Social breakdown is the root cause of Don Dale abuse

If governments want fewer Don Dales, then take a tougher stand on school attendance, welfare to work and enabling real economies in Indigenous communities where enterprise can grow.

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO, Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce 

The real Donald Dale was a former NT Country Liberal Party member. He’s probably turning in his grave after becoming namesake for a political scandal triggered by last Monday’s Four Corners airing allegations of abuse of children at the Don Dale Detention Centre.

Allegations of mistreatment at Don Dale have surfaced and been investigated before. What made Four Corners horrific was the videos – children set upon by guards; a boy stripped and left naked in his cell; a guard grabbing a boy’s throat; a youth in a restraint chair wearing a muslin “spit hood”; children overcome by tear gas; teens harming themselves and their surrounds.

I’ve visited juvenile detention facilities; talked to corrective services officers, social workers and juvenile offenders; sat on committees, reviewed statistics and research; and advised government officials on juvenile incarceration. I’ve also seen violence and substance fuelled rage up close.

So, when I saw the visuals, I didn’t just see the incidents. I also saw familiar signs of social breakdown in Indigenous families and communities that’s destroying us.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 noted Indigenous people are more likely to die in custody because they’re more likely to be in custody. Indigenous people comprise a quarter of prisoners, half of juvenile detainees. Incarceration is so high in some communities it’s becoming normalised, a rite of passage. When I meet juvenile offenders I hear familiar stories – kids who’ve never attended school, are in and out of detention, struggle to adjust to life outside and sometimes prefer detention to living at home.

There are many other signs of this social breakdown.

Indigenous suicide is twice that of non-Indigenous. For males in their twenties it’s four times and for females, five times. When they should have the most to look forward to they see death as more desirable than life.

Indigenous people are disproportionately victims of crime. Not long before Four Corners aired, a Western Australian research report was released showing Aboriginal mothers in WA were 17½ times more likely to be murdered. Domestic violence figures for Indigenous women are substantially worse, including being 34 times more likely to be hospitalised from domestic violence.

The Smallbone Report released this year highlighted – again – the epidemic of sexual abuse of Indigenous children in some communities – offences unreported, communities protecting perpetrators over children, child abuse normalised and intergenerational.

Some people conclude the cause is historical wrongs to Indigenous people. But this theory doesn’t compute. Indigenous incarceration rates have nearly doubled since 1991. Suicide rates began to escalate in the late 1980s. Both increased after civil rights were won, after the 1967 referendum, after land rights legislation, after Mabo and during a time when treatment of Indigenous Australians improved.

I don’t see inter-generational trauma grounded in history. I see Indigenous people in crisis, today.

In my speech to the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2014, I read out case studies of dysfunctional families. The common threads – inter-generational welfare dependence, teenage pregnancies, violence, children in and out of care, grandparents raising children, truancy, abuse, child behavioural problems, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse and incarceration.

Then the twist. These weren’t Indigenous families. Not even Australian. They were British case studies from the report “Listening to Troubled Families” published in 2012. This report detailed chronic, inter-generational family breakdown enabled by welfare dependence; families unable to function properly in normal society. Over half a million British families. All had access to plenty of services and programs.

It’s the same for many Indigenous families. Indigenous elders predicted it, coining the expression “sit down money” to describe the mass transition of Indigenous people from work to welfare in the 1970s. Removal of responsibilities and accountability, chronic dependence on government without needing to meaningfully contribute in return. It’s the root of social breakdown. Many Indigenous Australians have lost all purpose and meaning.

It manifests in ballooning incarceration. How many children at the Don Dale centre attend school regularly? How many of their parents work in real jobs?

Some years ago I was driving my father past a paddock. He recalled when it was covered in trees and a couple cleared the paddock in the 1930s. Absent-mindedly I asked how they removed all those trees. With a withering look he said: “They cut down the first tree”.

The problems affecting Indigenous people are vast and interconnected. Solving them feels like escaping a labyrinth. Some think it’s too hard and ignore it. Some dream up complex solutions. I prefer the couple’s approach. Cut down the first tree. Then the next. Then the next. Because if you can’t fell one tree, you’ve no hope of clearing the forest.

School attendance, education, jobs and small business are the first trees. Every Indigenous child in school. Every Indigenous adult in a job. In remote and regional areas, the key to jobs is small business.

If governments want fewer Don Dales, then take a tougher stand on school attendance, welfare to work and enabling real economies in Indigenous communities where enterprise can grow. And implement mandatory diversionary programs for juvenile offenders, requiring them to go into jobs and education instead of detention.

Interventions need to be early because there’s a point of no return. I once met a friendly 14 year old in detention for serial rape; and a nice teenage girl who tortured and killed her baby in a rage. Indigenous incarceration is high because Indigenous people are committing crimes, mostly against Indigenous victims. That’s why the idea of setting Closing the Gap targets for incarceration is misconceived.

The Prime Minister’s immediate call for a Royal Commission satisfies the outrage of elites and may provide answers on specific incidents. But I’ve never seen a royal commission deliver longstanding benefits or solve underlying problems for Indigenous people.

Anyone who’s stood face to face with real violence, who’s lived in communities where dysfunction festers, who’s seen how terrifying someone wasted on substances can be, knows that social breakdown will continue after the Royal Commission. Unless we – Australians and Indigenous people – address its root causes head on.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO chairs the Yaabubiin Institute for Disruptive Thinking, an initiative of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

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  1. Yes , honest confronting, uncomfortable conversations need to be had and strong boundaries need to be put in place. But if you think the answer is to send more of our kids to learn Anglo Saxon ways of educating and working then you are sorely mistaken. We have researched for 5 years why we (Indigenous Australians) never seem to be on the same page with Anglo Australians and we have found that we are polar opposites in 1. What motivates us, 2. The processes we use to engage, 3. Parenting goals, 4. how we learn, 5. How we lead and too many areas to convey today. We have to teach both sides to collaborate knowing each others shared values and this is the first step to change – change at where the real collision of cultures occurs at the unconscious, internal cultural level where there are Core Values, Instinctive Cultural norms and standards of behaviour.
    It’s not the total answer but it is a new answer and it a positive place to start

  2. Excellent article, Warren. Right from the get go, whitey has stuffed life up for the First Australians, our own sovereign custodians of the entire country. If we expect the impact of the Stolen Generations to be over, we’re dreaming. Nothing whatsoever to do with the Dreaming of this nation’s own.

  3. Thank you. I remain in hope that people listen on the rare occasion when comment such as yours is aired.

  4. A brilliant piece from the intelligent, ever reasonable Warren Mundine. Using the example of a welfare dependent British family brings the problem home to white Australians in a non confrontational way we can understand. It perfectly illustrates that the root cause of the problem is our system of welfare, not the individuals involved. ‘Sit down money’ describes it perfectly. I wish you all the very best with your endeavours and I hope people listen to you, especially on the subject of compulsory education. I spent 10 years between 2002 and 2012 working in medicine on the north coast of NSW, specifically in Nambucca Heads, Coffs Harbour and Taree. I’ve seen the problems first hand and, for the sake of the country as a whole, a solution must be found.

  5. glen allison says:

    well said and to you too, Nola for your comments. I identify as white but also as an Australian. I don’t believe white culture ( excuse the term if you will) and that of indigenous Australians are that much different. Where they do differ is what each considers success and the means by which to achieve them. If one achieves what they want and need that is success for them and that is what matters. We are to judgmental of others and people suffer as a result.
    I also honestly believe, as Nola states, that teaching Indigenous kids to be Anglo-Saxon or enforcing teaching methods and outcomes on these kids that as we have seen only work on the majority of other kids to a greater or lesser extent is most certainly not the answer. The problem is great and needs to be addressed but there is no one answer for the country. It has to be addressed locally to be effective nationally. It is most certainly worth doing.

  6. Problem with finding employment, is that many communities have no local industry, and no reason to exist.

    A typical town might be 2000 people, 1800 of them Aboriginal. White people run the pub, service station, general store, church, crappy primary school, welfare office and police station. A handful of Aboriginals have a job.

    So, what chance does a young Aboriginal have of getting a job? Bugger all!

    I propose that the government provide a one way bus service out of those hell holes, and into the nearest large population centre. Sure, many would catch another bus back, however some would find a job or go to TAFE.

  7. Graham Thomson says:

    Once again, you are on the money.

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