Editor's Column

Culture and Suicide

LAST month’s report by West Australian state coroner Rosalinda Fogliani into the suicides of thirteen Aboriginal children and young men in the Kimberley district between 2012 and 2016 is very depressing. This is not just because of the bleak portrait it paints of the brief lives of the five boys (twelve to seventeen years old), three girls (ten to thirteen), and five young men (eighteen to twenty-four) who it discusses in considerable detail. The report also indicates clearly how the current ideological agenda of the Aboriginal political class and its left-wing white supporters now dominates public policy about Australia’s remote communities, and how effectively this agenda has buried a more realistic approach that briefly came to the surface a decade ago. Rather than finding solutions to the alarmingly high rates of youth suicide in the Kimberley and other remote communities in the north, the Fogliani report guarantees that the same pattern of political and social engineering that produced the current disaster will continue for the foreseeable future.

In 2008, after he had conducted an inquest into the suicides that year of two female and three male youths, four of them children as young as fifteen, at the remote Kimberley community of Oombulgurri (population 200), the then West Australian coroner, Alastair Hope, identified three social problems he held largely responsible: chronic alcoholism, gross parental neglect and the uninhibited sexual abuse of children. All were common in the local community at the time and all contributed to the tragic outcomes.

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At the time of Hope’s inquest, most of the remote communities in the state were small, self-governing, closed outposts, with no permanent police or medical personnel. As a result, they were laws unto themselves. At Oombulgurri, after an eighteen-month police investigation in which detectives eventually gained the trust of several girl victims, ten male residents were charged with child sexual offences. The offenders were not only young men but some of the community’s elders. The police eventually laid 109 charges, including twenty-one counts of abuse of girls as young as twelve by the community’s head warden Darryl Morgan and four counts of child sexual abuse by his wife Veronica Bulsey, who groomed the girls for her husband. Morgan was sentenced to ten years’ jail and Bulsey to four years and nine months. At the same time, police arrested more than twenty men, including elders, at two other Kimberley communities, Kalumburu and Halls Creek, for sexual abuse of young children, including prostitution of under-age girls. Some of the men arrested at Halls Creek had travelled from Aboriginal communities at Balgo and Warmun and the Kimberley regional centre of Kununurra.

As a result of his coronial inquest, Hope despaired of the dysfunction he found and recommended the state government “assess the sustainability” of indigenous communities in the Kimberley, including Oombulgurri. He said in his findings: “It is not acceptable for public funding to support a closed community for the benefit of a limited number of families, some members of which are involved in pedophilia and alcohol abuse.”

The state’s new Liberal premier, Colin Barnett, responded by not only investigating their sustainability but by closing down Oombulgurri in 2011. Three years later, he announced he would do the same to another 150 of the state’s 274 remote communities, and provide accommodation for their inhabitants in larger regional towns such as Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Kununurra, where there were permanently manned police stations and hospitals.

Barnett’s decision had been made in the wake of the Howard government’s Intervention of 2007, when Commonwealth Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough decided that remote community dysfunction under his jurisdiction in the Northern Territory had reached the stage where local police were unable to cope. He decided to send the Army in to restore order at several Territory locations. Although Brough gained much acclamation from remote community mothers and children, the Aboriginal political class in our southern cities objected bitterly to the whole process. Denouncing the Intervention as racist and oppressive, they began a long campaign to discredit it. By the time Barnett was following Brough’s lead in Western Australia, the Intervention’s good deeds had almost been publicly forgotten and Brough had lost his seat in Parliament. By 2015, political objections in Western Australia, public demonstrations against him in Melbourne, and a change of policy in Canberra, persuaded Barnett to water down his proposals. In the end, only Oombulgurri and a handful of very small communities were closed down.

Today, no one in authority in this field dares to even contemplate closing down these communities, let alone recommending it to government. In her report, Fogliani barely acknowledges the problems that loomed so large in the mind of her predecessor: alcoholism, parental neglect and child sexual abuse. In fact, she plays down the last. She acknowledges that two of the boys who took their own lives had been victims of sexual abuse, but said she had been given no evidence that sexual abuse was a factor in the other eleven cases. This was despite the fact that, in another two of them, the victims had grown up in Oombulgurri and only left there in 2011 when it closed. One was a girl who took her life at Wyndham aged twelve; the other a twenty-one-year-old man who hanged himself at Halls Creek and whose older brother had committed suicide at their former home. The possibility that both these young people had been victims of the pederast regime at Oombulgurri is hard to dismiss.

Instead of the causes identified by Hope, Fogliani reverts to the current political orthodoxy expressed in submissions by the current Labor government of Mark McGowan and Labor Senator Pat Dodson, who both assure her that the causes lie in “colonisation”. Aboriginal people are still suffering from “historic experiences such as the loss of lands and languages, and the forced removal and relocation of children from family and cultural settings”.

This leads Fogliani to conclude that “cultural healing programs” are the solution.

She endorses the current demand by politicians and activists for the restoration of traditional Aboriginal culture, as if this was still possible, and for the principles of “self-determination and empowerment” to be enacted. She recommends that services “need to be co-designed in a completely different way, that recognises at a foundational level, the need for a more collective and inclusive approach towards cultural healing for Aboriginal communities”.

She has been impressed by the claims made by the now fashionable leftist Canadian academic psychologist Michael Chandler, who contends:

Individualistic approaches to suicide prevention are mistaken, and Indigenous suicide is instead required to be “communally treated with ‘cultural medicines’ prescribed and acted upon by whole cultural communities”. This communal approach is necessary as damage inflicted on Indigenous groups of “peoples is collective, rather than personal, and multiplicative, rather than simply additive”.

Chandler has defined a set of what he calls “protective markers” for indigenous communities which, when present, will purportedly give a community a low rate of youth suicide. They include: indigenous self-government; title to traditional land; local control over health, education, policing and child welfare services; facilities for the preservation of culture; and elected councils composed of at least 50 per cent women.

Yet in Australia, the remote communities with the highest rates of youth suicide and most other forms of social dysfunction are often those who can fulfil the above criteria. Many small closed communities in the Kimberley could easily fill out a form ticking all Chandler’s boxes. In fact, at Oombulgurri, before the telling spate of suicides occurred in 2008, this is precisely what happened. According to Debbie Guest of the Australian, who revealed the exhaustive police detective work that eventually blew the community’s cover, when government officials or media visited, the local men ensured the streets were clean and presented the place as an ideal example of how self-governing Aboriginal communities could work.

In all reliable measures of violent death in Australia, there is a stark difference between the rate recorded in remote communities, where 21 per cent of Aboriginal people live, compared to those in urban and regional centres, where 79 per cent live. The latter have lives not fundamentally different from the rest of Australia; the former are a national disgrace on every measure of health and well-being. The remote communities are not representative of some ancient culture, as they are now promoted. They are the products of a social experiment devised mostly by white bureaucrats and political activists in the 1970s who thought it would be a nice idea to turn the old missions and government welfare stations into self-governing communities. The monumental failure of their experiment has not led those who built their political ambitions and careers on it to ever rethink their position.

If Bill Shorten becomes Prime Minister this year and fulfils his promise to conduct a referendum to give Aborigines a “voice” in Australian government, this ideological agenda will become entrenched in our Constitution. Meanwhile, Aboriginal children will keep on committing suicide, and those res­ponsible will keep on asking why.

6 comments
  • Peter Sandery

    Maybe I missed it, but I have seen no reaction from any of the Human Rights tribunals, or advocates, or members of the Greens, Feminist organisations, GetUp or Save The Children acknowledging, let alone advocating on the victims in these areas. Where are the likes of Phelps, Owler and DiNatale on this issue – what a bunch of hypocrites!

  • ianl

    > ” … Phelps, Owler and DiNatale on this issue – what a bunch of hypocrites”

    Yes, they are. They do not care about that, however. Hypocrisy is utterly meaningless to them, completely empty. If votes are involved, either + or -, power is threatened and reaction occurs.

  • Wayne

    Preservation of culture? Is that such a wise thing?

  • canhippi

    It is if you are remotely interested in preserving the evolution of the greatest cultural system of opportunity, fairness and generosity ever devised.

  • padraic

    What is culture? It is a constantly shifting social paradigm, as societies shed some aspects and adopt new ones. So many people these days see culture as living in the past with all the shortcomings of that past plus the good bits. I have mentioned this before – if I adopted that attitude of living in the past, the Druids would be back slitting children’s throats as human sacrifice prior to the rest of us taking on the mob over the other side of the hill and tying their dried heads around our waists after defeating them. All societies have done this adaption to the present. It hasn’t been easy and took time and we still have some problems similar to that of remote Aboriginal communities but they are recognised as not being acceptable. Our culture is changed by innovations in transport, communication, medicine etc and we either reject the changes or adapt. It’s never static. “Culture made me do it” is no excuse.

  • whitelaughter

    have to agree with padraic – if culture is static, then it is dead.

    Our own historical culture is an position to flower and grow, evolving rapidly – and no, not the devolution that the trendy set want. Computer graphics allow entirely new forms of art; the ability to search an online Bible allows swift responses to dumb heresies and fads, learning games allows the ability to acquire new skills comparatively easily – Duolingo, Free Rice, Coursera and Khan Academy coming to mind. Kerbal Space Program is breaking my brain as I learn how to realistically pilot a space craft (!) and countless others exist. This is what we should be focusing on, not the absurd efforts to protect dead cultures.

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