legal. One guard involved in an incident where Dylan Voller was thrown to the ground, assaulted and stripped naked was acquitted of assault in 2014.

The NT Supreme Court Judge cited provisions of the NT Youth Justice Act which mean violence used against detainees threatening self-harm is not required to be reasonable.

A call out for protests on 30 July, which mobilised more than 5000 people nationally, said, “this is the tip of the iceberg of the racist ‘child protection’ and prison systems that subject Aboriginal children to institutionalised child abuse across the continent on a daily basis.”

Almost 60 per cent of inmates in juvenile detention centres across Australia are Aboriginal. The majority have not been sentenced for any crime, but are being held on remand.

Bashings by guards are common place. Earlier this year 11-year-old Denzel, taken from his mother by “child protection”, ended up being bashed by guards in a detention centre in Queensland. He had two black eyes and his cheek bone was broken.

New assimilation

More Aboriginal kids are ending up in detention due to worsening poverty and spiraling levels of forced removal from their families by child protection.

Aboriginal child removals have increased more than 500 per cent over the past 15 years. This is the result of the resurgent politics of assimilation championed by John Howard, which has continued with bipartisan support.

Sixty per cent of the children in Don Dale were in “out of home care” when they were picked up by police and put into prison.

Child removal itself is often physically violent and always extremely traumatising for children.

Last year, footage emerged from an Aboriginal reserve in Moree, NSW showing riot police raiding a house with guns drawn to remove six children. Every day across Australia, police are used to remove children, often taken screaming from the arms of their parents, placed with strangers and denied contact with their family.

A report last year from the NT Children’s Commission showed that 10 per cent of children in the “out of home care” system had been victims of substantiated abuse while in care over the years 2014-15.

The poverty inflicted on Aboriginal families and their children must also be seen as a form of abuse, driving unacceptable rates of child mortality and chronic health conditions not seen anywhere else in the developed world.

Most often the official reason Aboriginal children are taken is “neglect”. But all levels of government are guilty of systemic neglect, consistently refusing to invest in basic infrastructure and services for Aboriginal people.

A recent report released by the WA Government on the future of remote communities (see page 10) made it clear that Aboriginal towns suffer huge disparities in levels of amenity compared with non-Indigenous towns of a similar size.

But they were also clear that nothing will be done about this, except in a handful of “larger towns”. Already meagre services will be withdrawn for many and the expectation is that people should simply leave and assimilate into the “mainstream”.

It is this poverty and persecution that drives much of the contact with state agencies, who step in to punish families and children suffering homelessness, unemployment, drug and alcohol problems, family violence or chronic health issues. These are all symptoms of colonisation.

The political elite then blame Aboriginal culture and “dysfunction” to justify control measures to force “behavioural change” and assimilation into the “mainstream”.

Victims of the Intervention

The most brutal expression of this racist logic in recent years has been the Northern Territory Intervention.

It is impossible to understand the horror seen in Don Dale without the context of the Intervention. The same politicians who in 2007 suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and sent the Australian Army into remote communities in the name of saving children from sexual abuse have blood on their hands from Don Dale. The “pedophile rings” that then Minister Mal Brough said were in every Aboriginal community were found to be non-existent after years of intense police investigation. Don Dale has shown that it is the Government that is responsible for organised child abuse.

The Intervention was launched as the culmination of John Howard’s politics of assimilation in Aboriginal affairs.

Throughout his time in government, Howard assiduously blamed Aboriginal culture—and the “failings” of Indigenous people and their communities—for the shocking conditions in which they found themselves. He promoted the conservative historians who, in the so-called history wars, argued that pre-colonial Aboriginal culture was violent and degenerate, and denied the brutality of the colonisation of Australia and the existence of the Stolen Generations.

This provided justification for attacks on native title, land rights and community controlled organisations. Under Howard, Aboriginal services were massively defunded, including hundreds of Aboriginal women’s centres. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was also dismantled in 2005.

With the Intervention, Howard reimposed forms of control over Aboriginal life enforced by Welfare Boards and mission managers throughout the 20th Century. Aboriginal people are denied rights enjoyed by other Australian citizens simply by virtue of living on Aboriginal Lands, classified as “Prescribed Areas” under special legislation.

Police have the power to raid homes and search cars without a warrant. Half of Centrelink pay is quarantined on a “BasicsCard” which can only be used to buy approved items at government approved stores. Aboriginal people must work 25 hours a week to receive this “pay” on the BasicsCard. This leads to open segregation in shops, with different treatment and sometimes separate queues set up for BasicsCard holders. Police keep a constant guard outside supermarkets in Alice Springs to stop black people from entering the bottle shops.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on these new forms of control, including on BasicsCard infrastructure, government managers who have taken over communities, “child protection” workers to forcibly remove children and a big increase in police numbers. New Centrelink regulations see parents cut off if children miss school.

Meanwhile, the destruction of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and the dismantling of local Aboriginal councils has seen thousands of Aboriginal people made unemployed, basic services in remote communities pushed to breaking point and large-scale migration to urban areas where many people end up homeless.

Both NT Government and Commonwealth Government budget cuts have also gutted youth programs, legal aid and many other front line services trying to hold band-aids onto the wounds from systemic injustice.

The impact on Aboriginal children has been horrific. School attendance rates are down, child malnutrition rates are unchanged, recorded rates of attempted suicide and self-harm have increased more than 400 per cent. The number of Aboriginal children in “out of home care” has increased from approximately 250 in 2007 to more than 1000 today. The number of children locked in detention has doubled. Many more children are robbed of contact with their parents as adult prison numbers have exploded from approximately 650 Aboriginal people in 2007 to more than 1400 today, including a tripling of the number of women in prison.

The Intervention has given encouragement to the NT government to go on their own binge of “law and order” and anti-Aboriginal policies. This started with the NT Labor government in 2008 which seized all the assets of Aboriginal community councils, including vital civil works equipment and handed them to new Super Shires. NT housing also took over all the housing stock and bi-lingual education programs were dismantled.

The CLP government intensified this push from 2012, introducing “paperless arrest” laws which allow Aboriginal people to be picked up and placed in cells with no charge. They introduced new categories of mandatory sentencing along with the specific measures directed at youth offenders described above.

Johnny Lawrence, a barrister featured on Four Corners, said that the image of a hooded Aboriginal youth strapped to a chair in Don Dale made him think of two words, “no future”. The children brutalised in Don Dale have grown up for almost a decade under this regime. They have seen the persecution and the hopelessness enforced by all levels of government. The guards that bashed them have also lived through this period, where racism is law and politicians and the media have constantly demonised Aboriginal youth. These guards may have pulled the trigger—but the Intervention loaded the gun.

Bring the children home

The outrage over Four Corners has exposed the hypocrisy and complicity of both NT and Federal political leaders, opening up an important opportunity to push for fundamental change. Malcolm Turnbull immediately called for a Royal Commission into abuse in NT juvenile detention centres, hoping to quell the outrage. This has been extended to include an inquiry into the child protection system which everyone acknowledges is feeding the prisons.

But Turnbull’s appointment of former NT Chief Justice Brian Martin immediately blew up in his face. Martin had sentenced many Aboriginal children to prison himself. In 2010 he gave lenient sentences to five white racists who killed Kwementyaye Ryder in Alice Springs and made outrageous comments about their “good character”.

The protests on 30 July helped to force Martin’s resignation. Former Human Rights Commissioner Mick Gooda has now been appointed, along with Former Queensland Supreme Court judge Margaret White. White is no stranger to Aboriginal politics, having represented the Queensland government for a decade when they were trying to stop the Mabo Native Title case.

Bill Shorten has changed his tone considerably from the paternalistic rhetoric of former Labor Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, or Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard. He called for Aboriginal commissioners to lead the Royal Commission, arguing it must be “done with Aboriginal people, not to Aboriginal people”.

He highlighted the huge increase in Aboriginal children in “out of home care” as an issue that was “getting worse not better”. But he also undermined calls from new Aboriginal Labor Senator Patrick Dodson for the inquiry to be national in scope, coming out in support of a Gooda led NT Inquiry.

NT Labor too have changed their rhetoric, promising to repeal many of the draconian laws introduced under the CLP and to revisit the question of local Aboriginal councils. Their eyes are firmly on an NT election scheduled for late August, which they are predicted to comfortably win.

But Labor have yet to offer any account for the central role they played in implementing the NT Intervention.

They are just as implicated in the Don Dale atrocities as the Liberals. Much of the abuse happened when Labor were in Government in the NT and Federally.

Jenny Macklin was Commonwealth Indigenous Affairs Minister in 2012 when the first report from the NT Children’s Commission detailing the brutalisation of Dylan Voller was given to government.

Rather than act to end the abuse, in 2012 she moved ahead with implementing the “Stronger Futures” legislation that will see the Intervention continue for a further ten years. Forcing Labor to abandon support for “Stronger Futures” remains a crucial task for the Aboriginal rights movement.

The Royal Commission itself will certainly expose more horrors. But it will do nothing to deliver meaningful change.

Both the NT Intervention and NT government policies systematically breach the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody which ran from 1987 to 1991. It argued that Aboriginal self-determination and serious investment in community controlled development was needed to end the mass incarceration of black children and adults alike.

The Bringing Them Home report in 1997 was also the product of wide consultations with Aboriginal communities on issues of both child protection and juvenile justice. It found that both of these systems were creating similar dynamics to the Stolen Generations of the 20th Century. The report said:

“Our principal finding is that self-determination for Indigenous peoples provides the key to reversing the over-representation of Indigenous children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems of the States and Territories and to eliminating unjustified removals of Indigenous children from their families and communities… not a single submission to the Inquiry from Indigenous organisations saw intervention from welfare departments as an effective way of dealing with Indigenous child protection needs”.

Grandmothers Against Removals, who have been fighting to bring Aboriginal children back to their families since 2014, issued a statement in the wake of Four Corners calling for national unity around this program:

“Bringing them Home was clear about the solution to the problem of contemporary removal of Indigenous children—Aboriginal control of Aboriginal child welfare and youth justice. Close down the child prisons. End the control mainstream welfare agencies have over Aboriginal families. Invest serious resources into community controlled support services, infrastructure and positive opportunities to deal with family crises.”

The hard reality is that no government left to their own devices will implement such a policy, no matter how badly it is needed to alleviate the suffering of children. Capitalism in Australia is intensely hostile to Aboriginal self-determination. It wants Aboriginal communities broken and disorganised, fearing the threat of a confident black movement that can expose the true history of this country and fight for land and justice. Any change will only come through struggle.

Adam Giles says that the NT government will build a new child prison to replace Don Dale. We need to ensure that this prison is never built and the money is invested in communities.

We need to rebuild the mass support for Aboriginal self-determination seen in the 1970s and 80s that won the limited land rights that exist today and established community controlled organisations—all gains that have been beaten back by the Intervention and associated policies.

Consistent mobilisation through the Royal Commission process can unite Aboriginal organisations and social justice groups and should aim to mobilise serious union power. Already in the NT, the Maritime Union of Australia has played a leading role in the response to Don Dale.

The youth brutalised in Don Dale have shown incredible strength, fighting for freedom while on the inside and speaking up against injustice once released. Many more, including Dylan Voller, are still locked up, at serious risk and struggling for freedom. They need our urgent support.

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