The more things change

So far as I know, the only people who have analysed and criticised Justice Martin’s sentencing remarks on the white men who beat Kwementyaye Ryder are Chris Graham, and me. This case should provoke soul-searching. We should ask why it happened. We should ask how it could happen that a judge would respond in the way he did. And we should ask why the media has not considered it particularly significant.

The major exception was a report on Four Corners. In some ways, the report was significant. It devoted some 50 minutes to the killing. It contained some revealing testimony from witnesses: the families of the victim. It also contained testimony from the families of the perpetrators.

And therein lies its terrible moral failure. How would we respond to this case if it happened elsewhere? What if it was in the deep American south that a bunch of white men beat an African American man to death and were nevertheless held up as basically good people by their sentencing judge? In such a case, you know exactly how ‘decent’ people would respond, and you know how ‘respectable’ media would cover it. They would not give equal time to the killers and the victim. They would not engage in he-said she-said, where-does-the-truth-lie acrobatics. Yet this is largely what the Four Corners report did. Both sides got to tell their story, while a largely balanced and neutral reporter let them have their say.

Liz Jackson thought it appropriate for the mother of Glen Swain – one of the killers – to tell us what a ‘lovely natured boy’ he was. And perhaps one can’t fault Heather Swain (she obviously raised him with wonderful values):

I thought my Glen wouldn’t go and murder someone. Him, they might punch around with their mates, but he’d never cause an injury to anyone.

He wasn’t that type of person and we always taught him that if someone was down, you don’t kick them while they’re down. You at least give them the chance to stand up and have a go back.

When told that her son and his friends racially abused Aboriginal campers, Ms Swain explained that this isn’t such a big deal because ‘it’s both ways, it’s not just you white so and so, it’s not just you black so and so, it’s both ways’. And the man they killed wasn’t so innocent anyway. He was Aboriginal, after all, and Aboriginals camp in the riverbed: ‘I thought there was a law to say they weren’t allowed to camp in the riverbed after 6pm. How come nothing’s ever said about that?’

Obviously, the man her son beat to death wasn’t so innocent after all.

Yet Ms Swain does not reach the moral heights of another parent, Selwyn Kloeden. Anton Kloeden was the (completely sober) driver who decided to drive at the campers repeatedly, before driving back to Hird and Swain’s place to pick up a gun. Kloeden then drove his four mates back to the campers so they could shoot the gun in their direction before executing the sudden U-turn that made the lethal attack possible.

Liz Jackson reported that Kloeden’s father saw ‘nothing extraordinary about’ the night his son helped kill Ryder.

SELWYN KLODEN: Ah, I guess about a few young fellas going for a drive down the river, I thought well, you know, that’s quite a, a um, a regular occurrence for young people in, in this vicinity. Um, saw nothing extraordinary about that at all. And just five fellas going for a drive up the drive up the river

LIZ JACKSON: Somebody was assaulted and somebody did die.

SELWYN KLODEN: Yeah, but that wasn’t eh, the intent of it of anything there.

Liz Jackson then let him explain the real injustices that upset the elder Kloeden. Firstly, Kloeden is serving an excessive sentence. Secondly, Anton Kloeden tragically has to spend too much time in his cell. This is part of a protective custody arrangement for his safety, yet we were treated to Selwyn Kloeden’s distress at this terrible injustice inflicted on Anton Kloeden’s undoubtedly sensitive soul.

Anton Kloeden, incidentally, was only 22 at the time of the crime, but already had a criminal history. In 2007 he pled guilty to assault occasioning bodily harm. This did not prevent Justice Martin from claiming his later attack on Ryder was ‘totally out of character’. It also did not affect his satisfaction that Kloeden was ‘highly unlikely to offend against the criminal law again, particularly that you are unlikely to commit crimes of violence.’

But then, in Heather Swain’s words, it might not be such a big deal if white boys have a culture which involves punching around. Interestingly, Justice Martin did not advise white families that it was time they ‘grew up and learnt how to settle their disagreements lawfully.’ He saved that lecture for Aboriginal communities. Plainly, not all violent lifestyles are equally distasteful to this learned judge.

Liz Jackson performed a real service by presenting the shocking views of many of these people. Yet, she did not seem to think it necessary to take sides on the views she presented to Australia. Consider, for example, one of the witnesses, Jared Ewin. He saw what happened, but was not too troubled by it: ‘the five white young guys just sick of taking crap from Aboriginals.’

Obviously, enough is enough, and it’s about time more uppity blacks were shown their place. If it takes a few fatal beatings, perhaps they will finally get the message. For those who visit theFour Corners website, we can learn more about Ewin’s views. When asked if his friends were shocked by what happened, he explained that they weren’t. They were just ‘disappointed with what the five guys did. You know. A lot of people probably think they went too far … Um … which they probably did you know.’

Yes, perhaps the five men terrorising Aboriginal campers and beating Ryder to death was a little excessive.

What was most disappointing about Four Corners is that it largely left untouched Justice Martin’s sentencing comments. Jackson mentioned his finding of ‘racial elements’ to the crime, without mentioning that it was not included as an aggravating circumstance, nor considered as a reason to increase the sentence when he considered deterrence value. She did not mention his glowing character references for the killers. Yet surely the sentence was one of the most disturbing features of the whole saga? Instead, Jackson merely showed us the juxtaposed views of the families of the victim and the perpetrators.

Let us go further with the story of racism in Alice Springs, for it is also our story. Around the time of the Four Corners report, for example, the ABC reported that other Aboriginal people camping in the river bed had been harassed and racially abused in a similar manner to those harassed on 25 July 2009. One Aboriginal woman reported that these men had attacked at midnight, broken her brother’s hand, and were behaving like the KKK.

This is a recent development. What factors might help account for the rise of racism in Alice Springs? Perhaps we should consider the views of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people, James Anaya. In August last year, Jenny Macklin welcomed him to Australia, explaining that he is ‘recognised as one of the world’s leading human rights advocates and legal scholars. His advocacy and legal work on behalf of Indigenous communities command worldwide attention.’ ‘Professor Anaya,’ declared Macklin, ‘your visit around Australia will shine a light on human dignity.’

Then Anaya delivered his observations – on the Northern Territory Intervention. He could not ‘avoid observing that, on their face, these measures involve racial discrimination.’ He went on that this:

differential treatment of indigenous peoples in the Northern Territory involves impairment of the enjoyment of various human rights, including rights of collective self-determination, individual autonomy in regard to family and other matters, privacy, due process, land tenure and property, and cultural integrity.

Indigenous people he met with:

including numerous women, expressed anguish over not just the immediate impacts of various aspects of the NTER, but also about a deepening sense of indignity and stigmatization that is brought about by the entire scheme. In addition, according to the information received by the Special Rapporteur, the NTER measures have had the effect of generating or heightening racist attitudes among the public and the media against Aboriginal people. Concern has been expressed especially about the stigmatizing effects of the large signs at the entrance to prescribed areas announcing the alcohol and pornography bans, and of the special government-issued BasicsCard that is mandatory for purchasing essential household items.

The Special Rapporteur finds credible assertions that, in general, the design of the NTER provisions animates perceptions of indigenous peoples as being somehow responsible for their present disadvantaged state. [Emphasis added]

These openly racist measures have indeed corroded Australian society. We cannot blame them on racists in Alice Springs. They were implemented by the Liberal government we elected, and the expansion of compulsory income management, initiated by Labor, with Liberal support. Initially, conservative and liberal pundits across the spectrum voiced their approval, and then there was silence (see, for example, Robert Manne in The Monthly March 2008).

In our election campaign, it was not even considered worth discussing that Australia is soon to implement a racially discriminatory form of compulsory income management nationwide.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. Thanks for the post, Michael. I saw the Four Corners report and am aware of the case. Clive Hamilton has a very good piece in Overland 200 on the subject of ABC reportage of climate change. However, his observations could be applied to any number of issues covered by the national broadcaster, including the one you address.

    The ‘fairness in reporting’ regime established by the Howard government (I think it began with Alston following the invasion of Iraq?), along with changes to the board membership, have resulted in a metric system of measuring ‘balance’ which Williams asserts is nothing of the kind.
    I would have cast Liz Jackson as one of the ABC’s more courageous correspondents over the years but I agree with your observations on this particular report which I regard as symptomatic of a timid paranoia running through the organisation. Coverage of the recent election campaign by programs like Insiders and even AM, for example, was extremely meek and sloppy. The ABC is a shy shadow of its former self.

    The Kwementyaye Ryder incident is a reminder of the violent racism percolating behind the Australian mateship culture in sections of the community. Unfortunately, indigenous issues are off the radar and a profound lack of quality reporting is partly to blame.

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. racism is such a pervasive evil state of mind
    we need leadership that consistently and intensively keeps pushing us to recognise and accept each other
    just a few months of Howard and Abbott and his attack dogs that are still active have undone years of Australian compassion at least amongst our leadership and elite donors
    the numbers of “ordinary” people that support refugees and oppose overseas processing camps is encouraging but Aborigines have long been our hard core target…

    Brian Martin and his legal and governmental ilk are terrible maintainers of our worst attitudes, thank god he gave into pressure and recognised his tenure would be continuously attacked… hopefully he reads and understands why he is rightfully rejected

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