5October 2011


Opinion piece by Adjunct Professor Dennis Eggington
Chief Executive Officer, Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (Inc)
2011 WA Citizen of the Year Indigenous Leadership Award recipient
2010 National NAIDOC Person of the Year

5October 2011


Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan’s recent comments referring to the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the Juvenile Justice system is not surprising. By using the ‘elephant in the room’ analogy he assumes that such a reality is being ignored.

An unfortunate assumption that has emerged following the Commissioner’s comments is that the Aboriginal community is reluctant to own the problem.

I can assure the Commissioner that for every absent child currently being held in detention, there is a fretting family longing for his or her return. Families that are struggling, families that are enduring trans-generational disadvantage, families that love their children. Let’s also not forget the Aboriginal children, who, when given appropriate support, are in school, training and succeeding, and importantly, given the Commissioner’s argument, staying out of trouble.

Another assumption is that offending behaviour is some deficient ‘cultural’ characteristic. The offending behaviours are post-colonial characteristics and are universal to most First Nations’ peoples around the world who have experienced the theft of land, livelihood, family, and culture. As such the problem is not an Aboriginal problem, but a post-colonial problem and therefore needs to be owned not just by the Aboriginal community but the entire community.

The elephant in the room is not the offending behaviours of some Aboriginal youth, this is merely the symptom of a much larger issue. The mammoth problem is post-colonial stress disorder that impacts on so many Aboriginal people and their families.

Rather than closing the cell door we need to be closing the gap. Self determination is crucial to this process as are ‘Justice Reinvestment’ strategies, where appropriately targeted funding can build greater capacity and fewer prisons. However to do this we need to recognise that the Australia that the white middle class kid lives in is a vastly different place to the one the Aboriginal kid lives in. On every social indicator, the Aboriginal child is denied the same level of accommodation, health, education, and employment opportunities. Such indicators are key causal factors in relation to offending behaviours and unless this is acknowledged and unless a stronger emphasis is placed upon rehabilitation programs both in and out of prison, the future remains bleak.

It causes great despair to know that even today, that as soon a new born Aboriginal child’s feet hit the ground, that the path they walk will be harder than a non- Indigenous child; a path that will more likely lead to mental health problems, to alcohol and drug dependency, to jail and all too often, to an early grave. No parent wants this future for their child and when they are then blamed for the very situation they wish their family to be freed from, they sometimes disengage.

No-one condones property crime but nor should we condone the theft of our children’s futures.

This is not merely an inconvenient truth, it is a despairing and behemoth daily reality for far too many Aboriginal families. Families that long for the same basic human rights that many non-Indigenous families accept as normal. The freedom to participate fully in society. The freedom to share in the achievements of their children. The freedom to walk in shopping centres without being followed by security guards. The freedom to be embraced by their non-Indigenous fellow Western Australians, not just on the footy fields, but in the boardrooms, in the workplaces, in the parks and in the media.

Mr. O’Callaghan’s comments stigmatise Aboriginal children as offenders and a threat to society. These kids are part of society. These kids are the coal mine canaries of society. When they fall we all fall.

Yes, there is something desperately wrong when we have so many disadvantaged children being institutionalised by a society that is profiting from the mining boom. A boom that has led to many amassing great wealth, great standards of living and securing great futures. Go to Roebourne and see the desperate circumstances confronting many Aboriginal people, just down the road from the affluence and prosperity in Karratha.

Yet beyond this boom sits another reality far greater than any mine, a massive social and economic chasm between the haves and the have nots. A gap predicated by home invasion and property crime which began with the arrival of Governor Stirling. This theft of land, language, culture, family and livelihood are the crimes that have contributed to the current tragedy. Yes, our children are over-represented in current property crime statistics and for this they are incarcerated. They are certainly not over-represented in the accumulation of wealth gleaned from the proceeds of a crime called colonisation.

The elephant in the room is the fact that our current society has been founded upon theft and whilst the perpetrators have statues built in their honour and roads and schools named after them, our children are incarcerated and locked out of the party.

This truth is inconvenient because it demonstrates that those who now enjoy great wealth have profited at the expense of Aboriginal peoples who have had their wealth taken away. Aboriginal people, whose blood and sweat greased the wheels of these industries. I do not condone property crime but I also do not condone a system that refuses to acknowledge that current and former policies in this state condemn many of our children to a life of alienation, crimes of need and incarceration.

Western Australia is truly lucky, if you’re standing on the right side of the chasm. WA is unlocking wealth and locking up children quicker than any other state in this country.

Our international CHOGM guests may marvel at our massive stockpiles but they may also question our social bankruptcy when it comes to supporting a system that continues to criminalise our children.

All Western Australians deserve a prosperous future, not just the privileged ones. As a loving parent, I am sure Mr. O’Callaghan would agree.

I invite him to work with us to seek solutions rather than scapegoats.

*Parts of this opinion piece appeared in the West Australian newspaper ‘Opinions’ section (page 20) on Thursday 6 October 2011.