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Why so defensive? The Australian ego is fragile on the question of racism

Then, a video is posted on social media of an Aboriginal kid in Surry Hills, Sydney, being apprehended by a police officer, his ankles flipped from under him with a swift knock, his arms restrained so he is unable to protect his head as it lands, face-first, on the pavement.

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Might there be some parallels here?

The suggestion was rejected so fast by our Prime Minister that it was impossible not to suspect a little defensiveness on his part, and on the part of the many Australians who no doubt agree with him.

“Yeah, there’s no need to import things from happening in other countries here to Australia,” Scott Morrison told 2GB’s Ben Fordham. “I mean, Australia is a fair country … Australia is not the United States.”

That is true – Australia is not the United States. But no one was suggesting that.

The defensiveness of the Prime Minister’s position was indicative of the great Australian blind spot when it comes to acknowledging the injustice and violence Aboriginal people have copped since colonial settlement.

Illustration: Reg Lynch

Illustration: Reg Lynch Credit:

Our ego is terribly fragile on this stuff. It is the same reflex we saw when Adam Goodes was hounded out of football by racist crowds, and when young Sudanese-Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied was hounded out of Australia after she posted a few words on Facebook some people didn’t like (and for which she later apologised).

It is there, too, when Aboriginal people question the veneration of Captain Cook, or suggest that his legacy might be more nuanced, more tainted with violence, than the historical legacy has admitted.

It is there in the governmental silence on the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara by a mining company, news of which broke during Reconciliation Week, no less.

Playwright and scriptwriter Richard Frankland is a Gunditjmara man who worked as a field officer during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Since then, the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody has decreased, but the rate of Aboriginal incarceration has doubled. It is just one of a powerful number of indicators – from infant mortality to life expectancy – that tell the story of the Indigenous experience in this country.

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Frankland believes George Floyd’s killing is “a great opportunity that has come at a great cost to a lot of families”. Floyd’s death has humanised what has become dehumanised, he said.

Professor Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year in 2009, was only frustrated and angry when he spoke to me from Darwin. “I’m sick of Australians asking us what to do,” he said. “People are dying in custody unnecessarily. The figures are unacceptably and shockingly high. We shouldn’t put up with this. I don’t think people really care. If the numbers were non-Aboriginal we would have a bloody revolution in the system.”

Professor Dodson pointed out that almost 30 years after the royal commission, not all of its recommendations have been implemented. The key finding was the need to reduce the incarceration rate of Aboriginal people, but a 2018 Deloitte report found that recommendations aimed at diverting people from prison had the lowest rates of implementation nationally.

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Keeping Aboriginal people from being criminalised young requires meat-and-potatoes legislative and regulatory action – much of it to be done at the state level, with little fanfare and few political dividends. Little of it is Instagrammable. It won’t make headlines.

It means funding diversionary justice programs and providing strong disincentives to police to arrest children for talking back to them.

Tanya Day was arrested for being drunk in public in 2017 and died in custody. The royal commission recommended, almost 30 years ago, that the offence be abolished. The Victorian government has since announced it will do so, but too late for Tanya. All jurisdictions should remove this offence from their statutes.

In the past week the Productivity Commission released a draft report on Indigenous programs. It found most of them have no input from Indigenous people when it comes to evaluating their efficacy. It recommended the creation of an Office of Indigenous Policy Evaluation.

Recently my colleague Ella Archibald-Binge wrote about an effective funding cut to the peak body for Aboriginal child protection in NSW, where Aboriginal kids comprise 40 per cent of young people in out-of-home care.

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We know that intervening early can help keep Aboriginal children with their families, and yet we don’t adequately fund early intervention programs.

The accepted wisdom has always been that politicians don’t like putting resources into preventing a problem, because no one will give them credit for a disaster averted.

But the politics of the pandemic have given the lie to that – Scott Morrison will go to the next election seeking voter approval for preventing a total catastrophe. He will probably succeed, and the story of the Lucky Country will live on.

No matter that it’s a fairytale for some.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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