In the past 10 days I, together with a large section of the Canberra Aboriginal community, gathered in grief and solidarity with an Aboriginal woman who buried her son and granddaughter.
The senior Ngunnawal elder's son and his daughter died in Canberra within two days of each other. The causes of their deaths were completely unrelated. What they did share was, of course, that they were both Aboriginal and lived in Canberra.
The Aboriginal community gathered in anguish to farewell members of our community who had died far too young; he was just 60 and his daughter was in her mid 30s. I am sure it was coincidental that as we did, the ACT Labor-Greens government bluntly rejected a call for an independent inquiry into systemic and-or institutional racism and the appointment of a taskforce to inquire into poverty. The call was initiated and whole-heartedly supported by the local Aboriginal community.
The catalyst for the call for an inquiry into racism was the allegations that a young and extremely vulnerable Aboriginal woman, a survivor of rape, was strip searched in front of not only male prison officers but also male detainees in the Alexander Maconochie Centre. The woman allegedly subjected to this grotesque treatment has provided a detailed written statement about her treatment in which she asserts categorically that she and other Aboriginal detainees in the prison are routinely subjected to racism.
The woman, who is a Canberra resident and client of Winnunga Nimmityjah, has a range of serious health and other issues. She is intelligent, articulate and credible. I know her well and I have no reason to doubt anything she has said about her experience as an Aboriginal women detained in the prison, in circumstances that the Inspector of Corrections, Neil McAllister, has over the past two years damned as unacceptable. Indeed the inspector implored, without avail, the immediate past minister for corrections, ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury, to address the care and management of female detainees in the prison as a matter of the highest priority.
It needs to be remembered too that this latest allegation of racism within the prison is not a random or isolated event. It was only last year that we were appalled by the exposure of the deeply racist pastime of some prison officers who engaged in a game of "hangman" involving the drawing and open display of a cartoon of an identifiable Aboriginal detainee hanging from a noose.
All Labor and Greens members of the Legislative Assembly have chosen, however, to ignore the concerns of the Aboriginal community about racism within ACT government services and instrumentalities. Instead, they accept the word of the current minister, Mick Gentleman, who claimed it was inconceivable anyone employed by the ACT government could possibly be racist. Bizarrely, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith publicly contradicted Mr Gentleman in claiming she accepted there were almost certainly elements of racist behaviour within the ACT government, but nevertheless voted against an inquiry.
I hope Mr Gentleman and Ms Stephen-Smith reflect on the fate of Eddie McGuire, who treated the existence of systemic racism in an organisation for which he had responsibility with the flippancy and disinterest now being displayed by ACT Labor and the Greens.
I am not sure whether to laugh or cry in relation to Labor and the Greens overturning the Liberal Party's motion to establish a poverty taskforce, on the specious ground that all that is necessary to address poverty is for the Commonwealth to increase JobKeeper payments.
MORE FROM JULIE TONGS:
The causes of poverty are multidimensional and complex and have been studied extensively. I would have thought it was self-evident and unarguable that the key drivers of poverty vary, and dramatically so, from place to place, from village to town, town to city and in societies and communities. I believe it is contemptible of the ALP and the Greens to argue that all that is necessary to address poverty in Canberra, especially in the Aboriginal community, is for the Commonwealth to increase the rate of the JobKeeper allowance.
There are obviously a wide range of reasons why Aboriginal peoples in Canberra live in poverty, including as many as one in three of all Aboriginal children. One factor indisputably common to almost all of them is the continuing historical trauma resulting from more than 200 years of continuing discrimination and racism that has followed the forced displacement of our ancestors from our land and the resultant shattering of our cultures and lives. The impact on many of the Aboriginal peoples in our community is reflected not just in poverty but in poor health, substance misuse, dysfunctional family relationships, contact with the justice system, poor educational outcomes, unemployment and homelessness and much more.
I challenge Labor and Greens members in the Assembly to provide a cogent argument or explanation as to why they do not believe that any of the extremely poor outcomes experienced by Aboriginal peoples living in the ACT are a consequence of or linked directly to poverty and the basis on which they think any of these shameful outcomes - for which they are responsible and which they have done little or nothing to address - would be impacted on one iota let alone improved by an increase in the JobKeeper allowance.
- Julie Tongs is chief executive officer of Winnunga Aboriginal Health and Community Services.