Mr Speaker, it has now been over a week since we saw shocking images of children in detention in the Northern Territory.
Our horror at the treatment of those children is entirely justified.
But our consciences should not be appeased by the mere fact that yet another Royal Commission has been called.
This is because detention is at the end of a sad and unfortunate process – not the beginning.
It goes without saying people should be treated justly and humanely in our correctional facilities.
But what is even more important is to honestly address the reasons so many young Indigenous people end up in there in the first place.
We can’t simply make excuses for the crimes that young people commit.
But unless we tackle the underlying factors, they will continue to wallow in these facilities long after the television images fade and the Commission’s findings have been forgotten.
A lot has been written about what has occurred at the Don Dale facility in the past week.
But the wisest words have come from Warren Mundine – Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council and a former president of the Labor party.
He wrote that the real problem wasn’t that so many indigenous people were in custody – the real problem was what got them there in the first place.
And that factor was social breakdown.
According to Mundine, Indigenous communities are trapped in an endless, deadly and dysfunctional cycle…
This consists of inter-generational welfare dependence, teenage pregnancies, domestic violence, mental health problems and drug and alcohol addiction.
The fact that young indigenous people are four times more likely to commit suicide should tell us all we need to know about the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair they must be feeling.
The easy – and all too common – responses to statistics like these are twofold.
Firstly, symbolic actions to redress the historic injustices against the aboriginal community.
And secondly, ever larger government programs and agencies.
But however well-intentioned these government interventions have been, it is clear that they have not had the desired outcomes for the indigenous community.
Warren Mundine points out that many of the problems have gotten worse since the late 1980s – a time when symbolic actions and government interventions have been at their highest.
In fact, he lays a major part of the blame for social dysfunction at the shift from “work to welfare” in the 1970s.
By making indigenous people dependent on welfare, well meaning governments robbed them of their most important possession – a sense of ‘purpose and meaning.’
Our indigenous communities are hurting – and our responses continue to fail them.
Given this history, it is no wonder many are cynical that yet another investigation will have any practical difference.
So what does work?
After researching this subject, author Arthur C Brooks has identified four values that are most correlated with human flourishing.
He calls these ‘the happiness portfolio’ and they are Family, Faith, Community and Meaningful Work.
It is only by focusing on these things he says, that strong individuals, families and communities are created.
This is where I believe government should focus and target its investment.
Unfortunately, many of these things are ideologically unacceptable to the political Left.
In fact, by actively promoting the heavy hand of government intervention, they are undermining almost every one.
Our approach must change…
In the words of Brooks, “it must offer hope as well as help.”
It should see people as assets who can make a contribution, rather than liabilities who need help.
It should see work as an opportunity, not a punishment.
And it should see family and faith as pillars for strong communities, not relics of a bygone era that we can ignore.
It is only by getting these very unfashionable basics right that our indigenous communities can be lifted up and flourish.
Warren Mundine agrees
He writes of a future where ‘Every indigenous child is in school. And Every indigenous adult is in a job.“
This is the practical face of a true social justice agenda.
It respects human dignity, promotes self-agency and goes with the grain of human nature.
I appreciate these are complex issues.
But as a Liberal, I have hope in the power of individuals and communities to determine their destinies.
This is why, later this year, I will be taking a group of 20 year 12 students to the Northern Territory as part of the Hills-Hawkesbury Student Leadership Program.
Instead of attending Schoolies Week, this program will see them work alongside the students and staff at two local schools, to help with repairs and gain exposure to indigenous culture.
It is our small contribution to a school – that against significant odds – is educating Indigenous children to give them the best opportunities in life…
Indigenous communities are part of our national history.
But they must also be part of our national story today
It is my hope, that as a result of this program, each and every one of these students becomes a passionate advocate and champion of indigenous success.