This essay was originally to be about Reconciliation Day, which appeared in the ACT a week ago, but since then the issue has morphed into worldwide protest about the extent to which black lives matter (BLM). No matter, I’ll combine them. What has fascinated me is the way in which large crowds were organised in Australia, almost overnight, with printed signs and all the rest. Here the demonstrators were combining protest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis with protest over the deaths of Aboriginal prisoners in custody. Where did all this suddenly come from?
One possible answer is that the tensions produced by the lockdowns and job losses caused by the COVID-19 restrictions have found release in the opportunity to demonstrate about something thought to be more important. It seems to me allied to the much more aggressive and noisy driving I see every day on my walks. That is not to cheapen the issue, only to offer help in explanation. What happened in Minneapolis was one of an almost countless number of actions in which US police used their power to subdue, to the point of death, someone they suspected of being involved in something illegal. The numbers in which the victim is black are great, which has been the case for a long time.
To say that the situation in Australia is the same is to cheapen the American case. Nonetheless, we do have our own problems, and they aren’t going away quickly. I spent some ten years in a Canberra group organised by Reconciliation Australia whose purpose was to prevent young Aboriginal men from finding themselves in court and then in prison. Our group was modestly successful in its first few years, but its existence faded over time. Why? One reason was that we whiteys took the business of meetings more seriously than the Aboriginal members who finally didn’t turn up. Another was that no one much seemed to have control within the Aboriginal community, so that sending the boys back to their parents or guardians or family often seemed to have little effect.
The police who were involved, I thought, took it all seriously. They had no wish to lock up young people who had been skylarking, of whatever skin colour, and it would be great if someone else could take responsibility for them. But if the same young people were apprehended too many times, it was plain to the police that the worthy aims of our group were not being realised, and they still had a job to do.
The number of 432 deaths in custody since 1991 has been bruited about. I don’t know where it comes from, other than from The Guardian, which seems to have a ‘Deaths Inside project’. There have been annual official statistics about deaths in custody, but alas they don’t allow me to construct much of a trend, for those annual ones seem to have stopped a decade ago. The best detailed figures, ten years old, come from the Australian Institute of Criminology. In 2011-2012 some 42 died in prison, and a year later that number was 53. Of the 42 six were indigenous, and a year later, they were nine of 53. The 42 were all men, while the 53 included one woman. What were the causes of death? One in five hanged himself, seven out of ten died of natural causes, and external trauma (being beaten up) accounted for eight per cent. Heart disease and cancer were the principal ‘natural’ causes of death.
A much more recent paper published by the Institute does show some trends. You can read it at: https://aic.gov.au/publications/sr/sr21. I don’t seem to be able to embed the link. It seems that the rate of death has more than halved since the mid 1990s, and that natural causes are still the major factor in death. More, the rate of death has been much the same over time for indigenous and non-indigenous prisoners. More still, a lot of deaths occur in hospitals: of the 1753 deaths from 1979-80 to 2017-18, 551 occurred in public hospitals and a further 204 in prison hospitals. As you’d expect, older prisoners are more likely to die of natural causes.
I mention all of these figures because there seems to be a tendency in the media, and certainly within the demonstrations, to suggest that all 432 deaths have been caused in some way by police and prison-officer brutality. That cannot be the case, if the official statistics are close to correct, and I think they are.
Having dealt with all that, what are we to do about the rates of incarceration? They do show that Aboriginal men are much more likely to be in prison than non-indigenous men, indeed, providing just over a quarter of the total Australian prisoner population, though making only about three per cent of the Australian population. Ninety per cent of the Aboriginal prisoners are men. Very generally, an Aboriginal man is twelve times more likely to be in prison than a non-indigenous man, and their average age is rather younger, too.
What are they there for? About 35 per cent had committed acts intended to cause injury, and not quite fifteen per cent had committed ‘unlawful entry with intent’, with a further ten per cent into robbery and extortion. They were less like than the non-indigenous to kill, to be involved in sexual assault, or to be into illicit drugs. Ten per cent were there because of what are described as ‘offences against justice’, which can be anything from not doing what police asked them to do, to trying to get out of jail.
When you start looking into these details the scene becomes much more clouded than what is offered by the placards in the demonstrations. What we have is a cultural problem of serious dimensions, not, at least as the official statistics tell us, the result of a massive amount of police brutality. That is not to say there is none, only that focusing on the actions of police is not the effective way to improve things.
What is? I don’t know. My guess is that most non-indigenous Australians would like the Aboriginal protesters to get on with their lives. Some may feel Sorry that it has to be like this. I am not particularly of that persuasion. The notion that Australia would be left alone from the colonial expansion of the European powers in the 18thand 19thcenturies is just fatuous. The Aboriginal peoples (not ‘First Nations’, for heaven’s sake) had no say in the matter, but there were other possibilities than the British, like the Dutch, the French and the German, though the Germans left their run a bit late. By and large, the British were probably a better bet in the long run than the others. The Australian continent was going to be colonised, and the Aboriginal peoples who lived there would have to get used to new human beings with a greatly superior technology. Their own languages, customs, religions and cultures would soon be of little consequence. That some of their descendants want to protest about this change is understandable. But what is being sought instead? I’ve written about ‘respect’ and ‘identity politics’ before, and don’t want to rehash that discussion here. In the long run, and it may be a very long run, there won’t be much difference between the indigenous and the non-indigenous. For perhaps half of them, there isn’t all that much difference now.
About seventy per cent of our present Aboriginal people live in cities, and work in the same sort of jobs that non-indigenous people occupy. There are increasing numbers of Aboriginal professionals, and of course it is often difficult to know at once whether or not a particular person is of Aboriginal descent. What we have is a muddle. It is a muddle that is getting clearer and more civilised as time passes. Government actions, where they work at all, take a lot of time to be effective.
What works best is useful action at the local level. I’ve been part of that. If you want to be really Sorry, you do something yourself to show your sorrow and your idea of recompense. You don’t just demonstrate, say you’re angry, and insist that governments do this or that. That’s just too easy, and is yet another example of virtue-signalling.