JIM COOMBS. Doing right by our First Peoples needs a little understanding but a LOT MORE RESPECT.

Nov 2, 2017

As my Dad, “Nugget” Coombs, said in his Boyer Lectures years ago, though still ringing true, we are all demeaned by our treatment of our aboriginal people. Even back then, he implored our leaders to consult with, listen to and empower our first peoples to have not just some say, but some control over their destiny. 

After years of patronising, a national conference of all the nations of our first peoples came together to make their case for a proper place for them in the Australian nation. It was not easy for them, as they are not of just one voice or language or culture, but they came up with what they thought any reasonable person would have to accept: a body representing them to advise the parliament.

What was this government’s response ? Without any further consultation, the Prime Minister and Cabinet rejected this struggled for compromise, saying that we, the Australian people, would reject any such constitutional amendment. Who did they ask ? Pauline Hanson ? Cory Bernardi ? Tony-The-Wrecker Abbott ? They certainly did not show this effort the respect of a parliamentary vote, let alone a wider debate in the community.

In any event, where is the moral leadership on this extremely important aspect of our national character. None. Just a weak-kneed, gutless caving-in to morally bankrupt, corrupt, self-appointed “leaders” like the hate-filled Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. Malcolm Fraser, at least, could see the point. People like to point to John Howard as a “man of principle”, but he connived at the dispossession and disempowerment of our first peoples.  What little we have in the way of land rights is due to Dr Coombs’s deep sense of shame at the treatment  of aboriginal people which he passed on to Gough Whitlam. He was not ashamed to sit on the ground and hear what they wanted, sometimes leading to a fair share of the nation’s wealth in mining. Some legal redress (but not much) arose out of that. Remember the terror in the country over aboriginal rights over the lands they had occupied for thousands of years ?

Kevin Rudd, however much he is now despised and reviled, had at least enough guts and moral leadership to utter the long overdue apology. This prime minister-without-credibility just walks away. But it is not just him, although he and his cabinet could make an enormous difference if they weren’t such as they are.

But the buck does not just stop there. At all levels, doing right by the aboriginal people is the responsibility of us all. In previous posts to Pearls and Irritations I have made proposals for the ways that the legal system could do better by our first peoples. Based on the “Circle Sentencing” model, which gives aboriginal community members a say in how their people are dealt with in court (once they plead guilty!), the idea is broadened to make that consultation a part of the  charging process (it happened in Menindee). Let’s call it “Circle Charging”, to make it part of the bail/incarceration process (it happens at Balund-a (a NSW Corrections Establishment) near Tabulam in northern NSW). Let’s call it “Circle Incarceration”, and what I call “Circle Bail Hostels” which would be managed by indigenous staff and would keep people out of gaol, but more likely to meet court dates and have somewhere to live. These were submissions to the Don Dale enquiry. No response, too busy for looking for culprits. But we do have to look at ways to have aboriginal management of aboriginal problems.

But moral leadership goes much higher. The judiciary in Australia cries out for leaders who will tell their courts to behave better. At magistrates and judges conferences over the last twenty years, much material is placed before them from the bureau of crime statistics and aboriginal legal and welfare organisations, and attendees either don’t attend or scoff at the facts provided. The chiefs of these courts have a moral responsibility (as part of their judicial oath) to call the scoffers to order. But they don’t. They could, if they had the moral character, make considerable inroads into the conviction and incarceration rates.

But it goes higher. If judicial appointments, especially to the lower courts, had a reasonable proportion of aboriginal incumbents, it would be no surprise to see the conviction and incarceration rates of aboriginal people decrease. Instead we have white anglo-saxon head-kickers. But the buck stops even higher, Gladys! Until appointments are made which make a difference, instead of cementing the status quo, the sorry tale of aboriginal mistreatment will continue. NSW has had one aboriginal judge, Bob Belear, and NO aboriginal magistrate, let alone a supreme court judge. In 200 years.

The saddest thing about all this is that it does not cost money, just getting our morals right.

But Turnbull’s rejection of the aboriginal constitutional proposal is insensitive and gutless. As Nugget put it, we are ALL demeaned by our treatment of our first peoples. Twenty years on, nothing has changed. We still, seemingly, don’t feel the shame. Aborigines, refugees, climate change, though it stares us in the face, we just don’t care. Well, I do.

Jim Coombs is a retired magistrate.


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