“The strong, nation-leading support we Canberrans have shown for a national Voice suggests to me a collective concern about the egregious failure of the ACT government to respond in any meaningful way to the needs of the local Aboriginal community,” writes JON STANHOPE.
ALONG with a majority of Canberrans, I voted “yes” in the recent Voice referendum.
The reasons or rationale for those of us that voted “yes” are likely, in the main, to have been similar.
However, a factor in my decision to vote for constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples and an elected Aboriginal Voice to the Australian Parliament was that Aboriginal peoples in the ACT experience the worst or among the worst outcomes against most indicators, in Australia.
This is despite having, for more than the last decade, had both a progressive Labor/Greens government and an elected Aboriginal Voice, namely the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body (ATSIEB).
I should acknowledge I was responsible, as the then-chief minister of the ACT, for the establishment of ATSIEB. I established it in response to the decision taken by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
While it was Prime Minister John Howard who moved the motion at COAG that ATSIC be abolished he was supported by a majority of state and territory leaders. I was one of the two who dissented, and I later created ATSIEB in an attempt to fill the void, at least within the ACT, created by the dismantling of ATSIC.
In response to the distressing outcomes being experienced by Aboriginal residents of Canberra, Julie Tongs, CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service, of which I am an employee, and a cohort of acknowledged Aboriginal leaders in the ACT have been calling for several years, for a royal commission-style board of inquiry into Aboriginal disadvantage in the ACT.
Regrettably their representations have fallen on deaf ears despite the continuing slide in outcomes. Recently, in “CityNews”, I summarised the disturbingly poor outcomes being endured by the Aboriginal community of Canberra, which reveal that, across a wide range of indicators, the ACT has either the worst or among the second or third worst outcomes in Australia.
I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the strong, nation-leading support that we Canberrans have shown for a national Voice to the federal parliament is a response that reflects much more than our belief that both constitutional recognition and a legislated Voice are appropriate and just.
It suggests to me that we are collectively concerned about the egregious failure of the ACT government to respond in any meaningful way to the needs of the local Aboriginal community.
In other words, we were placing our faith in the capacity that we believed a national Voice might have, to either ensure or encourage the ACT government – and indeed all other governments – to take the needs of the Aboriginal community seriously.
To illustrate the seriousness of the ACT government’s failure to support the Canberra Aboriginal community and its lackadaisical approach to addressing disadvantage I will highlight a couple of examples, say incarceration rates and child protection.
The Productivity Commission reported in January that the rate ratio of Aboriginal men to non-Aboriginal men incarcerated in Canberra is 21 which is the highest rate in Australia. The national average is 15. Aboriginal peoples in the ACT constitute 1.9 per cent of the population but 26 per cent of the detainee population.
In addition, the recidivism rate of Aboriginal detainees at the AMC is 92 per cent, also the highest rate in Australia. The increase, over the last decade, in the Aboriginal incarceration rate is also by far the highest in Australia.
The Productivity Commission also reported that the rate per 1000 Aboriginal children under a care and protection order in the ACT is 91.4 (the third highest in Australia) while that for non-indigenous children is 6.8.
There has been no change in these rates of contact in the last four years. An Aboriginal child in Canberra is 14 times more likely to be in out of home care than a non-Aboriginal child.
In light of these dire outcomes, one would assume that the ACT government would have committed to the implementation of concrete and considered responses.
Unfortunately, that is demonstrably not the case. For example, in respect to child protection, despite having the third-highest rate of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care the ACT has the lowest level of funding in Australia of intensive family support services.
Promises made and abandoned, commitments rescinded
In a similar vein despite, six years ago, having commissioned, with great fanfare the Our Booris Our Way review of child protection, the committee’s recommendations, have in the main not been implemented.
Similar disdain for commitments made to address incarceration rates are perhaps best illustrated by the mysterious and unexplained abandonment of the much-hyped election promise to “Build Communities Not Prisons”, the centrepiece of which was a commitment to the construction of an 80-bed Reintegration Centre at the AMC.
There is a raft of similar examples of promises made and abandoned, of reports commissioned and shelved and commitments rescinded.
For example, what ever happened to the detailed report prepared, in June 2017, by Legal Aid ACT on the advantages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Experience Court Reports? When can we expect to see the government’s implementation of the report prepared by Prof Morag McArthur in respect to the prerequisites for raising the age of criminal responsibility? In addition, there are recommendations by the 100, in reports of the Inspector of Corrections and the ACT Auditor-General that have not been actioned or implemented.
In speaking with Julie Tongs about the strong support in the ACT for the Voice and for constitutional recognition of First Nations people, she said to me, wistfully, how great it would be if all those people in Canberra who got out and voted “yes” would do what they could to ensure that their government, here in the ACT, committed to keeping its promises and genuinely sought to address the needs of their Aboriginal neighbours and fellow citizens.
Who can be trusted?
In a world of spin and confusion, there’s never been a more important time to support independent journalism in Canberra.
If you trust our work online and want to enforce the power of independent voices, I invite you to make a small contribution.
Every dollar of support is invested back into our journalism to help keep citynews.com.au strong and free.
Ian Meikle, editor