Stop the empty gestures and start listening to First Nations people. We are the experts

28 Jan 2021

Punitive laws are destroying our children’s futures. Changing a word in the national anthem won’t help.

Recently, Scott Morrison granted a gift to the nation by changing a word in the national anthem from “we are young and free” to “one and free”.

What largely meaningless gestures like rewording a line in the national anthem achieve is to deprive oxygen from issues that need to be properly spoken about. Systemic racism, interpersonal racism and cyclical torment of intergenerational trauma are far from the tip of the tongue when it comes to any dialogue in the broader community.

Every January, the national discourse becomes consumed by the same debates, often instigated by rightwing cultural warriors in the Murdochracy, designed to inflame outrage and division, ready to combust at the merest waft of change or progress.

Aboriginal people are left to defend against or to attack prejudice head-on, to not do so is not in our nature. But it’s draining, time-consuming and seemingly, at times, a pointless exercise.

The oxygen expended annually on these matters would leave the general public thinking it’s all there is when it comes Aboriginal Australia. Let me highlight an example here in Victoria, the so called “progressive state”.

Recently the Guardian has done a brilliant job at bringing to life the damage done by over-representation of Aboriginal kids in juvenile justice systems across the country. The impact of punitive policing and the entry point that is out-of-home care, which snatches scores of Aboriginal kids from their culture, our culture and opportunity.

But we don’t often think about the plight and number of kids that are held on remand. Remand refers to holding someone accused of criminal offending in custody pending the finalisation of their proceedings.

Released in late September, the Children held on remand in Victoria report charts not only a disturbing growth in the use of remand within the criminal justice system – more than doubling from 42 to 90 children in the eight years to June 2019 – it shows around 66% of remanded children do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

Aboriginal children comprise 15% of remanded children, despite making up only 1% of the broader population of Victoria.

We are placing these children in remand because as a society we are not good enough to surround them with the love, the culture and the promise of a hopeful future that every child deserves. Spending weeks at a time in remand for anyone has a traumatising impact, for a 13-year-old, it can be an experience that forever shapes who they are and who they will become.

These numbers may seem comparatively small, but what we do know is that justice systems in particular have a great and inexhaustible propensity to grow. We’ve seen this with the increase of Aboriginal women incarcerated, the steep growth in the number of Aboriginal men in prison. It is therefore important that we have open conversation about the use of remand as a way of conveniently conjuring a solution to a problem that must be hidden from this country’s view of itself.

So one is not the number I will be thinking about this year in the spirit of reconciliation. We are beyond empty feelgood gestures. The crisis is here and now.

If only we could take our own example from our response to Covid. We actually stopped and listened to the science. Where there is a will, there is a way. Yet we continue not to have a will to change system-induced injustices.

In 2021 the challenge will be to stop and listen to First Nations people. We are the experts. Again, take Covid as an example: despite being the most vulnerable cohort in the country, there has not been one recorded death of anyone from our communities. We mobilised quickly, we knew what to do and we led the way. It’s something we like to call self-determination.

In 2021 I’ll be focusing on localised realities, away from the goading of rightwing keyboard warriors.

I will not be grateful for a legislated, watered-down voice to parliament, I will not be grateful for acknowledgments of country or the amazing job a not-for-profit has done to launch its reconciliation action plan.

If only the national conversation would allow for nuance and a genuine yearning for understanding. The task at hand is to try and cut through the chatter and the feelgood funfair of political leadership which is a million miles from reality.

I will remain grateful to the dedicated, the determined and the composed.

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