Friday 19 March 2021

Moving Forward and Looking Back

As we move to the latter weeks of the term, the full resumption of the educational program is apparent at every turn. The summer co-curricular program was consummated last weekend with the Head of the River at Penrith, and what a memorable day it was for all involved. On the water, the crews were outstanding, earning 9 podium finishes out of 11 events and securing 5 x 1st Places. It was one of the strongest performances in Riverview’s 140-year association with the sport. On the banks of the Penrith River, the theatre and pageantry of the boys who cheered and supported in such fine spirit added to the excitement of the day, one that was held last year in the absence of spectators amid an eerie silence. It was truly uplifting to see the passion displayed on the day in a large community setting, one that was held in full accord with a COVID Safety Plan, but one that has seen so many concessions granted over recent weeks. A palpable feeling of moving ahead was alive in the athletes, the student spectators, the officials and the parents who came in numbers to support this perennial event.

It was also encouraging to see wide community participation at the End of Season Dinners which took place across the College last weekend. It has been a long time since parents have been back in the school grounds celebrating important events associated with the broader life of the College, particularly those that acknowledge the final season for boys who have been participating in sports and activities for many years. Last week also saw the resumption of the Year 7 Dance with Loreto Kirribilli, one which for many years has seen the integration of the boys and the girls in their early transition to secondary school and was disappointingly cancelled in 2020. Also back are House Masses, which are resuming next week. It will be a busy calendar ahead as we re-instate the House masses that could not occur during the early weeks of the year with one that is already burgeoning and competing for space.

Whilst the College remains busy with a series of activities within our sightline, we must also be mindful of and responsive to a matter of national significance  – that is, the tragedy of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

It is now 30 years on from the April 1991 release of the distressing findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody. In investigating the deaths of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people between 1980 and 1991, it found that one third of the deaths (37) were from disease, 30 were self-inflicted hangings, 23 were caused by other forms of external trauma, and 9 were immediately associated with alcohol or drug abuse. This was and remains a distressing and confronting part of our history, and something that we should have learned from.

In March 2008, 17 years after the report, the Australian Government agreed to work together to achieve equality in health and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians by 2030. It identified six ambitious projects across the areas of health, education, justice and employment to drive progress to ‘Close the Gap’; to redress the inequities that would enable all Australians to share in equal access to resources and outcomes. In March of each year, the progress – or lack thereof associated with this initiative – is revisited.

It is therefore with enormous concern that the news of official cover-ups associated with the deaths of three Aboriginal people in custody this week have been disclosed by the media. This should be cause for national outrage – three lives lost in one week in a country that has so much by way of material wealth and opportunity. The silence that surrounds these events is both inexcusable and astonishing in a country that can afford Royal Commissions and prides itself on the rule of law and justice. It is a sad indictment of a system that has failed First Nations people, not just in recent times, but on 440 occasions since 1980.

30 years on, we need to interrogate why the impulse, the findings and the recommendations of the past have failed to redress such exigent matters. Being in a Jesuit school demands that the voice of provocation be activated. We are called upon to be at the vanguard of social justice – to call out failure and, where we can, to respond to it. While the ‘Close the Gap’ program has seen gains in early childhood education, in Year 12 educational retention and in other areas, there is a very disturbing shadow cast over a system that continues to imprison First Nations people and fails to care for them. Indeed, the Australian Bureau of Statistics registers that the overall incarceration rate for 2020 was 208 people per 100,000, yet the incarceration rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 2,333 per 100,000. And as for the death rate in the prison system…

I write these words out of genuine distress. There is much happening in the school and in the educational program as we emerge from the pandemic, but we cannot ignore our lack of response to First Nations people. We have an underbelly of injustice in our country and one that we all need to call out. Systemic change is not likely to occur via Royal Commissions or parliamentary figures, particularly those which deals with minorities. Raising national consciousness, being disturbed by that which is occurring around us and being part of the discourse is what I believe will lead to change.

Could I encourage you, as part of the Lenten journey, to be involved in this demanding and confronting discourse.

Dr Paul Hine