Two days into 2020, a 37-year-old Indigenous woman in Victoria died in prison after being remanded in custody on minor charges. Nine days later, a 13-year-old Indigenous girl was held overnight and strip searched by Tasmanian police for allegedly breaking a curfew. On the same day, it came to light that home affairs minister Peter Dutton had asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate the Aboriginal ancestry of award-winning writer Bruce Pascoe, author of the groundbreaking Dark Emu, which rebuts many of the racist myths surrounding the European invasion and colonisation of Australia.
These are just the most high profile manifestations of racism within the first 11 days of this year. This sort of institutional and systemic racism has been the bedrock of Australian society since invasion in 1788, used to justify the dispossession, exploitation, oppression and genocide of Aboriginal people, on which capitalism here has been built.
Australia began as a settler-colonial state, with the early capitalist class beginning as an offshoot of the British capitalist class. Without the dispossession of the Indigenous population, the colonists would not have been able to access the “free land” or exploit the “free” labour of Indigenous people that was crucial to establishing the pastoral industry.
Invasion brought not only the loss of land and livelihood for Indigenous people, but also decades of frontier violence and the introduction of diseases that devastated Indigenous populations. It brought racist “protection” policies, which resulted in the segregation of Indigenous people on government-run reserves and missions, the kidnapping and removal of Aboriginal children, bonded servitude and slave labour. Today, 232 years after invasion, institutionalised and systemic racism remains central to Australian capitalism, ensuring that Indigenous people remain the most socioeconomically disadvantaged group in the country.
Despite much fanfare by both Coalition and Labor governments in relation to the Closing the Gap initiative, the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in relation to health, education and employment continues to widen. According to a 2018 report by the Australian Medical Association, Indigenous people “experience a burden of disease that is 2.3 times higher than that of non-Indigenous Australians”. An important underlying cause of this is the continuing social and economic exclusion faced by Indigenous people, itself a direct result of Australia’s colonial history, capitalist exploitation and racists policies enacted by federal, state and territory governments.
According to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation – the peak body for 143 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services – exclusion from employment, as well as low incomes, poor housing and sanitation, limited education and lack of adequate nutrition, have resulted in Indigenous Australians not only suffering much worse health than non-Indigenous Australians, but has also resulted in reduced access to much needed health care services.
Indigenous people today die eight years earlier than non-Indigenous people, while infant mortality rates are 2.1 times greater than for non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous people also experience substantially higher hospitalisation rates for chronic diseases than the rest of the population. They are 11 times more likely to be hospitalised for kidney failure, for example.
Indigenous communities are also experiencing a suicide crisis. In 2019, between January and May alone, 62 Indigenous suicides were recorded. More than half of the victims were under 25 years, and 15 were children. The youngest was just 12 years old. In 2017, 165 Indigenous suicides were recorded, suicide accounting for nearly half of all Indigenous child deaths. Despite Indigenous people making up less than 3 percent of the total population, a quarter of child suicides in Australia between 2013 and 2018 were Indigenous.
Rob McPhee, deputy CEO of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service, wrote in the Conversation in March 2019 that “Indigenous suicide is different because it cannot be separated from the historical and related present-day situation of our peoples. Indigenous people from around the world share both similar histories and high rates of child, youth and other suicide”. As a result, suicide prevention programs are needed to address intergenerational trauma, along with “poverty, racism, social exclusion, substandard housing, and economic marginalisation of our communities [which] are the legacies of colonisation”.
In 2014, as part of the Abbott government’s $534 million budget cuts to Indigenous programs, the national strategy for Indigenous suicide prevention was dropped. $160 million was cut from Indigenous health programs and $9.5 million from Indigenous language support, while other key Indigenous programs such as National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services also lost most of their funding.
The CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Services for NSW and ACT, Phil Naden, told the ABC in March 2015 that the loss of funding meant that front line services aimed at preventing the incarceration of Aboriginal youth and adults would be impacted, resulting in more Indigenous people being jailed. While Australia’s crime rates have dropped significantly since 1985, the racist over-policing of Indigenous communities has resulted in skyrocketing incarceration rates over the last 20 years.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as of September 2019 Indigenous poeple represent 28 percent of the total adult prison population in Australia. Indigenous Australians are now being imprisoned at a higher rate than African Americans in the US. Twenty years ago, African Americans were incarcerated at double the rate of Indigenous Australians – 3,628 African American adults per 100,000 were jailed compared to 1,438 Indigenous Australians per 100,000. By 2017, the incarceration rate for African Americans had fallen to 2,304 per 100,000 adults, while incarnation rates for Indigenous Australians had risen to 2,433 per 100,000.
In 2018 it was revealed that every single incarcerated child in the Norther Territory is Indigenous. “This is systematic racism in action”, wrote the co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, Cheryl Axleby, at the time. “The justice system [is] stacked against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids at every stage, from police through to the courts.” Axleby further noted that, for incarcerated Indigenous youth, “there is a large cross-over between experiencing child removal, disability, family violence, mental health issues and the justice system”.
Despite Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, continuing racist policies have resulted in a new Stolen Generation. In 2014, Victoria’s Commission for Children and Young People reported, “[T]he rate of Aboriginal child removal [by the state] in Victoria exceeds that at any time since white settlement”. A 2016 report revealed that between June 2005 and June 2014 the number of Indigenous children removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care had increased by 149 percent, from 526 to 1,308 children. This is despite them making up only about 1 percent of the state’s children. According to Victoria’s commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people, Andrew Jackomos, not only were Aboriginal children over-represented in child protection and out-of-home care, but they were also suffering physical, mental and cultural neglect at the hands of the state. Eighty-six percent of cases were handled by non-Indigenous agencies, 60 percent of children were placed with non-Indigenous carers, and more than 40 percent were separated from their extended families and/or siblings.
Victoria is not unique in its high level of child removals and failure to provide cultural safety. In 2015 there were more than 15,000 Indigenous children in care across the country. Indigenous children, who are only 5.5 percent of children nationally, make up 35 percent of children placed in care. A 2019 report found they were 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care.
Jackomos argues that the “history of separation from community, family, land and culture” experienced by Indigenous people has left “a legacy of disempowerment and trauma”, which negatively impacts family stability, health and education. “Tracing the stories of individual children and their families”, he said, “we saw generations caught up in criminal justice and child protection systems, struggling with unemployment, poverty, poor education, high rates of suicide and the over-riding impact of the past impacting on the present”.
The skyrocketing Indigenous incarceration rates have been described by the president of the Law Council of Australia, Morry Bailes as “catastrophic”. Speaking in 2018 at the National Press Club, Bailes was joined by outgoing head of the Law Council, Fiona McLeod who described the failure to address the systemic racism embedded in the legal system as a failure of “political will”. According to McLeod, there need to be significant changes to the laws and sentencing practices, which have resulted in Indigenous Australians being jailed for minor offences.
As a result of high levels of incarceration, the number of Indigenous deaths in custody continues to rise 30 years after the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody. The 1991 royal commission, which examined the deaths of Indigenous people in police and prison custody over a period of 10 years, handed down 339 recommendations, the key one being that imprisonment for Indigenous people should be an option of last resort. In the three decades since, only two-thirds of its recommendations have been wholly or partially implemented, while the rate of Indigenous incarceration has doubled. In August 2018, an analysis of 10 years of coronial data by the Guardian found that 407 Indigenous people had died in custody since 1991. Between August 2018 and August 2019, another 17 died, bringing the figure to 424. It is now 426.
The continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians by the capitalist system means that the struggle for Indigenous rights is a central one not only for Indigenous people but for the Australian working class as a whole. We face the same enemy: capitalism and capitalist rule in Australia. Genuine self-determination and social and economic equality are impossible within this system. A radical struggle is needed to end it.
Kim Bullimore is a Murri activist from north Queensland. She is a long-time socialist, political activist and anti-racism campaigner.