Heavy penalties

Recently in Perth, Carl Morrison, a 12-year-old Aboriginal passenger in a stolen car driven by his 14-year-old friend, was killed when the vehicle crashed after being pursued by police. Premier Geoff Gallop, rather than leaving the family to their grief, moved to exonerate the police and to blame the parents. ‘The issue wasn’t about the police chase. The issue yesterday was about those youngsters stealing the cars and then going on a joy-ride when they should have been at school.’ Western Australia is in the grip of a moral panic about delinquent youngsters, particularly from Indigenous backgrounds, hanging around in public places. A moral panic was defined famously by British sociologist Stanley Cohen as:

A condition, episode, person or group emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnosis and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes visible.

The curfew introduced for Perth’s entertainment district of Northwood, and the current policing of Aboriginal youth in Perth, can be seen as part of the process of moral panic.

In the face of evident public support for Gallop’s uncompromising response, relatives and friends of Carl Morrison struggled valiantly to humanise the children. His family had just moved into a government home after years of homelessness. He had a disabled sister. He had recently learned to read. He loved art and soccer. Loved his family. His father said, ‘Me and my wife have eight kids and we try our best with them’. But Gallop was implacable: ‘I’m a strong supporter of reconciliation … but what happened in the past is no excuse for this sort of behaviour, and I think it should be described for what it is—it’s bad behaviour, it’s offensive behaviour, it’s putting the youngsters at risk, it’s putting the broader community at risk and we need to confront it and deal with it.’ (The Sunday Times, 22 August 2003) He found common ground with John Howard by declaring that history could not be held up as an excuse for contemporary Indigenous social problems and criminality.

One of Gallop’s lieutenants, Michelle Roberts, took up the cudgels against the driver, a boy with a history of substance abuse and psychiatric problems, who had survived the accident: ‘My view is that he needs to be permanently detained. He should not be free to go and steal another car and wreck anyone else’s life. I personally do not think he is someone who should be at large at all.’ (The Sunday Times, 22 August 2003) Given there was a chance the boy could face charges, it was extraordinary that Roberts, who is both Police Minister and Minister for Justice, could have shown such contempt for judicial
process and the separation of powers. Another of Roberts’s titles is Minister for Community Safety.

In a ‘civilised’ country like Australia it is appalling that politicians respond to acts of juvenile delinquency only with moralising and coercion and that compassion seems to have fallen out of the repertoire. It is also bitterly ironic that in spite of our tendency to sentimentalise childhood, those who are most likely to be demonised are those who are just out of childhood in that awkward phase of life known as youth or adolescence. The point at which someone crosses the line is unclear. It seems to correspond with the point at which you can be held individually responsible for your actions. But if we accept that young people who engage in resistant or illegal behaviour are victims of life circumstances, whom do we blame? The fashion in recent times, even among some Aboriginal leaders, has been to move away from the language of victimhood and to embrace ideas of self-responsibility. In my view, however, it is dangerous to dispense completely with the language of broader social responsibility.

Bob Hawke once declared that by 1990 ‘no Australian child will live in poverty’ but 13 years later many still do. For many, this is not only material poverty. It is emotional poverty, neglect and profound social marginalisation. While it is easy to feel compassion for young people in the Third World, it is less easy to do so for those who disrupt the streets of our cities and seem to threaten our safety. But if the only response of the state is to castigate and punish, then nothing will change.      

Dr George Morgan is part of the staff of both the School of Humanities and the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney.



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