“The native must be helped in spite of himself” A.O. Neville wrote in 1944 as he reflected on his career as the West Australian Chief Protector of Aborigines.
The attitude reflected government practice that saw a series of discriminatory laws which forced Aboriginal people to become second-class citizens and, rejected and despised by the white community, became imprisoned at a rapid rate and ultimately condemned as outcasts on their own land.
It would be nice to think that with the passage of time, with native title, with the apology, the changes of government policy and the little spiels at the bottom of our emails acknowledging country that times have changed.
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The truth is that despite improvements in living conditions for most Australians, the situation has gotten worse for Aboriginal people.
If you think this is an exaggeration, read the latest report from Western Australia’s independent Inspector of Custodial Services.
After an unannounced visit to Banksia Hill, the state’s only youth detention facility, the situation can only be described as equal parts abhorrent and desperate.
With echoes of the Northern Territory’s Don Dale, 70 per cent of those detained in Banksia Hill are Aboriginal and the Inspector goes on to call the facilities “cruel, inhuman and degrading” as he served the Department of Justice with a notice to immediately rectify the situation.
Hard to believe that this is the type of place that a modern, wealthy state sends those aged 10 to 17.
These kids aren’t born bad, they are exposed to a range of factors which condition them to normalise behaviour that the rest of society judge to be extreme, violent and unlawful.
That’s only reinforced when they go inside Banksia Hill and are locked away for 23 hours a day.
An operating procedure that is the standard because the detention facility is so bereft of resources.
Is it any wonder that inside those razor-wire walls there are reports of ‘suicide squads’ of 14-year-olds who simultaneously self harm in a desperate final bid to get out?
The situation is only compounded upon release, where after such inhumane treatment those young people are turned into monsters and then unleashed onto the streets.
The criminal behaviour then escalates at a rapid rate like what we’re seeing in the idyllic resort town of Broome.
There, it has gone from kids occasionally stealing a bike from a front yard, to now breaking into homes, bashing those inside and then stealing their car and torching it as part of a contest between rival gangs of Aboriginal youths.
Those who break the law deserve to be punished.
The question remains though, why are the vast majority of those in detention Aboriginal?
More than that, what does their future look like when institutions and government treat them so harshly, over such an extended period of time?
The West Australian Government announced a $26.1 million investment to improve the situation at Banksia Hill in advance of the Inspector’s report. They could hardly not.
Since colonisation, Aboriginal people have been trapped in a cruel cycle of poverty, deplorable living conditions, disease, unemployment, violence, imprisonment which culminates in their early death.
There is little prospect of being able to break this cycle when we’re treating the future generations of Aboriginal people in such a draconian fashion it would make those like A.O. Neville smile.
- Zak Kirkup is of Yamatji heritage and is the former leader of the Liberal Party in Western Australia