First Do No Harm – The Unattainable Luxury
Posted by Possum Comitatus on December 14, 2007
Can anyone say with any honesty that there is a social and economic policy issue that is more important to finally deal with than the plight of aboriginal communities, particularly remote aboriginal communities?
This is surely our national disgrace. We might not do some things as well as we ought to, we probably should pay a little more attention to other things than we tend to – but there is no other single issue that detracts from the health of our nation, than the state of too many of our remote indigenous communities.
But it’s been this way for so long that we’ve all seemed to become sick of it, or we’ve all learned to ignore it, or we’ve just simply come to terms with the embarrassment it causes.
We all too often and all too easily find ourselves treating the issue as if it were simply a piece of unfortunate national human furniture; a part of the national lounge room that we’ve accepted is awful, but our solution is to simply throw a rug over it when the neighbours come round for a cup of tea lest we have to deal with it in front of others.
Every so often an outrage finds its way from the remote indigenous communities into the national media and captures the nation’s very short attention span. So we all get outraged, we all ask the same old questions over and over again, we all start squabbling about who caused what, when and why – sometimes we find a quick scapegoat, sometimes we don’t, but the one thing we always do is nothing.
Three fifths, of five eights of sweet fuck alls worth of nothing to be precise.
We’ve all become addicted to our policy failure because we don’t like the answers to the questions.
A particular answer we don’t like is the need for the reinstatement of basic community security in aboriginal communities. When this is called Law and Order, it’s an invitation for well meaning people to go ballistic – and often understandably so. “Law and Order” is the first rhetorical weapon of choice used by simplistic polemicists, usually of the radio broadcast variety that reckon the problem is just blackfellas not getting their shit together like white fellas, and if only they did then all would be right in the world.
But lets ignore those buffoons – this is a sophisticated audience, everyone reading this knows full well that in all of these dysfunctional communities, both the perpetrators of crime and the victims of crime are themselves the heart breaking casualties of 200 years of criminal negligence, a negligence that was at times more malicious than benign, and recently more benign than malicious.
But this cannot be an excuse for inaction. Suggesting that aboriginal people should be denied the level of security within their own communities, a level of security that is an intrinsic right expected by the rest of the country, is to perpetuate the criminal negligence of the last 200 years into the next.
Aboriginal children deserve to be protected from sexual abuse even if the perpetrators are themselves victims. Aboriginal women deserve to be protected from domestic violence in their communities as much as any well educated, middle class white women in a nice house, in a nice suburb that happens to have a prick as a husband.
We have achieved a widespread consensus that if a bloke beats the seven shades of shit out of his wife in suburbia, then he should go to prison; no ifs, no buts – even if only to protect the victim and the community from his totally unacceptable behaviour. Yet we refuse to provide the same guarantee of security to aboriginal people in remote communities, simply on the basis of various interpretations of the perpetrators being victims too.
To deny innocent victims safety from their abusers makes us all complicit in the further destruction of aboriginal society, and the continuation of the benign neglect that has proven so cancerous in the past.
For those that say “It’s not fair that victims should be punished”, is the wrong answer to the wrong question. We don’t have the luxury of there being a neat little world where there are victims and perpetrators. We have the dirty reality of there being victims of circumstance and victims of violence.
We cannot continue to sacrifice the protection of the latter, simply because the origins and consequences of the former stain out hearts and our history.
“It’s not fair” – no it’s not, it is not fair at all. None of our options are fair, and unfortunately we face the deplorable situation of none of our options being completely just, only some being more just than others. That’s what taking national responsibility for an extremely difficult problem involves, it’s what it means, and it’s why we are continuing to avoid it.
We just don’t like the answers.
If it was easy, if we had that ideal world and a set of ideal circumstances – we wouldn’t be having this conversation, as the problem would have been solved long ago.
But that’s not to say that enforcing community security is the be all and end all – far from it, it’s just where we need to draw the starting line. The flip side of the provision of a basic security guarantee requires dealing with the consequences of those that are removed as part of the guarantee itself, dealing with the consequences of incarceration.
We effectively have a revolving door between large sections of the male aboriginal population and the prison system, and as a result the aboriginal community continues to become infected by the brutalisation and deviant behaviour born in the prison system and transferred to become way too normalised on the outside.
Ideally we’d like to stop that revolving door – but we need to stop kidding ourselves that it’s going to be achieved by simply refusing to send aboriginal people to prison for committing crimes. Again, we just don’t like the answers.
It would be far better over the longer term to solve the revolving door problem by actually having fewer people committing crimes in the first place. On this everyone agrees, even if we just don’t know how to get there.
But reducing incarceration rates by simply not sending people to prison is effectively using an accounting trick to make ourselves feel better about the state of affairs, while aboriginal communities get to pick up the tab for the damage as violent offenders get released back into the community to continue to offend again.
We need to seriously reform the prison system to eradicate the brutal culture that ends up infecting the wider community, particularly the wider aboriginal community through inmates when they are released. That would definitely involve greater surveillance of prisoners, more isolation between some prisoners, and separation between violent and sex offenders and those found guilty of non-violent crimes. It would also involve the curtailing of prisoners rights as well as greater funding pumped in to effective rehabilitation programs. But here, we don’t like the answers because there are no votes to be gained in prison reform regardless of how beneficial it would be to everyone involved. Any politician that attempted prison reform would be hounded by the shallow end of the “tough on crime” crowd, a crowd that can thank its lucky stars that stupidity has never been criminalised.
But this is jumping the gun to some extent – one of the first things that must be looked at is whether many remote aboriginal communities are actually sustainable, or whether their lack of sustainability is a root cause of their dysfunction.
This a very touchy subject by any yardstick and undoubtedly accusations of further dispossession will arise, but what if some of these communities are unsustainable? What if their lack of sustainability actually is a root cause of community dysfunction to a significant degree?
It’s a taboo question that no one dares think about, because its answers may be so awful.
The most awful answer of all would be if some of these remote aboriginal communities had to make a choice between the dispossession of their land and the continued dispossession of their humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably a choice that at least some of the communities will need to deal with, sometime, maybe… in the future, if we ever can be bothered to address the questions that have answers we don’t like.
So how long will the country continue to go through the process of having these small bouts of temporary outrage?
This time will we do what we usually do and have a bit of a national hissyfit, find a quick scapegoat like some Qld government Minister, before reverting to our usual inertia because some of the answers are a little awkward? Or will we actually get the balls to stop treating some of our indigenous communities like shit and realise that our practicable choices unfortunately don’t include the one marked “First Do No Harm”, simply as the complexity and enormity of the problem makes the thing we wish for most an unattainable luxury.
More importantly, will we ever realise that our inaction in choosing from the unpalatable, imperfect choices available is actually causing the most harm of all?