Aboriginal Youth Suicide Goes from Very Bad to Much Worse
Editor, Quadrant Magazine
In 2014, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) reported that teenage suicide in the Aboriginal communities of Western Australia’s far north Kimberley district had become a social catastrophe. It said teenage suicide in local Aboriginal communities had gone from “being an extremely rare phenomenon to one where the rate … is now the highest in the world”.
It was four times higher for young Aboriginal men than non-Aboriginal young men in Australia, and five times higher among Aboriginal women. In some remote Kimberley communities, the rate had reached 100 times the national suicide average.
In the eyes of Western Australian state authorities, NACCHO was not reporting anything new. The causes of the tragedy had already been investigated and publicised in 2008 in a report of the Western Australian state coroner, Alistair Hope. However, Aboriginal politics of the kind that now wants the Albanese government to implement their ideas in the Australian Constitution has subsequently got in the way. A second report into the same subject in 2019 by Hope’s successor as state coroner, Rosalinda Fogliani, revealed how this issue has gone from very bad to much worse.
Fogliani investigated the suicides of thirteen Aboriginal children and young men in the Kimberley district between 2012 and 2016. Her report is depressing not just because of the bleak portrait it paints of the brief lives of the five boys (twelve to seventeen years old), three girls (ten to thirteen), and five young men (eighteen to twenty-four) it discusses in considerable detail. The report also indicates clearly how the current ideological agenda of the Aboriginal political class now dominates public policy and how effectively this agenda has now buried the more realistic approach that preceded it.
Rather than finding plausible solutions, the Fogliani report guarantees that the same pattern of political and social engineering that produced the current tragedy will continue for the foreseeable future. But let me first discuss the previous approach.
In 2008, the then West Australian coroner, Alastair Hope conducted an inquest into the suicides that year of two female and three male youths, four of them children as young as fifteen, at the remote Kimberley community of Oombulgurri, a former Anglican Church mission on the Forrest River, population 200. Hope identified three social problems he held largely responsible: chronic alcoholism, gross parental neglect and the uninhibited sexual abuse of children. All were common in the local community at the time and all contributed to the outcomes. Oombulgurri produced nothing it could sell to the outside world, yet had enough welfare money to build and maintain an airstrip used primarily to fly in Cessnas from Wyndham stacked fully with beer and spirits.
At the time of Hope’s inquest, most of the remote communities in the state were similar. They were small, self-governing, closed outposts, with no permanent police or medical personnel. As a result, they were laws unto themselves. At Oombulgurri, after an eighteen-month police investigation in which detectives eventually gained the trust of several girl victims, ten male residents were charged with child sexual offences. The offenders were not only young men but some of the community’s elders.
The police eventually laid 109 charges, including twenty-one counts of abuse of girls as young as twelve by the community’s head warden, Darryl Morgan, and four counts of child sexual abuse by his wife, Veronica Bulsey, who groomed the girls for her husband. Morgan was sentenced to ten years’ jail and Bulsey to four years and nine months.
At the same time, police arrested more than twenty men, including elders, at two other Kimberley communities, Kalumburu and Halls Creek, for sexual abuse of young children, including prostitution of under-age girls. Some of the men arrested at Halls Creek had travelled from Aboriginal communities at Balgo and Warmun and the Kimberley regional centre of Kununurra.
As a result of his coronial inquest, Hope despaired of the dysfunction he found and recommended the state government “assess the sustainability” of indigenous communities in the Kimberley, including Oombulgurri. He said in his findings:
It is not acceptable for public funding to support a closed community for the benefit of a limited number of families, some members of which are involved in pedophilia and alcohol abuse.
The state’s then Liberal premier, Colin Barnett, responded by not only investigating their sustainability but by closing down Oombulgurri in 2011. Three years later, he announced he would do the same to another 150 of the state’s 274 remote communities, and provide accommodation for their inhabitants in larger regional towns such as Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Kununurra, where there were permanently manned police stations and hospitals.
Barnett’s decision had been made in the wake of the Howard government’s Intervention of 2007, when Commonwealth Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough decided that remote community dysfunction under his jurisdiction in the Northern Territory had reached the stage where local police were unable to cope. He decided to send the Army in to restore order at several Territory locations.
Although Brough gained much acclaim from remote community mothers and children, the Aboriginal political class in our southern cities objected bitterly to the whole process. Denouncing the Intervention as racist and oppressive, they began a long campaign to discredit it. By the time Barnett was following Brough’s lead in Western Australia, the Intervention’s good deeds had almost been publicly forgotten and Brough had lost his seat in Parliament. By 2015, political objections in Western Australia, public demonstrations in Melbourne, and a change of policy in Canberra, persuaded Barnett to water down his proposals. In the end, only Oombulgurri and a handful of very small communities were closed down.
Today, no one in authority in this field dares to even contemplate closing down these communities, let alone recommending it to government. In her report, Fogliani does not emphasise the problems that loomed so large in the mind of her predecessor: alcoholism, parental neglect and child sexual abuse. In fact, she plays down the last.
She acknowledges that two of the boys who took their own lives had been victims of sexual abuse, but said she had been given no evidence that sexual abuse was a factor in the other eleven cases. This was despite the fact that, in another two of them, the victims had grown up in Oombulgurri and only left there in 2011 when it closed. One was a girl, aged twelve, who took her life at Wyndham; the other a twenty-one-year-old man who hanged himself at Halls Creek and whose older brother had committed suicide when they lived at Oombulgurri. The likelihood that both these young people had been victims of the pederast regime at Oombulgurri is hard to dismiss.
Instead of the causes identified by her predecessor, Fogliani reverted to the current political orthodoxy expressed in submissions by the current state Labor government of Mark McGowan and Labor Senator Pat Dodson, who both assure her that the causes lie in “colonisation”. They claim Aboriginal people are still suffering from “historic experiences such as the loss of lands and languages, and the forced removal and relocation of children from family and cultural settings”.
This leads Fogliani to conclude that “cultural healing programs” are the solution.
She endorses the current demand by politicians and activists for the restoration of traditional Aboriginal culture, and for the principles of “self-determination and empowerment” to be enacted. She recommends that services “need to be co-designed in a completely different way, that recognises at a foundational level, the need for a more collective and inclusive approach towards cultural healing for Aboriginal communities”.
She has been impressed by the claims made by the now fashionable leftist Canadian academic psychologist Michael Chandler, who contends:
Individualistic approaches to suicide prevention are mistaken, and Indigenous suicide is instead required to be “communally treated with ‘cultural medicines’ prescribed and acted upon by whole cultural communities”. This communal approach is necessary as damage inflicted on Indigenous groups of “peoples is collective, rather than personal, and multiplicative, rather than simply additive”.
Chandler has defined a set of what he calls “protective markers” for indigenous communities which, when present, will purportedly give a community a low rate of youth suicide. They include: indigenous self-government; title to traditional land; local control over health, education, policing and child welfare services; facilities for the preservation of culture; and elected councils composed of at least 50 per cent women.
Yet in Australia, the remote communities with the highest rates of youth suicide and most other forms of social dysfunction are often those which can fulfil the above criteria. Many small closed communities in the Kimberley could easily fill out a form ticking all Chandler’s boxes. In fact, at Oombulgurri, before the telling spate of suicides in 2008, that was exactly what happened. According to Debbie Guest of The Australian, who revealed the exhaustive police detective work that eventually blew the community’s cover, when government officials or media visited, the Oombulguri men ensured that the streets were quickly cleaned up beforehand. The place was then presented as an ideal example of how self-governing Aboriginal communities could work.
In all reliable measures of violent death in Australia, there is a stark difference between the rate recorded in remote communities, where 21 per cent of Aboriginal people live, compared to those in urban and regional centres, where 79 per cent live. The latter have lives not fundamentally different from the rest of Australia; the former are a national disgrace on every measure of health and well-being.
The remote communities are not representative of some ancient culture, as they are now promoted. They are the products of a social experiment known as the “Homelands” movement, devised mostly by white bureaucrats and left-wing political activists in the 1970s who thought it would be progressive to turn the old missions and government welfare stations into self-governing communities. The monumental failure of their experiment has not led those who built their political ambitions and careers on it to rethink their position. Instead, they now advocate even more of the same.
If Anthony Albanese fulfils his promise to conduct a Constitutional referendum to give Aborigines a voice in Australian government, the ideological agenda of purported cultural healing will become even more deeply entrenched. Meanwhile, Aboriginal children in remote Australia will keep on committing suicide, and their elders and white supporters will blame anyone but themselves.
 reported by NACCHO Aboriginal Health News Alerts, ‘Where Suicide Lurks in Aboriginal Kids’ Minds as an Easy Way Out’, http:// nacchocommunique.com/2016/03/12/