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Youth injustice: WA Labor's darkest chapter

Zak Kirkup -

In Western Australia, no entity has betrayed young Aboriginal people more profoundly than the current state government.

Labor touts its commitment to social justice, its progressive credentials, and its endorsement of the 'Yes' campaign in the Voice referendum. Yet in government, it systematically ignores the concerns of the Aboriginal community and effectively silences their future through a blend of negligence and ignorance.

Consider this grotesque state of affairs: Aboriginal children torn from their Country in the Pilbara or Kimberley are transported the length of the state to Perth and incarcerated in solitary confinement in adult prisons — a grim reality that WA Premier Roger Cook has termed a "necessary evil".

Reflect on the gut-wrenching statistic of more than 500 attempts at suicide or self-harm among imprisoned youth in recent years in WA. This travesty culminated in the death of 16-year-old Cleveland Dodd, who took his life in Unit 18, the almost universally condemned youth wing of Perth's maximum-security adult Casuarina prison.

The reality is Cleveland and others like him shouldn't be in Unit 18 in the first place.

The government needs to take a moment to listen to the Aboriginal community, leaders, academics and even former Labor premiers who demand that it should be stopped from being used as a detention facility for young people.

Instead, there needs to be better investments into in-community and on-Country diversionary programs. If, after all that, young people still end up 'detained', then there needs to be a purpose-built facility that meets the needs of these children, unlike Banksia Hill. We cannot keep throwing these kids into an adult prison as a "necessary evil", and the 11-year absence of a distinct remand centre for children who have not been convicted of anything remains a dire shortcoming.

While it is neither fair nor accurate to lay the blame for these young individuals' plight solely at the feet of the Labor Party, it is beyond dispute that in government their policies are exacerbating the crisis.

In an exceptional and passionate address to WA's Upper House, which I encourage you to watch, Liberal MP Peter Collier articulated the reality confronting young Aboriginal people in WA:

"If you honestly want those Aboriginal juveniles to come out of a detention centre, and actually be better people make meaningful, productive contributions to society. Don't lock them away," said Mr Collier.

"The punitive approach doesn't work, putting them in cells for 20 hours, 21 hours, 22 hours, 23 hours a day is not working.

"Pointing a gun to the head of a 16-year-old Aboriginal girl on the top of Banksia Hill is not going to solve the problem."

It is a travesty that not a single elected Labor member has had the integrity to break the party line on this crisis in Parliament.

The party that vaunts its solidarity with Aboriginal people is consigning generations of Aboriginal youth to a bleak future.

The current state cabinet, filled with individuals who claim a social conscience, persist in endorsing these shameful practices.

Where is Tony Buti, the Aboriginal Affairs and Education Minister? The individual charged with safeguarding today's youth and heeding the concerns of the Aboriginal community is conspicuously absent.

He is silent.

To those who identify with the Labor Party, either as members, union affiliates, supporters, or voters, ask yourself: Can you justify allegiance to a party complicit in this? Does a government that imprisons young people in such a manner deserve your support?

The answer is no. This is among the darkest chapters in WA Labor's history and they should stand unequivocally condemned.

Zak Kirkup is of Yamatji heritage and is the former leader of the WA Liberal Party

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