Racism, poverty and the politicians who don’t give a stuff 

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“I was not really surprised by Labor and the Greens so shamelessly putting politics before principle… I found the puerile rationale conjured up by them for opposing the twin inquiries an insult to the intelligence,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE

I HAVE been deeply affected by recent claims made by an Aboriginal woman detained, on remand, in the Alexander Maconochie Centre about her treatment in the prison and by the nature of the response of the government and the Canberra community to her situation.

Jon Stanhope.

The woman, who I met and know well through my employment at Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service, claims to have been forcibly strip searched in front of male prison officers and male detainees.

While relatively young she has serious health issues affecting her heart and lungs. She has a pacemaker and has also revealed that she has a diagnosed personality disorder and that she is a survivor of rape. She also asserts that at the time that she was stripped naked she was menstruating, which she explains, in excruciating detail, exacerbated her deep distress and humiliation.

She has written a detailed account of the alleged incident, which I have read. Her letter contains explicit allegations of racism in the AMC.

In light of the claims by the woman, who is a long-time client of Winnunga Nimmityjah, its CEO Ms Julie Tongs, called on the ACT government, through the Minister for Corrections, Mr Mick Gentleman, to initiate an independent and external inquiry into all aspects of the woman’s treatment including her claims of racism. 

It should be noted that the Minister also has a copy of the woman’s letter and, one assumes, that he and his colleagues in the Assembly have read for themselves her heart-rending account of how she was treated.

Mr Gentleman nevertheless responded to the calls for an inquiry by asserting, in effect, that all staff at the AMC had his full support and confidence and that he did not believe the allegations of racism. 

He accordingly rejected the need for an independent inquiry. The Minister, it appears, has apparently chosen to not believe the woman’s claims about her treatment including, it would seem, her belief that racism is an issue within the AMC.

The Liberal Party shadow minister, Ms Elizabeth Kikkert nevertheless responded to the call by Ms Tongs, which was incidentally also supported by Dr Emma Campbell, the CEO of ACTCOSS, for the allegations to be independently investigated and moved a motion to that effect in the Legislative Assembly. 

The Liberal Party separately moved, in the same week, a motion for the establishment of a taskforce to enquire into poverty in the ACT, which was also something that Ms Tongs had, on behalf of the Aboriginal community, been calling on the ACT government, without success, to commission for at least the last five years.

As we all now know the ALP and the Greens’ members of the Assembly voted unanimously to negate both of the Liberal Party motions.

While I was not really surprised by the actions of Labor and the Greens in so shamelessly putting politics before principle I was certainly disappointed. I found, in particular, the puerile rationale conjured up by them for opposing the twin inquiries an insult to the intelligence but, more pertinently, a devastating renunciation of the claims of a vulnerable Aboriginal woman to have been treated in a most despicable way while in the care of the ACT government and also of the broader Aboriginal community who called for and fully supported an inquiry.

Corrections Minister Gentleman, as spokesperson for the ALP and the Greens, has in both words and actions effectively conveyed that they don’t believe her. They don’t believe that she is telling the truth or alternatively they don’t think her experience, or the concerns expressed by Julie Tongs and the broader Aboriginal community about the pernicious presence of institutional racism in the ACT are serious enough to warrant a detailed and independent response. 

The only  reasonable alternative is, of course, that they don’t care.

Not content with dismissing Aboriginal community concerns about racism, the ALP and the Greens doubled down and, as mentioned above, also opposed the Liberals call for a broadly focused inquiry into poverty in the ACT. 

Again, I assume, Labor and the Greens opposed the inquiry for political reasons. They were simply not prepared to risk the Liberal Party being recognised for championing a progressive cause. 

As with the Labor and Greens’ opposition to an inquiry into racism I was again not particularly surprised. Their rationale, when asked to explain why they were opposed to an inquiry designed to determine how best to combat poverty in the ACT did, however, strike me as eerily similar to Donald Trump’s prescription for combatting COVID-19, namely first deny that it exists and do nothing and when that position is exposed insist that it will simply disappear, like magic and, in any event, it is not your responsibility so blame someone else, preferably another government. 

An associated issue that I believe we Canberrans need to confront is what it says about us that revelations of a vulnerable Aboriginal woman being stripped naked in the AMC in front of a group of men held the media’s attention for one day while, to all appearances, the broader Canberra community simply ignored the issue altogether.

Heaven forbid that colour or politics has anything to do with our apparent indifference to the woman’s suffering.

Jon Stanhope was chief minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only chief minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.


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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.


  1. For too many Canberrans, a vote for Labor and/or the Greens is an exercise in ticking the “compassionate” box, with zero interest in what actually happens thereafter. All that matters is being able to assure their friends that they didn’t vote for those “yucky” Liberals (whose offices are daily filled with the victims of this government’s lack of caring).

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