In the lead-up to the October Queensland election, commentators pointed out the very obvious absence from the campaign trail of the One Nation party leader and senator, Pauline Hanson. They predicted her party would take a hit at the polls and they weren’t wrong. The election results showed a 7% swing away from One Nation. But while the party’s leader may have been out of view for many, that has not been the experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Rockhampton.
Before and during the state election campaign, federal senators sparked backlash from the local Indigenous community. In June a peaceful march in support of Black Lives Matter and Black Deaths in Custody was held in Rockhampton and attended by approximately 600 residents. In the weeks after, a billboard in Rockhampton depicting Senator Hanson had a message to Black Lives Matter and Black Deaths in Custody supporters to “bugger off”.
Together with Rockhampton-based Nationals senator Matt Canavan, Hanson has taken to targeting the Indigenous community of central Queensland. Ensuring the Indigenous populations in regional Queensland are controlled seems to be key to their political aspirations, and what better way to do that than attempt to say we don’t belong on our own land and that our lives don’t matter as much as the natural resources that can be mined from it.
While I care less about the politics that sustains the careers of controversial people in state and federal parliaments, the ongoing criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people here and afar is a significant concern. However, this priority doesn’t require us to remedy “problem youth” as much as it needs us to interrogate our positions as adults.
Elections run on youth crime. Not applying the same or any scrutiny of crime and violence perpetrated by adults in positions of authority is hypocritical but not new. It desperately needs to be retired as an ineffective method to instigate the change called for by those who rally behind “law and order” campaigns. Advocating competency and integrity of the systems and the people who govern us all would be a far more effective way for politicians to effect change and earn the trust of voters.
One only needs to read posts and comment threads on Facebook community groups to see how social media platforms allow wannabe vigilantes to post photos of un-consenting minors in the name of “community safety”. As the subjects of government policies the general community should demand better models of community safety that don’t require increasing resources to respond to crime but investment in prevention programs for the ultimate protection of the wellbeing and lives for all (I mean, if “all lives” really do matter).
The school to prison pipeline is not a new phenomenon, but the correlation of high rates of suspensions and expulsions leading to the incarceration of young people is becoming clearer. State school suspensions in Queensland numbered 82,813 in 2018-19, which was twice what New South Wales recorded for the same time period. These numbers, together with the presence of police in schools and the lack of commitment from policymakers to curb the rising number of student suspensions, reinforces that the system is designed to defend and protect itself and its values, not our kids.
Schools ought to be places where students desire to be because they are seen and valued and where they are rewarded for showing acceptance of themselves and others. While investment in state school infrastructure is much needed, equally so are appropriate levels of learning support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, tailored supports for students with diverse learning abilities, and wellbeing services for all students. An education system that centres on learners and not the system, its processes or the people who control it, is paramount.
It is incumbent also upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults to contemplate our own positions on the issues affecting our children and youth. We must be actively searching for new ways and ancient ways to ensure our children can walk through society strong in who they are as Indigenous people and with the responsibility they have to be good ancestors and custodians of country. We must be their loudest advocates and call out those who would politically and physically attack the sacredness of their childhood and youth.
In the meantime, have the latest state election results, with the One Nation party failing miserably, shown a shift in the politics of race relations in Queensland? No, it most certainly has not. It only proves that race issues are not a priority at the same time non-Indigenous people are experiencing a pandemic – which is affecting us too.
Dr Melinda Mann is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman from Rockhampton, Queensland. She is the owner of Melinda Mann Consulting and an adjunct professional fellow at CQUniversity