It’s just more of the same problems and programs

The interim report of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory is heading dangerously close to yet another ideological cul-de-sac. There is no mention of Aborigines in the terms of reference, yet the report is festooned with Aboriginal art.

The foreword reveals that 94 per cent of children and young people in detention in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal. This is an obvious point, but also a mistake. Straight away the inquiry becomes another chapter in the “Aboriginal resistance” game — alongside deaths in custody, the Stolen Generations and sexual abuse of Aboriginal children.

The commissioners say in their interim observations that Aborigines have suffered from “colonisation and loss of culture and land”, which has reduced their “capacity to participate fully in their own lives and community”.

So, why are most Aborigines not in custody, or detention, or in care, or sexually abused, despite all having suffered this way?

You will find that the most troubled young people are from groups that had the most recent European contact (in a sense, the least colonised), retained their language, although it is inadequate for the modern world, and retained their land, which is all but useless as an economic base.

According to the commission, 50 inquiries on the issues covered by its terms of reference have not stopped deterioration “in the child protection and youth detention systems” in the Territory.

Has there been deterioration?

The number of young people apprehended has grown by 36 per cent in the past decade. The rate of children receiving child protection services rose from 61 per thousand in 2012 to 92 per thousand in 2015. And notifications of potential harm to children and young people have increased by 157 per cent in five years.

Is the deterioration in the ­“systems”, or in the lives of some Aborigines? Insular Aboriginal communities have been blighted for generations, but these facts were hidden from authorities (blame Aboriginal elders), or authorities ignored them (blame right-wing politicians) or, more likely, authorities fed the conditions that caused deterioration (blame left-wing politicians).

There are more than 1000 Aboriginal communities in the Territory, most of them isolated. The commission says remoteness “will be a fundamental consideration” when making its recommendations. It wants youth detention centres to be accessible to families, and accessible by public transport. What, from 1000 remote communities? A “highways to jail” program, perhaps?

The commission also says communities need to participate in decisions that affect them. This is a well-trodden path. Name the last time your “community” was “consulted”. The reason is that we are competent to manage our lives and do not, as a starting point, rely on government services.

Health issues for children and young people will form a significant part of the commission’s consideration. The commissioners note many children and young people “enter detention with serious cognitive disabilities, mental illness, addiction to nicotine, alcohol and other drugs, as well as physical deficits such as poor hearing and sight, and, in some cases, also functional illiteracy”.

These are among the factors noted in every inquiry. Except that with each report the list of problems grows and the list of programs to manage the problems grows.

And the clincher, of course, is that “communities and experts” have told the commission about the importance of “maintaining and strengthening connection to land and culture” as “a protective factor” for young Aborigines.

Would this be the culture that lauds violence to settle disputes; humbugging, that is, bludging off family; sorcery; and forced teenage marriage to old men?

Pat Anderson, joint author of Little Children are Sacred, one of the 50 reports, said during the current round of consultations on the recognition of Aborigines in the Constitution that “traditional kin-­based Aboriginal law was closer to a conventional constitution than it was to Western legislation, which can be changed by governments”.

Anderson says Aborigines “already have a complex legal system, which puts us as equals, not inferiors, to the Western system”.

Yes, spearing, hearsay evidence and payback can be quite complex.

My advice to the commissioners is to stick to matters that relate to the conditions in the facilities and staff training. If you are to indulge in anthropology, trace the lives of those Aborigines who have succeeded, despite “colonisation and loss of culture and land”.

This article was first published in The Australian.