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The ethics of paternalism in Aboriginal policy

  • 25 September 2013

Following the abuse received by Adam Goodes from a teenage spectator in the AFL's Indigenous round, and the subsequent remarks made by Eddie McGuire, the country became embroiled in a debate about racism in modern Australia. The debate was about words — 'ape' was the pejorative used by the Collingwood spectator — and in our rush to condemn, defend or make sense of the ensuing debate yet more words were spilled across newspaper columns, blog posts, broadcast media and social media.

Meanwhile, the Northern Territory introduced its Mandatory Alcohol Treatment Bill which, if passed, will see more Aboriginal people incarcerated. We were too busy describing the modern face of racism to notice.

The importance of words cannot be diminished but newspapers and bulletins can hold only so many. While plenty were dedicated to the story of McGuire, the teenage girl and Goodes, none mentioned that in 20 years the proportion of Aboriginal people held in custody has grown from one in seven to one in four. The introduction of laws which would criminalise alcohol consumption and introduce more Aboriginal people to jail made the news but did not incite the passions of the commentariat or public, being devoid of sport stars and television personalities.

Perhaps that's not so surprising. After all, this is not the first law which disproportionately affects Aboriginal people, and it won't be the last.

Of course there is nothing in the legislation passed by the NT Government which explicitly singles out Aboriginal people. The laws, if passed without amendments, will mean that anyone convicted of their third offence of public drunkenness will be mandatorily detained in treatment centres. Having scrapped the banned drinkers list — a policy which prevented problem drinkers from purchasing alcohol — in the name of liberty, the Government has enthusiastically committed itself to a policy which will lock more people up.

What is public drunkenness anyway? It is just one of a suite of laws that exists in the statute book of each state that are governed by police discretion, and a handy way of taking people into custody when they've done nothing wrong. When a drunk person trespasses, urinates, causes criminal damage, abuses others or police officers, they have broken the law. When they have done none of the above, there is the public drunkenness offence.

Give police tools to act out their prejudices and they will do so: Aboriginal people are targeted with impunity. In 2002, 19