Keeping the momentum going on self-determination

Justin Mohamed is the Victorian Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People.

Aboriginal children and young people need to be given the tools and the opportunity to reach their full potential, says Justin Mohamed.

Moving back to Victoria after 10 years in Canberra, I’ve been impressed to see where our state is going in the Aboriginal space. In other states and territories there are topics and ideas that are still taboo and often avoided, but in Victoria it seems that more is on the table to discuss than off: important areas like treaty and self-determination are central to conversations taking place between government and community. Just the fact that we have the role of Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People – and a Commissioner for the Treaty Framework – is a really encouraging sign that Victoria is on the right path. We’re working through things instead of pretending they’re not happening or don’t need to be addressed.

The progress we’ve made in the Aboriginal space has been bigger than any one political party or ideology. The inaugural Commissioner was appointed under a Liberal Government and I was appointed under a Labor Government, showing that progress can transcend partisan politics and persist through political change.

However, there are still areas where a lot more work needs to be done in building a stronger Victoria: for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people around the state. For me, work in the areas of youth justice and out-of-home care for Aboriginal children will be most instrumental. A range of positive outcomes will flow when we make progress in these areas: outcomes that will see improvements in health, education, employment and eradicating homelessness.

Some of the most vulnerable kids I encounter in my work are children in out-of-home care. These are children and young people who’ve done nothing wrong to be in the situation they are in. The question we have to ask is: are we providing the appropriate supports for these children, are we giving them the best protection and equipping them with what is needed to succeed in life?

We’ve seen new and innovative action taking place in the management of out-of-home care, with the transferring of Aboriginal children into the care of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. We’re only in the early stages, but with positive reports to date, I would expect to see many more success stories over the next 10 years.

But we’ve got to keep the momentum going; we’ve got to keep empowering Aboriginal communities, families and organisations to exercise their self-determination rights. And there’s no better way to do this than to create the environment for our young people to become stronger and more resilient. For Aboriginal children and young people, we know that culture plays a huge part in building that resilience. Culture is the foundation, the bedrock that needs to be central – but often hasn’t been included – when we’re thinking about young people’s wellbeing.

As an Aboriginal man, I know that growing up with the benefits of being strong in your culture is a lifeline. It’s the true north – the one thing you can return to when everything else is a mess, which gives you grounding, direction and clarity. Many Aboriginal people know how important culture is to their lives. The question is: how can we ensure this important element is part of the lives of young people who haven’t had the opportunity to be raised with culture around them

or have been removed from their culture? This question is pressing for children both in the youth justice system and in out-of-home care.

When it comes to youth justice, the challenge is to think not just in terms of the incidents that have brought these young people into the system, but of how we’re going to help equip them with the tools they need when they return to community, to be strong citizens within their communities and the broader state. Rather than just punishing crimes, we need to use youth justice as a place to build stronger young people. Because statistics and history show if things do not change our young people will most likely end up in the adult criminal system.

Youth justice could be an opportunity to give young people the support to build stronger links back to community, culture and education; to help them deal with the issues that got them into trouble in the first place and better equip them when they leave youth justice centres. As a society we should be doing more to ensure that all young people are given the tools and the opportunity to reach their full potential.

In the youth justice space there are many challenges to work through, including how we address security measures while ensuring access to cultural connection. The recent report Aboriginal cultural rights in youth justice centres – a joint effort with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission – made eight strong recommendations on this issue. The report reaffirmed that culture shouldn’t be something our young people are cut off from: their cultural connection is as important as their health and educational needs.

Once we start putting our energies into cultural connection, we will see positive change, not just for Aboriginal young people but for all young people. For any government, this could be a legacy piece, and could see the whole state reaping the rewards for generations to come.

Victoria has some real advantages in these challenges. We’re a relatively small state geographically, so to get young people connected back to country isn’t as difficult as in other parts of Australia. And Victoria has a strong history of Aboriginal advancement, so there are many organisations already established and ready for this holistic approach.

Self-determination starts with our children, with Aboriginal young people needing to be understood and feeling that they are valued by society. Many of the building blocks are already there, it’s just about aligning them so our children can reach their full potential.