Sunday, July 31, 2016

NT juvenile justice system rotten from the top down

The tragedy of this week's Four Corners program is that the damage done to young people in Northern Territory detention centres was largely already on the record. What was missing was the political will to change anything, other than to change things for the worse by legislating to legalise shackling and mechanical restraints.

As in the US where the legal system is flawed and it's almost impossible to prosecute an officer if you're poor and black, it's video – provided here by whistleblowers – that's disruptive and making the difference.

It shows guards at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre laughing and swearing at a boy at breaking point, stuck in a dark, sweltering and filthy isolation cell with no fresh water for 15 days straight. Other footage shows a different young person handcuffed, hooded and shackled to a mechanical chair.

The Prime Minister wants to know what lessons can be learnt. The NT Children's Commissioner reported on the facility's notorious behaviour management unit a year ago. Her recommendations fell on deaf ears. Now Chief Minister Adam Giles wants to "restore faith in our custodial institutions". It's he, his CLP team and their predecessors who must be in the dock.

What is the point of funding children's commissioners if governments pay no attention to what they find? What too is the point of being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child if we behave as if we are not? The Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators recommends limits on disciplinary measures in all facilities; limits that protect the dignity of children and offer them the chance to complain. What's the point of them if they are not observed?

Usually it's children Australia locks up abroad that grabs sorry headlines. This really hits home, but as on Manus Island and Nauru, there's a shameful lack of accountability and transparency.

Giles, facing an election next month, admits a cover-up culture exists in his corrections department. But in a lame defence of what took place on his watch, he says he would like the jointly convened royal commission to "identify appropriate measures for restraint" in juvenile jails.

The entire NT youth justice system was reviewed five years ago. Several publicly available reports already describe what's appropriate and what works, with comparisons made across jurisdictions (showing the value of a federation in which, if willing, states and territories can learn from each other) including a recent Australian House of Representatives report into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in the justice system.

South Australian research from 2009 finds that physical restraints don't wind back aggressive behaviour, it makes it worse. A report published just three months ago by Australian Children's Commissioners and Guardians entitled Human rights standards in youth detention facilities in Australia: the use of restraint, disciplinary regimes and other specified practices finds that mechanical restraints retraumatise already powerless people.

If a child is threatened with and experienced acts of violence, it only generates fear and anger. Possibilities for positive learning and reform shut down as children feel diminished. You can forget about rehabilitation in those conditions.

Let's remind ourselves of who we're talking about. Children are not merely small adults. They are developing and vulnerable. The things that can lead them into the justice system are largely the same as those that can lead them into state care – dysfunction at home, alcohol and drugs, violence, disadvantage and poverty. Many have never been treated with respect and are deserving of a youth justice system that does not perpetuate their life experiences.

NT corrections minister John Elferink, now sacked from that role but still employed, didn't see that. He told the ABC: "We get these kids in these environments and they come to us fundamentally pre-broken by choice." No, children have their own agency, but they don't choose to be broken. When they are in trouble with the law it's typically adults who've already failed them and broken them.

The Commissioners and Guardians report finds the NT is unique for all the wrong reasons, having no legislation or policy about consulting medical staff over the use of force and restraint, nor any legislation or policy regarding the training of offices in de-escalation techniques. It has no policy framework covering the use of searches, seclusion and lockdowns.

While Australia's youth justice facilities mostly offer good care and support, other jurisdictions also have gaps. Western Australia should be part of the royal commission. Serious incidents there have in recent years prompted some reform including the appointment of an independent Youth Justice Board but real change relies on sustained efforts to monitor outcomes.

The Commissioners and Guardians report also finds that committed, well-trained and adequate numbers of staff are the foundation for any functioning and effective custodial institution. Detention staff should be representative. In the NT and elsewhere they are not demographically representative. They are less likely to relate to detainees. Examining racist attitudes must be in the inquiry's viewfinder and the role of a political culture generated from the very top.

Each year Australia spends more than $438 million dollars on youth justice detention. If this was really spent on "correction" it would leave vulnerable people – with so much of their lives before them – better able to cope in the world outside than when they came in.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 29, 2016

Friday, July 22, 2016

Pokemania a sad indictment on the state of play

Nintendo's mobile-gaming "miracle" Pokemon Go may be bringing millennials out of the house – of their own free will – but its success says a lot about how the whole idea of play has changed, for the worse.

The app may be free for smart phone users, but this is pure commerce. It's created what marketers want: more spending in the shops that have shelled out fees to become physical destinations for Pokemaniacs. Yuk. Play has always been about constructing and imagining reality. Now it's about flogging products. It's transforming and reducing homes, memorials and cemeteries into spaces for so-called play, with an eye to profit.

It's cannibalising real-world geography, in contrast to traditional play that's bounded inside a "magic circle" in which children play act without corporate scripts.

Children of my generation born in the 1970s had the freedom to get dirty, to climb trees and experience real danger. My parents and their friends did even more. They played with tools and walked alone at dusk. They played sport in the streets and built forts. Yes, the girls spent half their time pushing their dolls around in prams (in prep for later life) but they connected with kids in the neighbourhood, role-playing, in unmediated ways.

Over time, for whatever reason, parents tightened the rules. Play moved indoors in response to a perceived threat that was much higher than the actual risks. A rise in inner-city living took children into their own rooms.

Parents went from generally resisting buying toys to seeing them as important tools for socialisation. Today's bedrooms, a new battleground where kids spend many hours, are packed with electronic gear and the Internet - probably more dangerous stuff than the streets children used to surf before they went indoors.

I suspect families in the bush capital have held onto "old fashioned" play for longer with our tremendous access to the outdoors. But local families are also among the most wired, with parents working insane hours.

I get that the Internet allows young people to interact with people from all over the world. But most of the time it is used to "enhance" existing local relationships. Pokemon Go allows young people to hook up with friends in local parks and malls and travel across town to find the creatures in real time. With their smartphones they are both connected to and detached, each from the other.

The game's developers win because it's taking over play. Adults love it too. Our brains crave novelty, and belonging. This is a game that offers both.

Observing over the years my own children play with friends and in their own imaginary worlds without phones, I can see that play without gadgets is very rewarding. It gives kids space to try out new identities without the sometimes adverse consequences of doing the same in the digital sphere. It's inherently relational and non-competitive. It involves a lot of negotiation. It's not about getting better at something, it is play for its own sake.

There are two broad schools of thought about screen-based play. In the corner that favours screens are those that applaud their interactive possibilities and unprecedented social opportunities. In the other corner are those that value traditional play for offering "real" interaction, and for being tactile. Perhaps there's a middle way. Technology isn't all bad of course, but it does have downsides.

I'm no sentimentalist, but I do find myself longing for a return to some of the low-tech stuff: play that makes do with what's around, and board games, and enjoying the playground that is outdoors. There is increasing evidence that our highly wired lives aren't working for us, socially and mentally. We're forever restless and under pressure to perform.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 21, 2016

Ancient lessons on custodianship for the PM

After acting like a sook on election night, Malcolm Turnbull re-emerged this past week as something more akin to a statesman or Indigenous elder.

He said he was touched when Bill Shorten rang to concede. Turnbull was carrying his young granddaughter on his hip. It was a "beautiful reminder" that politicians are "trustees" for future generations. He might just be preoccupied with personal legacy but I'm taking hope from this.

Indigenous Australian have long been trustees, and storytellers as they hand down wisdom to generations to follow. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It was fitting that this year's NAIDOC celebrations focused on "songlines" in the same week that a marathon count decided who would govern us and shape our story.

Turnbull's grandchildren won't think twice about opening school assemblies and parliaments with a "welcome to country". Yet until the arrival of Kevin Rudd nine years ago it didn't happen in parliament and often didn't happen at schools. They will probably not think twice about recognising Indigenous peoples in the constitution. In just a few generations we have moved from seeing Indigenous Australians as backwards to seeing them as custodians with something to teach.

In declaring himself and all parliamentarians "trustees" Turnbull is positioning himself as part of a continuum.

Here are some things he could also take on board from an ancient culture:

1. Connection to country. Society can take new shapes but that primary connection provides one of the most stabilising aspects of life. One cares for country and she cares for you. From young Indigenous people are taught to pay attention to country. They develop a sixth sense; an openness that sees them tune in. What's the take home message for someone who thinks he is a trustee for future generations? No new coal mines? In the very least, narrow victories are not opportunities to berate others or boast but opportunities to listen and pay attention to 'country'.

2. There are many Aboriginal nations. It's worth remembering this as new tensions surface about race and ethnicity and what it means to belong to this island home.

3. A spirituality that fosters the common good. An enduring practice in Aboriginal culture is living in a collective rather than identifying as an individual. Community life depends on brothers and sisters getting along and looking out for each other. Aboriginal people have for generations shared food and readily cared for children that are not their own. In all likelihood, Turnbull's grandchildren will be provided for. As a true trustee, he should be aware of children born into families not so lucky.

4. Traditional Aboriginal practice inspires the way forward. For example, fire-stick farming – creating waves of "cool" fire that ripples across land – was done for thousands of years so things can grow back stronger. Aboriginal people see themselves as co-creators with the creation spirit. Fire propagates seed so species continue. With that, sacred songs are sung to nourish country.

5. Being a custodian means nurturing stories. The arts are central to continuing cultures, and central to Australia's oldest. Stories tell us who we are. Restoring cuts to the arts and national museums would be a way to help.

Over time our way of doing politics should go deeper into the conceptual framework of Aboriginal Australia, melding Indigenous concepts with those from Western democracies to make something truly our own, and to shape modern songlines befitting a mature opal-hearted nation. Tell me, I'm not dreaming.

First published in The Canberra Times, 18 July, 2016.