One of the people who rang Bill Leak on the day The Australian published the so-called infamous ‘Indigenous Parenting’ cartoon was Colin Dillon — Australia’s first Aboriginal policeman, and the first policeman to blow the whistle on police corruption during Bjelke-Petersen era before the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
Colin rang to support Bill for his depiction of Indigenous parental irresponsibility, one truth-teller to another truth-teller. As a young policeman stationed in Far North Queensland in the late 1960s and 1970s, Colin witnessed first-hand the problem of Indigenous child abuse and neglect — problems that have only grown worse in the intervening years, as the welfare, the grog, the drugs, and the violence wreaked havoc in many Indigenous communities around the country.
Colin and Bill became friends after meeting at The Centre for Independent Studies’ Consilium conference in 2016. I have always wondered whether Bill had Colin in mind when he drew the Aboriginal policemen in who is handing the delinquent son back to the deadbeat father.
The care that Leak took to avoid any suggestion of promoting a crude racist stereotype was proof of his real purpose: drawing attention to a major social problem — namely, the maltreatment suffered by Indigenous children at up to 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.
But this was not good enough for the Twitter trolls, who have been out in force since the news of Leak’s fatal heart attack broke last Friday, celebrating his death and repeating the baseless claim that he was a vile racist. Leak’s supposed ‘racism’ became the subject of prolonged attention when the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, used Facebook and Twitter to solicit for make-work complaints (like some shonky ambulance-chasing lawyer) which led to Leak being persued for ‘hate speech’ under Section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act.
The tributes paid to Leak have rightly stressed his place in the pantheon of champions of free speech. However, the true measure of his genius is the way Leak always used — and never abused — his right to free speech as a means to the ends of generating compelling insights into whatever aspect of the nation’s affairs came under his pen. This is the tragedy of the Section 18C fiasco over the ‘Indigenous Parenting’ cartoon: it put the focus on Leak’s right to say what he did, rather than on the brilliant insight he provided into the ‘wicked’ problem of parental dysfunction and child abuse.
The irony of Leak’s persecution under 18C is that the issue of parenting has been at the centre of the revisionist debate about Indigenous affairs sparked by the writings of Noel Pearson. It was Pearson who, in the early 2000s, first put the spotlight on this issue by drawing attention to the breakdown of social norms in Indigenous communities, especially with respect to family life and the proper care of children.
But the cartoon wasn’t simply telling us what we already knew about this problem. Leak’s target was the simplistic response to incidents such as the Don Dale Detention Centre scandal in the Northern Territory. Recall, if you will, how the ABC omitted all but the barest details of purported victim Dylan Voller’s long and extraordinarily violent criminal history, skipped over the delinquent’s threat to self harm and extended no sympathy to the guards on whom he spat and flung excrement. That left only visually shocking, out-of-context CCTV footage as the hook on which Four Corners hung its claims of endemic abuse, but it was enough to spur a clamouring of the simple-minded. Within hours Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had launched a Royal Commission — an inquiry whose only useful contribution so far has been to highlight how the national broadcaster plays fast and loose with the truth.
Many commentators had naively suggested that the solution to the high numbers of Indigenous youths incarcerated in the juvenile justice system would be to see their parents exercise greater responsibility for the care and welfare of their children. This may sound like common sense. But Leak accurately skewered this ‘solution’ by suggesting its futility: in the cartoon, the Aboriginal policeman asks the Aboriginal father to teach his son about personal responsibility, but the man doesn’t even know the boy’s name.
This portrait of parental negligence rings true to those familiar with the unbelievably squalid world of child protection. The chief problem in dysfunctional families — be they Indigenous or non-Indigenous — in which children suffer serious abuse and neglect is the inability of parents to prioritise the needs of children. Substance abuse, mental health, or domestic violence mean such parents are fundamentally incapable of fulfilling basic parental obligations to children; ensuring children attend school each day well-rested, fed, clean, and appropriately clothed.
This degree of behavioural chaos may be difficult for ordinary Australians to fathom. But a key measure of parental dysfunction is the fact that increasing numbers of parents are incapable of managing the daily routine of getting their kids to school, to the point that truancy has emerged as a major national problem in recent years.
Child abuse and neglect is a complex problem, one that cannot be solved by simply instructing parents to take responsibility for children. The so-called ‘solution’ is simply begging the real problem. It amounts to expecting responsible behavioural norms that are innate and internalised among functional parents to be, somehow, externally imposed on fundamentally inept and inadequate parents.
This is also the reason so many well-intentioned ‘family support’ programs for ‘struggling’ parents fail to work — and why many dysfunctional parents stay dysfunctional, no matter the assistance provided them. This accounts for why so many Australian children have to be removed from their parents and currently live in foster and other kinds of state care: more than 45,000 children nationally, 15,000 of whom are Indigenous.
Leak’s portrayal of Indigenous parental irresponsibility was hardly overdrawn. Likewise, and more importantly, his portrayal of how difficult it is to get dysfunctional parents to exercise proper responsibility for the welfare of children was anything but a crude stereotype: it was a telling depiction of the wickedly complex problems that lie at the heart of the child protection dilemmas we face.
The cartoon wasn’t racist: it simply told the truth about child abuse and parental dysfunction. It remains a monument not only to Bill Leak’s fearless integrity as a political commentator, but also to his genius for producing profound insights into our social and cultural problems.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies