Monthly Archives: July 2016

On the Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention centres


Bearing witness to the horrors that human beings inflict on each other prompts many responses. One is silence. Another is to express shock. A third is gesture politics, as Prof Megan Davis writes here and Luke Pearson here.

One of the loudest public responses to terrible acts of violence in Australia is to call for an inquiry. When a politician responds by apparently deciding overnight to hold a Royal Commission, it is very likely to be an act of gesture politics.

This week, Malcolm Turnbull responded to mass media exposure of a problem – an endemic problem with a history as long as colonial Australia – by announcing a Royal Commission into Northern Territory juvenile detention centres.

As pointed out by Michelle Grattan and Brian Stout among others, the ‘evidence of NT detention centre abuse was there for all to see’. The Prime Minister knew or ought to have known. The Chief Minister did know. We know they knew because the NT Children’s Commissioner published its report in August 2015.

But there seems to be some confusion as to what is a Royal Commission, as well as to what a Royal Commission can achieve. A Royal Commission is a process, not an end in itself – although announcing a Royal Commission can be a political end in itself.

The nature of Royal Commissions

Royal Commissions are a serious business: the act enabling their establishment is only a year younger than the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution. The penalty for intentionally insulting a Royal Commission is imprisonment for three months. If the Commissioner is a judge, no trial is required – the Commissioner acts as police, judge and jury.

Royal Commissions bear witness, and are reported in detail. So the citizenry can bear witness too.

Referrals may be made for prosecution, and may produce convictions, which might be followed by custodial sentences – or not – as the law takes it laborious course.

Recommendations are always included in the final reports. This is the systemic aspect, the central purpose of an RC, that which goes beyond individuals to the whole of the society.

Governments may accept some or all of the recommendations. Governments might then legislate for the implementation of the recommendations. Or not.

Executive government – the minister and public servants whose job it is to implement cabinet decisions – may do as directed, in part or in full. Employees who ignore or resist government directives may face consequences for this form of misconduct. Or not.

So the pathway from announcing a Royal Commission to a positive change in the way we are governed – whether a harm done is compensated, whether the wrong-doer is punished, whether future harm is prevented by systemic reform – is very long.

The longer the path, the more likely there are twists and barriers and traps and saboteurs between the RC and its stated goal.

Meanwhile, vested interests deliberately deny and derail and delay around RC proceedings: to avoid accountability for their wrongs and those of their mates or staff or institution. Witnesses tell the Commissioner they can not recall. It was all so long ago.

Then there are the false binaries as to whether Royal Commissions are political or impartial, effective or ineffective. Some Royal Commissions are party-political from day one, others are established after careful consideration of its nature and the terms of reference.

These binaries emerge because white western traditions and systems – of knowledge, of government, of society – are designed this way. Our adversarial system of law, the two-party model of government, rigid male-female genders and stereotypes: these are examples of how we organise and teach and understand the world in ‘the west’.

The model is neither accurate nor nuanced, but it is the one we have. And its beneficiaries are very aggressive in maintaining the status quo.

A Royal Commission may be relatively non-politicised; but all concern specific vested interests (such as organised religion or the nuclear industry) and RCs always concern the interests of governments. Different Royal Commissions have played different roles. But no RC in living memory has prompted “strong decisive” government action to implement all recommendations and thereby produce lasting, effective social change for the better.

EG

The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was an unmitigated and expensive, deeply politicised failure. That a finding of corruption was pre-emptively written into its title is the first sign. The referrals for prosecution have not stood up to scrutiny by the relevant prosecutors. The Commissioner was compromised by perceptions of bias if not actual bias – where perception of bias was a decision reserved to the Commissioner himself.

In contrast, Black Rainbow founder Dameyon Bonson has been calling for a Royal Commission into Indigenous suicide. Rates of suicide among Indigenous people are the highest in the country. Young people and people from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Intersex (LGBTQI) community are over-represented again. There has been no national approach to understanding, let alone acting on, these known facts. No representation of Indigenous people on the various peak bodies. We see mass coverage of government homophobes attacking an education program designed to save young LGBTQI lives, but not of the intergenerational trauma carried in Indigenous communities since colonisation.

In this context, a national, co-ordinated response in the form of a properly funded Royal Commission that gathers evidence, tested by lawyers, has every chance of being the most effective next step to the work done by Black Rainbow and Joe Williams and others’ efforts to save the lives of their people from suicide.

The Royal Commission into Northern Territory Juvenile Detention Centres

I am against. These are my reasons.

1 As mentioned, the claims made about the efficacy of Royal Commissions, that RCs have the capacity to effect social change for the better, are misplaced. It is governments which must legislate and implement the recommendations.

2 There are thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from hundreds of Indigenous nations around the country who have already analysed the evidence. Who have been stymied at every turn from bringing up their young people. Who have the knowledge, skills, understandings, love and care and motivation – but not necessarily enough resources or authority, which the colonial state has systematically stripped away – to care for young people.

3 The notion that another evidence-gathering and analysis process is required before government can act on systemic racist violence in its own ranks is entirely unfounded because the evidence is in. It is uncontested. It has been in for decades, at least since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-91) and National Inquiry into Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (1997).

Only the most Jurassic racists openly pretend that this state-sanctioned violence is to deal with kids who ‘cause trouble’.  Like the NT Chief Minister. When (slightly less overtly racist) politicians gravely intone that this RC will ensure the terrible wrong will never happen again, they are demonstrating wilful ignorance of the system of government to which they have been elected. They are grandstanding. Posturing. Knowingly misleading the public. Lying.

Not only is implementing recommendations the role of government, but no RC recommendation has ever ensured Indigenous people are not harmed by the state. In fact, the state removes more Aboriginal children now than during the Stolen Generations eras. The state locks up Aboriginal people at a higher rate than when the RCADIC recommendations were handed down. A key finding of that RC was that the rate we lock up Aboriginal people is a direct cause of the rate that Aboriginal people die in custody.

4 Which raises the spectre of an RC doing more harm than good. Whenever Aboriginal people make steps towards equality and justice, the dominant majority – the white patriarchal state, citizens with structural social privilege (collectively and individually), corporate interests, conservative media, all these push back aggressively against Aboriginal people, Aboriginal people’s rights and interests.

This is how the official end of segregation and assimilation as government policy saw the beginning of a much harsher form of segregation: more children removed, and more locked up  – often the same kids.

5 Cost-benefit, or better use of resources: RCs are very expensive. Lawyers cost a lot of money, as do researchers and scribes and security and sittings and per diem if the RC sits in multiple locations. There is an allowance for witnesses, whether abuser or victim.

The estimated cost of the Trade Unions RC was $80 million. This new one looks to have a similarly narrow scope (unlike the RC into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with its much wider jurisdiction).

What is the opportunity cost? Could $80 million cover a compensation scheme, be invested in remote communities, in health and education, in transport and recreation facilities? Who has the greater need for state funding: Aboriginal children, or lawyers?

6 Some recommendations on how to stop police and prison guards violently assaulting and even torturing children would be useful.

But this is not how the terms of reference will be framed. We know this, because the Prime Minister and Attorney General have committed to working with NT Chief Minister Adam Giles; and Giles has framed the problem as unloving parents and children who ’cause trouble’.

This problem – the subject of this RC – is about Giles’ racist government and its very violent employees.

The Northern Territory government signed off on the procurement of these ‘restraint’ chairs, as is clear from the linked story dated 22 April 2015, which reported: “Cable ties and restraint chairs are set to be approved for use on children in custody as young as 10 if new laws pass the NT Parliament next month.”

As young as 10.

Yet the Chief Minister watched footage of staff strapping a child to a chair with cable ties, men hooding a boy, men teargassing children, turning a fire hose on them, stripping a child naked in the most abhorrent way … and concluded:

“The best form of youth program there is the love of a parent. … In the Northern Territory, there are too many children who are unloved.”

This is coded. The translation? Black parents are the problem.

If 60,000 years continuous survival is not evidence that Aboriginal and Islander people can bring up their children, what is?

There is simply no way an RC with terms framed by a man who thinks like Giles can effect positive change. The way he thinks and the stated objective of the RC process are incompatible, irreconcilable, do not inhabit the same discursive universe.

7 – 100: No Australian government has the courage or the know-how to stop police and prison guards from violently abusing Aboriginal people, especially children.

The people who are presenting this Royal Commission as a solution are part of the problem. The people who will write the terms of reference, who will tell us this process is to ensure it never happens again, can not, and will not, ensure any such thing.

Racist violence directed by successive white governors and governments has led us here. Attorney General Brandis limited the RC scope to the Northern Territory on the basis that the NT was “the particular problem that has been exposed” – exposed by a television program. This minimisation and isolation of a systemic problem is part of the problem.

Our governments pass laws to (re)dispossess and otherwise oppress Aboriginal people, like the NT ‘Emergency’ Intervention, or the NT paperless arrest laws, or the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

The events shown on Four Corners are terrible, but they are on a spectrum rather than being a one-off, an aberration. All Australian governments employ men who violently abuse children in their care (as do churches, charities, boarding schools, armed forces and so on and on, ad infinitum, back to the culture of the C18 imperial power).

Yet these same men imply an RC comes with a magic Royal wand to safeguard against future governments passing laws that are designed to dispossess and otherwise oppress Aboriginal people. If Giles thinks black lives matter, he will repeal the paperless arrest laws and focus on the violence committed by government employees. He has not and will not do these things.

The timing, the politics, the narratives, and the role of RCs

The fact that the Turnbull government chose its announcement for maximum impact to capitalise on the Four Corners program; the feigned outrage and faux sincerity of every government member when asked about the footage (like Child Abuse RC witnesses, these people are only concerned with their own position, not those kids); the narrative of claiming shock when faced with the long established fact that government employees (and churches etc) grossly abuse young people; that Giles has been invited to give input …

These observations of how this thing is playing out in the public domain (and politicians treat the public domain as their private playground: double dissolution elections, plebiscites, Brexit), strongly indicates that the Commonwealth is using an RC announcement to appease the public; and that it will not be designed to stop government employees committing state-sanctioned racist violence.

Bearing witness is important, and has been done: by Aboriginal children and their families and communities; by the NT Children’s Commissioner and legal and other organisations; by governments and now by the viewing public. It is time for action.

Shut them down.

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Not a hot take

Another day, another aggressive bombastic bully makes nasty sexist remarks on a public platform. He should, but will not, be sacked – unlike this writer who was sacked for two tweets. His name is Steve. Her name is Catherine.

Another day, another cranky old shock jock calling a woman hysterical on the telly ie he used a gendered slur in an attempt to silence and discredit that woman.

Everyday ignorance

Another day, another bunch of self-appointed progressive men being ironic or sarcastic or smart or funny – none of which can be done without honking their own horn.

‘To be fair, Steve Price did come to a battle of the wits unarmed’ chortled one bloke on Twitter. When an Aboriginal woman pointed out the significant armaments that Price’s demographic privilege affords him, the white man doubled down. His original irony and sarcasm were obvious, he proclaimed.

This bloke is performing support for women. He should have listened to, of all people, an Aboriginal woman. She knows a lot more about white male privilege than he does, because she has to navigate it every day while he does not see it at all. His comment was not original either – the phrase goes back centuries (but not to Shakespeare). Nor could he be sarcastic and ironic. Or maybe he is one of those people who think the two are synonyms, in which case his claim was a tautology.

This is the kind of dominance and erasure and ignorance – we are ignored and our views dismissed, by men who deploy responses which do not stand up to basic scrutiny – that women endure every day in the company of men.

Then there are the responses of incredulity and disbelief, which emerge every time a nasty sexist goes public with his nasty sexism. But nasty sexism is not new, or different, or out of the ordinary. It is not incredible.

Disgusting and appalling, yes. Surprising? No.

Every time we express surprise at routine sexism, we decontextualize the systemic nature of sexism. We also give a free pass to all those blokes who characterise themselves as entirely separate and different to the cranky old shock jock.

But the good bloke may not be so different from the cranky shock jock. ‘He was only joking’ and ‘I was being ironic’ are two versions of the same message. The message also has the same purpose: to legitimatise men’s voices while de-legitimising women’s voices. To silence women, to minimise and trivialise our perspectives, our experiences, our knowledge, our lives.

Everyday man, famous man: the difference is scale, not attitude

Take comedian Wil Anderson’s hot take: ‘We’ve reached the point where on a Tuesday there are more hot takes on #qanda than people who watched #qanda’ (Disclaimer: I love Wil. I defend Wil against Wil haters. I woke up with Wil for years. But in this tweet, Wil got it wrong).

Trivialising and minimising hot takes is one thing, but here is another: the two most important articles this Tuesday, by Van Badham and Rebecca Shaw, described the substantive problem in detail. The substantive problem is men’s violence against women, and domestic violence in particular. The substantive problem is the fact that successive conservative governments have systematically dismantled women’s services.

These are not ‘hot takes’. These are not for trivialising. These are life and death matters.

Or take the ABC radio host – a nice guy, a witty guy – who last week invited listeners to call in with their ‘tired mum’ stories. The first caller put through was a man. He was the parent who had not spent nine months growing a human being, who had not laboured mightily to bring a human into the world, who had never fed that human from his own body. But he was just as tired, this dad insisted, and the radio host did not have the wit or the will to correct him with basic biological facts.

Then there was the ABC radio roundtable last Thursday on the prospect of a federal hung parliament. The host – an apparently nice guy, witty too, some say – said ‘and of course Tony Windsor was an independent in the Greiner government’. Well, yes, he was. Windsor also served in a more recent minority government in the federal jurisdiction ie the actual jurisdiction that was then in the balance and under discussion. Why erase the Gillard government and reach back over 20 years for a less relevant comparison?

Why do you think?

The same radio host could also be heard this week ‘joking’ around with a white man colleague, saying Australian politics is not so bad because ‘we gave the sheilas the vote’ ha ha ha ‘before anyone else thought of it.’ Maybe he should think about what he just said. The suffragettes’ struggle for the vote was a protracted and difficult campaign. It was not a struggle against good blokes who hand over political rights to the sheilas because they are good blokes. It was a struggle against powerful white men who resisted power-sharing outside their own demographic elite. It was also not a struggle for Aboriginal suffrage. In a single sentence, our non-shock jock, our good white man, co-opted the work of suffragettes and pretended our enfranchisement was a gift from good blokes like himself and erased the disenfranchisement (or should that be unenfranchisement) of all Aboriginal people, men and women.

Nice one mate.

Then last Saturday there was this story on past winners of the prestigious Archibald prize, illustrated by a photo of three men front on, and the man writer off to one side. Off to the other side, we could just make out the blurry profile of Del Kathryn Barton, the only artist there who had won the Archibald twice. Maybe Barton asked to be obscured, but I doubt it – she has been interviewed and photographed before. I have no qualms with a photo in the arts section of a major newspaper showcasing Quilty. He seems like a top bloke. But to all but disappear Del Kathryn Barton? I have a major problem with that.

Archibald winners

Failure to portray the most successful portrait artist in this story

And how about The Drum this week. Host John Barron, a man, crossed to a commentator in the UK, also a man, to discuss the ascendency of Theresa May, a woman, to the British Prime Ministership. After treating us to the insights of these two men into women politicians, the host turned to former conservative MP Jackie Kelly and asked her about conservative women leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi. Golda Meir. In 2016. In Australia. I ask you.

To her credit, Kelly responded to this ridiculous question by naming (Labor) Premiers Joan Kirner (Vic), Carmen Lawrence (WA) and Anna Bligh (Qld) as well as (conservative NSW opposition leader) Kerry Chikarovski – but not (Labor Premier) Kristina Keneally (NSW).

If not discussing the ‘hospital pass’ – as Kelly, and again kudos to her, called it – of men ceding power to women when the blokes have made such a complete mess of things that only a woman could possibly clean it up… then why raise gender at all?

Barron then crossed to another man, and said ‘is it just old blokes like us who don’t get Pokemon Go?’ This is an invitation to begin a self-deprecating blokey routine together. What was the other bloke supposed to say? ‘No mate, it is just you. Women have a much better grasp of how Pokemon Go works, given it is women who are most likely to be looking after kids as they play the game’.

Why not merely compare the merits of politicians, or conservatives, or any old adult who does not ‘get’ an app craze? Why not place the most successful artist front and centre of a photo showcasing successful portrait artists? Why erase not one but four ALP Premiers and dig around in history, overseas, to put an absurd and unsubstantiated premise about conservative women in politics?

There is a point to listing how men choose to gender these narratives. These nonsense twists and turns in public debate serve multiple purposes. Highlighting gender where it is unnecessary to do so paves the way to obscuring gender roles when it is very necessary to do so. Such as when it comes to domestic violence.

For instance, when women note the fact that men’s violence against women is gendered in specific ways that benefit men and harm women, the man commentator – assuming he has got past the me-tooism practiced by oafs like Steve Price – can throw up his hands, act confused, and say ‘but when I gendered women politicians you all criticised me’.

Our man prides himself for being above Neanderthal level, of having made an effort to understand women’s issues or some such. It is all about him. He tried. He can not be expected to understand the fine distinction between men killing women and men ceding power to women when the blokes have trashed the polity.

After all, he is only a highly remunerated professional with a public platform who was awarded his position on merit. What more do women want? Can he help it that his learned helplessness and deliberate decision to close his ears when women are speaking has prevented him from learning important lessons about his own gender? Of course not. He is a good man. He tried.

Bona fides ignorance

This is the bona fides ignorance routine that is unthinkingly permitted – to whiteness and to men. Look at the enormous harm that church and state visited on members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants. The standard conversation among white people about the Stolen Generations – again, if it gets beyond base level, (it wasn’t me I wasn’t even there) – quickly essentialises to ‘but they had good intentions’.

When his intentions were good, once he has done nothing more than said so, the white man is almost always taken at his word, and is thereafter in the clear. This norm stems from centuries of cultural indoctrination about a man’s word being his bond and so on. Course we can no longer demand our satisfaction by way of a duel if we doubt a man’s intentions – that is for the courts these days.

But women were never permitted to question men’s intentions anyway. He said he did not mean it. Why are you harping on about it? It is petty. It is trivial. It is nothing. He probably did not think about it. (Indeed. That is his luxury. Also the problem).

Women are trained to minimise our own stakes and feelings in any given set of circumstances; and to fear the repercussions of impugning a man’s character. The repercussions are very real, of course. Rejecting a man or his views is in fact a huge risk. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned; which is why the old aphorism is ascribed to women.

This is how sexism works: men are granted the benefit of the doubt, based on a false assumption of his good intentions. At the same time, the evidence shows that men often hold extreme ill-intention, up to and including killing the women who doubt or refute or reject them.

Meanwhile in NSW

As I write, the NSW Premier Mike Baird is gearing up for a heroic announcement on legislative reform to assist ‘women in violent relationships’. The changes are addressed at the terrible hardships women endure when violent men damage property but leave a woman with the bill.

Here is the scenario. Someone damages property that is owned and leased by someone else. This is a crime. The correct response is to call the police and make a report; and contact the agent to provide details including the crime report number. The real estate contacts the landlord, who contacts their insurer, who pays for the damage to be fixed.

However, if the leaseholder is a woman in a sexual relationship with the man who did the damage, she is held responsible for his actions. Rather than the police, the landlord, the insurer and society ensuring the safety and individual responsibility of each member of the community (as per our purported values), a woman is made to pay for the crimes of a violent man.

The ‘law reform’ is said to ‘assist’ women to not be blamed for the actions of a violent man. Yet the violent actions of a violent man are in fact actions for which she is not and never was and can not be at law responsible for in the first place.

If women could control or change men, we would use that magic power to stop men being violent, not cause men to be violent (and to not, in this context, leave us with the bill while we also take responsibility for feeding and clothing and housing our children).

The law could instead uphold its own principles – individual responsibility, equality before the law. But there is no fanfare for Baird, or continuation of the dominant victim-blaming norm, in that.

So Baird shuts down women’s services while posturing as a hero and saviour of women. Nobody mentions that violent men are the problem, because everyone up and down the chain knows that women’s lives are at stake. This makes criticism extremely difficult. We must settle for reforms that would not be necessary if the rule of law as it currently stands was upheld by those who write it.

These reforms enshrine in law the norm that a woman victim is responsible for a violent man perpetrator’s damage by providing special ‘help’ in ‘exceptional’ circumstances – circumstances which are in fact routine and not exceptional at all.

In sum

Meanwhile, a bully tells his audience that the woman he bullied is aggressive. A radio host hears out a man telling his tired mum story. A twitter exchange shows a white man performing support for women while talking over a black woman. A successful woman portrait artist is framed out of a photo of successful portrait artists. An entire government led by a woman is erased from public discussion.

All these instances are on the same spectrum. Even the Prime Minister knows this, with his empty rhetoric on ‘violence against women’ (by which he means men’s violence) beginning with ‘disrespect’ (by which he means the ways that men ignore, erase, speak over, silence, and tone police women). What a pity Turnbull does not articulate these facts, or any real meaning. I mean, the electoral evidence suggests he has a ready and willing audience, if only he had the wit or the guts to do so.

Turnbull wants to be a hero to women too – but not in any substantive way. Like everything in politics, no matter how flowery the rhetoric, it comes down to numbers. As the final seats are counted, the proportion of women MPs in the newly elected Coalition government is 17.1% on current figures. Turnbull has gone backwards. If he is a feminist, he has no authority. If he has authority, he is no feminist.

Unless and until

Steve Price defended his mates as making a joke and then demanded that Van Badham ‘not tar him with the same brush’ as his mates. This is exactly the kind of irrational, unreasonable, internal incoherence that white privilege bestows on white men. But Steve does belong in the same category as Eddie MacGuire. It was Steve, by blathering about his mates, who tarred himself with the same brush as Eddie.

And until those nice white men who think it is funny or clever or ironic to trivialise and minimise women’s lives and perspectives and knowledge and experience, including by crowding the airwaves with their own performative good bloke routine…

Until conservative politicians get that it is not heroic to enshrine in law so-called exceptional circumstances for what is in fact unexceptional nay routine male violence…

Until writers and artists and public broadcasters recognise that it is unacceptable to give men a more prominent platform for objectively less success, to co-opt womens’ labour, whether in creating new humans or painting a portrait of those humans…

Until white Australian manhood comes to terms with the fact that it is unacceptable to co-opt white women’s struggle for the vote, while erasing Aboriginal people from both their struggle for the franchise and from public debate…

Unless these lessons are learned, the progressive good bloke men are tarring themselves with the same brush too.