What we're missing in the attacks over Billy Gordon's character

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Alecia Simmonds

Queensland Indigenous MP Billy Gordon being sworn in at Brisbane's Parliament House last month.

Queensland Indigenous MP Billy Gordon being sworn in at Brisbane's Parliament House last month. Photo: AAP

Billy Gordon, we are told, is a bad apple. The recent revelations that he had convictions for break and enter, theft, breaching probation, public nuisance, breaching bail conditions and driving offences dating back to when he was a youngster shows, according to Queensland opposition leader Lawrence Springborg, that he has 'personality issues.' In fact, he says that they are a 'window into his character'. Whatever moody Shakespearian world Springborg inhabits, commentators have generally agreed.  On radio and online people have called for politicians to submit to police checks and confess to their criminal pasts. Why? So that 'their previous ethical positions' can be made clear to voters.

That Billy Gordon may also be a product of a racist society where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are poorer, sicker, more disadvantaged than any other group in Australian society seems to have escaped us. In our rush to pronounce upon his character we have strangely forgotten about his context; one where one in every 43 Aboriginal adults are in prison and Aboriginal people are eight times more likely to be taken into police custody.

It's hypocritical for us to ask Aboriginal politicians to redress their communities' problems and then be shocked when it turns out that they have experienced those problems. Or, in Gordon's case, that they are living examples of them. Many, like Gordon, may come from what he calls a 'troubled and fractured past.' And his past is our own past; Australia's 'troubled and fractured' history of colonisation. 

This is not to say that Billy Gordon is innocent. Of course he isn't. He should have disclosed his criminal history to Annastacia Palaszczuk when she asked him. His failure to pay child support is reprehensible, as is his tax evasion. And if he is found guilty of domestic violence and subject to sentencing then he must resign, no questions about it. But until Billy Gordon appears in Court on the domestic violence charge he, like everyone else, is entitled to a presumption of innocence. And in this charge, as in all of his past criminal charges, he is entitled to a consideration of his cultural background when being sentenced. This rule – the need for Judges in criminal matters to take into account cultural difference - was decided in the High Court case of Bugmy v R. And I reckon if one of our most conservative institutions is capable of looking at social context, then so are we.

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So what is this cultural background we need to pay attention to? Gordon has hinted at it in Parliament: 'throughout my life I have had to overcome many challenges and adversities in particular as a young Indigenous boy.' Some basic research can flesh out what these challenges might have been. Firstly he has spent his life in remote and regional areas of Far North Queensland – an area where Aboriginal people over the age of 15 are more likely to be arrested than their urban counterparts, less likely to complete year 12, less likely to have access to affordable housing and more likely to have drug and alcohol problems.

These communities also have higher rates of domestic violence than anywhere else in Queensland with 609 offences for every 100,000 people. In Australia Aboriginal women are 38 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault and ten times more likely to die from assault than non-indigenous women. This is not because Aboriginal men have a natural predilection towards violence. This is not an issue of character. Violence is an issue of context, of a whole host of messy social and historical causes from poverty, to unemployment to a fear of police, to the fact that there's no safe housing for survivors if they do report it anyway.  

Hypothetically speaking, if Billy Gordon is exposed as having a criminal past then it is not the same as a privileged white politician being exposed for similar offences. Gordon's culpability is likely to be less than someone whose formative years had not been marred by social disadvantage. I would argue that the fact that he has grappled with these problems and overcome them makes him a much better representative for these communities than your usual pale-faced ALP or LNP member with lily-white hands and a manufactured working-class accent. Someone who has experienced the problems first hand is much more likely to be able to consult with communities about how to fix them.

And we need to accept that Gordon has overcome these problems. Our entire justice system is premised upon the idea that people can be rehabilitated. Remember the heated arguments we had and continue to be having over the two members of the Bali Nine facing execution? Remember how hard we have argued for the capacity for people to be rehabilitated following prison? Why is Gordon denied this same sympathy? Why is his criminal past, dating back to 1987, read as indicative of a fundamental flaw in his character – timeless and unchanging – rather than something that has provided him with lessons for the future?

Finally, if we are to ask politicians to tell voters about their criminal pasts then I would suggest that we also ask politicians to tell voters about any civil matters that they've been involved in. Because it doesn't take a genius to work out that we have two systems of justice in this country: one for the rich and one for the poor. If you're a sandstone-educated white man, sipping mimosas harbor-side in Point Piper, then you're unlikely to have had any underhanded dealings channeled through our civil courts where you'll get a slap on the wrist and a fine. If you're Billy Gordon, cutting sugar cane or working in pubs in Far North Queensland, then you can exchange the fine for a prison sentence and the law's casual disinterest for hawkish vigilance.

If we genuinely want a democracy where our political representatives reflect the diversity of our population, and if we genuinely want these representatives to have had life experiences broader than undertaking an Arts/Law degree at Sydney University, then we need to treat people like Gordon with more empathy. After all, his context is our context; it's a product of our shared history and we need those who have suffered its worst effects to help change it.