The public of Australia has responded in utter disbelief and shock since the release of disturbing footage showing the abusive treatment of young people, mostly Indigenous, in a Northern Territory Youth Detention Centre. The heavy-handed treatment by Youth Justice Officers, exerting extreme force over children and teenagers has rattled most people I know, that is, except for the politicians and bureaucrats who had prior knowledge of this abuse but had not responded.
It appears that stripping children naked, gassing, spit-hooding, strapping a teenager to a restraint chair, practicing excessive solitary confinement and hand-cuffing were not serious enough allegations to warrant piquing the interest of our political leaders, namely, Australia’s Indigenous Affairs Minister. Whilst the Minister was privy to previous reports of youth abuse within the same Detention Centre, he claims that the current conditions and recent events had “failed to pique his interest sufficiently”. smh.com.au
To have one’s interest ‘piqued’ means to raise one’s curiosity, to arouse an emotion and to provoke to action. So while we have disadvantaged youth under State Care (or control) being abused, the Minister claims he was not curious enough or emotionally affected to act when he was first informed.
This is a somewhat staggering case of disinterest by a leader whose self-confessed priority as Indigenous Affairs Minister is to “ensure communities are safe for all residents, particularly children” and “determination to improve the circumstances of our first people”. ministers.dpmc.gov.au
The gap of injustice
The cycle of disadvantage for many Indigenous communities, stemming from colonisation is a painful blight upon this nation. Unless families, leaders, bureaucrats, politicians and communities actually care deeply enough to respond, then any attempts to close the gap of injustice that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will be futile.
It is a sobering fact that many Indigenous people in Australia are likely to experience lower life expectancy rates, higher infant child mortality rates, higher incidence of suicides, greater rates of preventable diseases, lower employment rates and higher incarceration rates. humanrights.gov.au
These gaping injustices have almost become accepted as the norm in an unwelcome attitude of complacency. We cannot simply accept that young Aboriginal men leaving school are more likely to go to prison than to university. Nor should we tune out to the fact that in the Northern Territory 97% of young people detained are Indigenous. aic.gov.au
Unfortunately the incidents exposed in the Northern Territory’s Juvenile Detention Centre demonstrate that when the wrong people are working at the coalface, any attempt to close the widening gap of injustice is mere lip service. Employing Youth Justice Officers who behave like inhumane, power-hungry neanderthals is not going to help this nation to close the gap of inequality. Trusting our political leaders who are only moved to take action once the media exposes atrocities, holds little hope that they can be champions of change. Members of the public who turn to social media to vent outrage in response to these incidents, will most probably do little to change the trajectory of these problems.
Let justice roll down like waters
How then do we move beyond this ugly mess? How do we work together to find creative and intelligent ways to help our Indigenous youth break the cycle of violence and incarceration? How do we better support our Indigenous youth through education and into successful employment? How do we find ways to offer all young people a future and a hope?
Perhaps it begins with a commitment to justice. If justice is to roll down like waters into the parched fabric of our society that is so desperate for change, then we must be committed to a spirit of fairness and equality. Justice propels us forward to seek transformation, to be highly accountable and to not give up as we wade through the complexities of these issues. Working towards equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people requires that our interest be piqued. It requires that we be prompted to care passionately and respond. It requires of us to actively listen to the wisdom and experience of local Indigenous leaders.
Actions toward making a difference
For too long I have turned a blind eye to the multitude of injustices affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. My inaction was simply because I had felt the issues didn’t effect me and, because I was at a loss as to how I could make a difference. So before I go pointing the finger at others, I really need to turn the spotlight upon myself. In my own small way I have begun to embark upon change - by joining a local reconciliation group, meeting with local Indigenous people in my area, participating in community conversations and keeping myself well informed.
These are only small measures but together if we commit to transformation through a spirit of justice, I believe that we can begin to make a collective impact. Let’s begin by having our interest piqued enough to warrant acting justly.
Natalie is passionate about human rights issues, matters of the mind and interfaith insights. When not in deep thought, Natalie loves to travel, drink good coffee and keep fit where she resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Natalie Alexander