Indigenous imprisonment one of top 10 blog posts in 2015

December 27, 2015

This falls into the category of “shameless self-promotion”.  My blog post entitled “Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration” (Open Forum, 12 March 2015) was one of the “top 10 of 2015” for the Open Forum blogging website.

It’s more than self-promotion, though.  It is a good indication that there is an interest, perhaps a hunger even, for discussion about that topic.  More on Indigenous Australian as well as African-American criminal justice to come in 2016.



Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration

April 2, 2015

(The following post was originally published on 12 March 2015 on Open Forum.  I am taking the liberty of re-printing it here, and adding an addendum at the end of this post.)

In mid-February of this year, the Australian Prime Minister presented the annual “Closing the Gap” report to Parliament. Although some indicators saw improvement (health), in others – especially in education and employment – there was almost no improvement at all.

Of great concern is the statement on page 28 – of which little fanfare was made at the time – that, “the rate of imprisonment is higher than at any time during the decade”. The decade? In other words, Indigenous imprisonment has been steadily rising and is worse than any time in recent memory. That’s not just “no improvement”; it is a serious step backwards.

For anyone paying attention to the statistics on Indigenous disadvantage, this comes as no surprise. In December of last year, the Productivity Commission’s report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014, made this point clearly (pp. 4.102-4.104):

  • Nationally at 30 June 2013, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was 2039.5 per 100,000 adult population, an increase of around one‑third from the rate in 2000 (1433.5 per 100,000 adult population).
  • Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up only 2.3 percent of the Australian adult population, they accounted for 27.4 per cent of all prisoners. (Note: the Indigenous population is heavily skewed to younger ages, with the national percentage of population about 3 percent.)
  • After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults was 13 times the rate for non‑Indigenous adults.

Let’s be clear about what these figures say: more than one-quarter of people in Australian prisons are Indigenous, a rate more than ten times (1000%) their population percentage. When age is adjusted (thus comparing “like with like”), the figures are even worse: thirteen times (1300%). But it gets worse.  The report also states that:

  • Between 2000 and 2013, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent while the non-Indigenous rate remained fairly constant, leading to a widening of the gap (from 8.5 to 13.0 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults).

What this means is that Indigenous imprisonment rates have GONE UP by 50% in the last 13 years, while non-Indigenous rates have REMAINED THE SAME throughout the same period. In other words, the figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have gotten worse and not just a little – A LOT worse. You can track the inexorable year by year growth of Indigenous imprisonment through the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Although there are some state variations (Tasmania is the best, Western Australia is the worst), this is a systemic national problem which demands a national solution.

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, calls these figures a “catastrophe in anyone’s language”, pointing out in December 2014 that “we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school”. He also noted that almost half of Australians in juvenile detention are Indigenous – so the trend does not look like reversing any time soon.

The Creative Spirits website summarises a number of inter-related factors for these high rates: stolen generations, disconnection from land, police behaviour, offence criminalisation, poverty and unemployment, language difficulties, foetal alcohol syndrome and poor housing. A significant number of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated for trivial offenses that rarely impact non-Indigenous people, including unpaid fines, unlicensed driving, not receiving court mail, not attending court and “disorderly conduct”. One common theme in these offenses is poverty: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to avoid jail for small offences.

These results are terrible in themselves, but three factors arise that underline their significance:

First, this increase in Indigenous imprisonment could have been avoided through a careful analysis of why, where and how Indigenous people are put in prison or into the juvenile justice system (where they now represent up to one-half of participants), and crafting appropriate responses.

Secondly, as the Productivity Commission report drily states (page 4.102), “Imprisonment has a heavy social and economic impact. High rates of imprisonment remove adults from their important roles caring for the next generation and can lead to the ‘normalisation’ of incarceration among community members.”

Thirdly – and most insidious of all – the high rate of imprisonment affects how we non-Indigenous Australians view Indigenous people. Although the comparison is not complete, rates of imprisonment of African-Americans in the USA run six times those of whites in that country. The result there means that, as Professor Heather Thompson (Temple University) points out, there is a “disproportionate policing” of young black men and women, and that in turn “sends a signal to the broader society that there is something inherently criminalistic about black people”. She calls the American rates of imprisonment a “mass incarceration” with unknown outcomes; surely the same applies to Indigenous Australians.

We can do better and improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of imprisonment. For the sake of creating an equal and just Australia, we must.


Addendum:  In order to change the situation of mass incarceration of racial minorities, “we must change the narrative”.  So says, lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson, who gives a stirring 53 minute talk about American racial justice and imprisonment, which you can listen to on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program podcast (originally broadcast on 19th March 2015).  Stevenson points out that great literature helps to change the narrative of issues so that we can see them in new ways.  We need to “understand how the world is being sustained by things (narratives) that make us indifferent to inequality” and mass incarceration.  He points out that in the USA, this is “the function of 40 years of the politics of fear and anger.  When people are afraid and angry, they will tolerate abuse and violations of rights.”  Deep and insightful words that have a strong resonance here in Australia.

Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (published 2014), is also available here in Australia.

Martin Luther King’s frequently quoted statement that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (from his “God is marching on” speech) may give us some hope.  But complacency has no place in the lack of progress on incarceration of Indigenous Australians.  For, as King also said, ““We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”  (from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech)

Indigenous imprisonment in Australia

March 12, 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates have been steadily rising and are worse than any time in recent memory.  This is a national problem that demands a national solution.

I have just published an opinion piece on this topic in Open Forum, entitled “Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration”.

I have also re-posted the full article on this blog, along with a short addition.

I encourage you to read it.

Film appreciation in a time of war

July 20, 2014

Did you ever wonder what it’s like to attend a film festival in a time of war? Tal Kra-Oz’s recent article in Tablet  (18 July 2014) gives a good, insider’s perspective of this month’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where screenings are interrupted by sirens and the obligatory temporary removal to basement rooms filled with old film reels.

Israel’s artistic elite – of which film-makers are a solid part – are notably more left-wing and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than the majority of the population.  Thus, the pall cast on this year’s Festival is yet another tragic by-product of the Israel-Hamas conflict now taking place.

But, as Kra-Oz writes, the show does indeed go on: “even when the cannons and sirens are heard, the muses are anything but silent”.

And what a show the Israelis had to boast about. In a country of just 7.8 million people, last year the country produced and released 40 feature films.  In the May Cannes Film Festival, seven Israeli films had official screenings: five features, one documentary and one student film.  Compare that to Australia, almost three times as large (population 23,537,000) , which released 26 films in 2013 and had three films in official Cannes categories (The Rover, Charlie’s Country and These Final Hours).

Kra-Oz’s article captures the spirit of the dynamism of Israeli film-making.  How this relates to the country’s on-again, off-again conflict with the Palestinians is clearly complicated and overlaid with more than 100 years of history.

After some 22+ years of unbroken economic growth, is life too good for us here in Australia?  Do we not have enough to worry about to make good films?  It may be no coincidence that Australia’s greatest success at Cannes this year was Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, in which lead Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil – playing a role in part based on his own life – won the “best actor” award in the “Un certain regard” competition.   Indigenous Australians are among this country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and those living in remote regions – such as Gulpilil’s character – even more so.

David Gulpilil(photo above:  David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country)

Are Australians the richest people on earth?

October 13, 2013

The Credit Swisse Global Wealth Report 2013 was released on 9 October 2013 and indicates some perhaps not-so-surprising news for Australians:

In US dollar terms, household wealth in Australia grew rapidly between 2000 and 2013, apart from a brief interlude in 2008. The average annual growth rate has been 13%, but about half of the rise is due to exchange rate appreciation. Using constant exchange rates, wealth has grown on average by just 3.3% per annum since 2007. Despite this recent slowdown, Australia’s wealth per adult in 2013 is USD 402,600, the second highest in the world after Switzerland.  Even more strikingly, its median wealth of USD 219,500 is the highest in the world.

You read that one correctly:  in terms of median wealth, we Australians top the world, beating number two Switzerland.

Remember that when it comes to wealth, the median – the halfway point in a distribution – is probably a much more accurate measure than “average”, which takes all figures and divides them.  In other words, one Gina Rinehart – the richest woman in the world, worth estimated between US$17 billion and Aus$22 billion – can make up for a whole lot of poor people when it comes to an average.  But with a “median”, if she is at the top, she is equivalent to the poorest Australian – in other words, one cancels the other out, and median is between them, but the “average” would be approximately one-half of Rinehart’s wealth.

Are these Australian wealth figures wrong?  Probably not.

Yesterday’s (October 12) Australian reports figures from Colliers International that commercial rentals on “Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall have leapfrogged Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone to become the eighth most expensive in the world.”

The only shopping districts ahead of Sydney are New York City’s Fifth Avenue (at number one) and Madison Avenue; Hong Kong’s Queens Road Central, Canton Road and Causeway Bay; and Zurich’s Via Monte Napoleone.

Meanwhile, research due to be released shortly by the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research and conducted by Dr Nicholas Biddle concludes that “more than a third of Indigenous Australians (36.6%) live among the most disadvantaged 10 percent” of Australians, and “only 1.7 percent live among the top 10 percent”.  The Australian has graphed this disadvantage, and I reproduce their graph below:

Indigenous disadvantage graph Biddle - The Aust(Graph reproduced from The Australian.)

The smallest gap?  In Sydney’s “lower north”.  More on this in a later post.  But clearly not every Australian is sitting up with the Swiss in median income, or buying their goods on Pitt Street Mall, one of the most expensive in the world.

Indigenous Australian film-makers feature in AACTA winners

February 14, 2013

The second awards ceremony of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts – known as the AACTAs – was held here in Sydney on 30 January and broadcast on Channel Ten.

Host Russell Crowe and AACTA President, Geoffrey Rush, were joined on stage by Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman to honour the year’s best achievements in Australian film and television.

The big story of the night was the virtual awards sweep by the film The Sapphires.  Based on a true story, this film tells the tale of four lively young Aboriginal women who form a musical troupe and travel to Vietnam in 1968 to entertain American troops.  It has been described as “toe tapping”, “uplifting”, “energetic” and “feel-good”, and achieved an astonishing 93 percent positive rating by film reviewers, according to the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation website.

The Sapphires took home a total of eleven AACTA awards, including best film (producers Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne), best direction (Wayne Blair), best adapted screenplay (Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs), best lead actor (Chris O’Dowd), best lead actress (Deborah Mailman) best supporting actress (Jessica Mauboy), and best cinematography (Warwick Thornton).

Of these, Blair, Briggs, Mailman, Mauboy and Thornton are all Indigenous – five major awards won by Indigenous people.  (The Sapphires also won AACTA Awards for Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design.)

Indigenous screen stories almost swept the drama awards that night.  In the television drama category, the ABC Aboriginal series Redfern Now won two AACTAs – for Best Screenplay in Television – Aboriginal writer Steven McGregor – and best actress in a Television Drama – Aboriginal actress Leah Purcell.

Thus a total of seven Indigenous screen award winners this year.  Is this an Australian record?  I think so.

The Sapphires

Australia the film revisited

November 25, 2012

It has been more than four years since the November 2008 release of Baz Luhrmann’s film AustraliaCertainly it was the biggest Australian film in many years, and probably the most expensive Australian film ever made – ever.

Set in the Northern Territory in the late 1930s and early 1940s and presented as a classic “Western” love story between its two major stars – Nicole Kidman (playing Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat) and Hugh Jackman (simply known as “The Drover”), within the opening credits Australia the film rapidly identifies its major theme:  of Aboriginal reconciliation and the “stolen generations”.  This term refers to those Indigenous Australian children who were removed from their families as part of systematic policies of forced assimilation by Australian state and national governments.  This destructive policy lasted from 1909 to 1969 and resulted in the decimation of tens of thousands of Indigenous Australian families, the impact of which is still being widely felt throughout Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  For more information about the ”stolen generations”, go to the following resources:

–  The Stolen Generations Fact Sheet, by Reconciliaction

– The Stolen Generations Alliance

– The original 1997 Bringing Them Home report resulting from the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, available from the website of the Australian Human Rights Commission and from the Indigenous Law Resources Reconciliation and Social Justice Library

The “stolen generations” have been the subject of other Australian films in the past, notably Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), directed by Phillip Noyce, and adapted from the Doris Pilkington novel Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (1996).  (For a review by Fiona A. Villella of that film, click here.)

Australia (the film) explores this theme particularly through the character of Nullah, played by Brandon Walters, an Aboriginal boy from Broome in his feature film debut, who was 11 years old at the time of the film’s production.  Walters gives an astonishingly natural and touching performance; his interaction with Nicole Kidman’s character becomes the real emotional core of the film, eclipsing the much-promoted Kidman-Jackman romance.  According to Baz Luhrmann at the time, Walters was to be “Australia’s next leading man” (well, not yet, anyway).

When he first began planning the film some years before production, there was no way that Baz Luhrmann could have known that Australia’s (then) new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, would (on February 13, 2008) issue a long-sought apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia for the Stolen Generations.  (Click here for the complete text of the apology and Prime Minister Rudd’s speech; note pdf document of 41kb.)

The fact that the most expensive Australian film ever made has the Stolen Generations as one of its central themes is astonishing.  Although, to be fair, Australia the film has at least seven themes operating.  In addition to the Drover-Lady Ashley romance and the Indigenous mistreatment, there is the robber cattle barons (played by Bryan Brown and David Wenham), the challenging cattle drive to Darwin, the coming of age of Nullah – including his relationship with his grandfather (played by David Gulpilil), the disapproving Darwin “society” and – notably – the World War II impact on Australia, including the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 (more on this last theme shortly).  (Spoiler alert:  this review will now reveal some plot points, so stop reading NOW if for some reason you have not seen the film and want to be surprised when you do.)

The Indigenous themes of Australia extend beyond the plight of Nullah (who is indeed forcibly removed and taken to a mission on an island off Darwin, based on the Tiwi Islands).  Hugh Jackman’s character The Drover has an Aboriginal best mate, who, we discover is his former brother-in-law:  he was indeed previously married to an Aboriginal woman, who died when she was refused treatment in a hospital.

Despite Luhrmann’s best and well-meaning efforts, he has endured some withering criticism for his film’s Aboriginal concerns.  Writing in The Guardian (UK) on December 18, 2008, Australian expatriate social commentator Germaine Greer took issue with the praise of the film by Marcia Langton (Aboriginal studies professor at University of Melbourne: click here for Langton’s Melbourne Age response to Greer) and notes that Luhrmann has “created a new myth of national origin”.  She goes on to say that “Luhrmann’s fake epic, set in 1939, shows Aboriginal people as intimately involved in the development of the Lucky Country; the sequel would probably show Nullah, the Aborigine boy who narrates the film, setting up an Aboriginal corporation and using mining royalties to build a luxury resort on the shores of Faraway Bay.”

Sarcasm aside, Greer is on firmer ground when she points out that:

The camera does not travel to where the Aboriginal workers would have lived with their extended families in a collection of humpies – shelters made of bark and branches – with no clean water, no sanitation and no electricity.  As the humpies were not intended for continued habitation they would have been verminous and filthy; the workers would have been issued with a single set of work clothes, ditto.  Despite the appalling infant mortality rate, there would have been dozens of children of various shades.  The Aboriginal workers would not have been paid, but simply given poor-quality rations, because the station owner claimed the whole community as dependents.  Aborigines did virtually all the heavy work, fencing, mustering, castrating, branding, slaughtering, digging dams, making roads, gardening, washing and cleaning.  No attempt would have been made to educate Nullah or his mates.

These problems – poor living conditions, desperate poverty, illiteracy, institutionalised racism, remoteness and few chances of economic betterment, combined with family destruction – still bedevil Indigenous Australia, with achingly slow progress.

In a discussion on ABC Radio National’s Movietime program on November 27, 2008, Daniel Browning (producer-presenter of Radio National’s Indigenous arts and culture program Awaye!) was equally as scathing, calling Luhrmann’s Australia a “post-reconciliation fantasy”.

These criticisms were, perhaps, inevitable, and one of the key fantasies of Australia – that somehow an English lady in 1930s Northern Territory would become a surrogate mother to an effectively orphaned Aboriginal boy – presents such an unlikely scenario that it threatens to re-write the history of Aboriginal-white relations.

Luhrmann also re-wrote history when he showed a Japanese army landing party on an island off Australia just after the bombing of Darwin:  the Japanese did not, repeat, DID NOT, ever land on Australian soil and shoot Australians.  For more information on the bombing of Darwin, go to the Australian Government’s Culture and Recreation Portal article or the National Archives of Australia fact sheet, which notes that “The air attacks on Darwin continued until November 1943, by which time the Japanese had bombed Darwin 64 times.  During the war other towns in northern Australia were also the target of Japanese air attack, with bombs being dropped on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.”

And yet.  And yet.  Luhrmann does succeed in presenting a vision, fantastical as it may seem, of an Australia where whites and blacks do get along.  Racism is there in his film, and it is palpable, and the results are obvious and explicit.  It’s just not realistic, and far from complete.  It’s only a movie, and a Baz Luhrmann movie at that.  From Strictly Ballroom to Romeo + Juliet to Moulin Rouge! , Luhrmann has never been a “realist” director.  Why ever would he start being one now?

Postscripts on the reception of Australia:

On 7 January 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald and reported:

In the 5½ weeks since its premiere, Australia has taken $28.8 million….  Locally the film has been a hit in the very place it romanticises, regional and rural Australia.  Greater Union’s national film manager, Bill McDermid, said yesterday that the film had done particularly well in Canberra, Toowoomba, Cairns and Mackay. “Positive word of mouth in our regional cinemas is driving excellent attendances.”

Australia was filmed in a number of outback locations, including Darwin (NT), Kununurra and various East Kimberley locations (WA) and Bowen (QLD), as well as at Fox Studios and various historic houses in Sydney.  The film had four simultaneous premieres in Australia on 18 November 2009:  one in each of the cities above.

Michael Bodey reported in The Australian (Friday 16 January 2009, page 5) that Australia (the film) was far and away the biggest Australian film at the box office in 2008, earning $26.9 million by the end of the year.  It represented more than 75% of all Australian film box office takings last year, which made it a sad moment for Australian film-making generally when all the other 32 films only grossed $8.6 million.  Australia was ultimately the sixth biggest film of the year, behind The Dark Knight  (although it was still going strong on 31st December 2008).  While Australia did not do particularly well in North America, it was been quite popular in both Europe and Asia.

The film received one Academy Awards (Oscar) nomination – for “Best Costume Design” for Catherine Martin (although she did not win).  The film has also received four Film Critics Circle of Australia nominations:  for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (young Aboriginal actor Brandon Walters), Best Cinematography (Mandy Walker) and Best Score (David Hirschfelder).

Ultimately Australia the film became the second highest grossing Australian film (unadjusted for inflation).  The DVD was released in Australia in early April 2009, while the film was still playing in a few Australian cinemas.  Responding to the claim of one British critic that the film left “no cliche unturned”, Luhrmann responded that this comment misunderstood the nature of melodrama, which “has been the building block of storytelling in cinema since the form was invented”.  Take that, you doubters.

Trailer for the film below:

(Next stop:  The Great Gatsby).