That we are to have yet another Royal Commission into Aboriginal Affairs is good news for some. It is good news for Malcolm Turnbull who, in ordering the Royal Commission as soon as he saw the Four Corners programme on the Don Dale Correctional Centre, showed that, when the decisions are easy, he can be decisive.
It is good news for Silks and QCs who will be paid millions of your dollars to crucify the guards and managers of the Don Dale Centre. And of course it is good news for the Committee of Public Righteousness whose principle members host Q&A, the 7.30 report, and Lateline on ‘your’ ABC. Their primary task will be to assist with the crucifixion of all the staff connected with the Don Dale Centre and any politicians who are foolish enough to appear before the triumvirate of Messrs Jones, Alberici, and Sales.
Unfortunately it is not at all clear that the Royal Commission is going to be good news for the inmates of the Northern Territories Detention Centres.
I arrived at that somewhat dismal conclusion after reading the 1905 Royal Commission on the Condition of the Natives which was largely concerned with the detention of ‘blacks’ and ‘half castes’ in the Kimberly region. What is astonishing about the report is that the issues it addressed are exactly the same as the issues that are to be addressed by the forthcoming Royal Commission, and it is immediately apparent to anyone who reads the 1905 report that very little, other than the language used today, has changed in the 110 years since it was published.
The report is very much a product of its time and place. The Commissioner ‘…placed on record his appreciation of the humane… treatment exercised by the goalers over the aboriginal prisoners’ but did suggest that the attaching together of three natives at a time with neck chains, then chaining one of them to a wall overnight ‘might need reconsideration’.
The Commissioner hoped that the neck chains used when prisoners were sent out to work on the roads could be done away with but did recognise that some form of chains would still be necessary.
The Commission also noted that 90 per cent of the aboriginal prisoners were in jail for the offence of ‘cattle killing’ and that the main reason for this activity was that the traditional sources of food for the aboriginal had been removed by the white settlers to provide more vegetation for their cattle. While cattle killing may no longer be a major problem in Australia’s north, the other issues that the 1905 report dealt with are still very current today.
Then, as now, the coastal communities in the Kimberley region went through boom/bust cycles. Today it is minerals. A century ago it was mother of pearl shell which was highly valued around the world. In the days before plastic had been invented it was used to make decorative buttons for coats.
Then, as now, alcohol was a major problem in the aboriginal communities and attempts to restrict access were constantly undermined by white men and ‘Asiatics’ who, in the absence of their own women, wished to exploit the native females. The high incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in aboriginal communities, which exists to this day, became a problem at the beginning of the last century when the crews of the pearling luggers would moor in coastal inlets close to an aboriginal camp and, in exchange for flour and rice and alcohol, would be offered women who sometimes went willingly and sometimes were forced to go on board the ships.
Then, as now, the collapse of aboriginal social structure meant that the family unit was frequently incapable of looking after children.
And, then as now, there was considerable debate about who was responsible for looking after children in these circumstances. In the confronting language of the day, the 1905 report says ‘Of the many hundreds of half caste children – over 500 were enumerated in the last census – if these are left to their own devices… their future will be one of vagabondism and harlotry’.
And in Australia as a whole, then as now, there was a disconnect between a civilised south and a wild north perceived from the south as being populated by adventurers and governed by rednecks.
Is it too cynical to suggest that, instead of lining the pockets of QCs with millions of dollars and providing endless talking points for television news by once again going through the whole malarkey of a Royal Commission, we simply reprint the 1905 report? Obviously we might consider a more updated type font and perhaps a few photographs.
This would save a lot of money but it would have another advantage. By making available to the general public a 1905 report which addresses the very issues which we are shortly to consider, it would raise awareness of the complexity of those issues. We should be asking why problems which were accurately identified 110 years ago have still not been solved today?
There is of course no more chance of the Government adopting this suggestion than there is of the commentariat at the ABC showing any interest in looking into why this problem is so intractable. Instead, scapegoats will be identified and hung out to dry and the matter will be put aside until the next Royal Commission falls due in 2110 or thereabouts.
Thanks to the miracle of the internet, anyone who is interested is able to read to 1905 report today. Put into your favorite search engine, ‘Report of the Royal Commission on the Condition of the Natives. West Australian Government 1905’ and a fascinating historical document will emerge immediately.
It should be compulsory reading for every journalist and pundit who is shortly going to tell us what the Northern Territory Government should do about the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
Tony Letford is a freelance writer and winner of the 2015 Spectator Thawley Essay prize for ‘Warri and Yatungka’ (Spectator Australia 27 February 2016)