• "Administrative violence is stuff that begins with paperwork and ends with a lost child or paddy wagon." (Cultura RF)Source: Cultura RF
Administrative Violence starts out with paperwork and can end up with a removed child. Associate Professor, Tess Lea explores just how common this practice is in Aboriginal Australia.
Dr. Tess Lea

29 Nov 2017 - 5:47 PM  UPDATED 4 Dec 2017 - 3:37 PM

Administrative Violence is a concept which relates to another: Structural Violence. This is a term which helps describe the racialised basis to inequality, by pointing to the 'big picture' behind the statistics. High incarceration rates, early death, high levels of trauma, might be borne by individuals, but what makes people vulnerable in the first place relates to inequitable resource distribution?

We might think of the quality of schools and how these differ for the wealthy or the poor, for instance; or the ease with which a low level crime such as cannabis possession can be prosecuted in contrast with white collar issue such as tax evasion, say. Since this is all taking place at a time when, in theory, racial discrimination is not legalised, the question becomes: how does inequality happen when we are all meant to enjoy equality?

Administrative Violence is a term which describes one of the key mechanisms through which structural inequality is reproduced entirely legally.

It happens through the legal mechanisms, not deliberate, evil, malignant, overt and illegal discrimination. Specifically, Administrative Violence is a term which describes one of the key mechanisms through which structural inequality is reproduced entirely legally. We get a glimpse of this mechanism when police enforcement of an eviction is described as, ‘they’re/we are/ I am just doing their/our/my job” and the thing they are just doing their job on, or being so impersonal about, is a rule that catches the poor or the already disadvantaged in a vicious net.

People can be maimed or marginalised by different vectors such as, mandatory detention for three strikes, a tenancy regulation, a second-rate teacher, an unpayable fine, the absence of social workers or mental health supports or rehabilitation for alcohol services which don’t really work when alcohol use is so widespread in the wider community, all of which casts victims as undeserving individuals.

Thus cast, these individuals become and remain the problem. The dormant violence sitting behind all this comes into visibility when any of these vectors are pushed too far. If a person berates the clerk in a Centrelink office and refuses to leave when asked, sure as eggs there will be a security guard or some kind of next level of enforcer waiting in the background, ready to punish as needed. We can think of these enforcers as bureaucrats with cars that can take children or as bureaucrats with batons and guns, “all just doing their job”.

"Administrative violence is stuff that begins with paperwork and ends with a lost child or paddy wagon."

But that is Administrative Violence. Stuff that begins with paperwork and ends with a lost child or paddy wagon.


Impacting Aboriginal Australia

The system of fines for low level crimes is impacting Aboriginal Australia, becoming key in the way people end up with criminal records. If we look at unemployment rates in this light, we can say: the is no problem of employment for people with no criminal record. Those Indigenous people are working half a dozen jobs, paid and unpaid. They are over-employed. Why? Because unemployment targets those with a criminal record, or those with poor literacy and numeracy, and those with poor mental and bodily health. Because the system we are talking about, with its structural inequalities, helps render people as unable to get any of the jobs that are worth doing.

In a nutshell: poor people do not deserve poor services. Practically speaking: excellent schools, excellent housing, excellent health and wellbeing services, the very best in wraparound services, so that inequality and disadvantage does not reproduce itself within families. All service providers should undertake anti-bias training and have dignified dealings with all members of the public be something they are assessed on, by members of the communities they are working with and among. Societally we need to address the maldistribution of resources and shut down middle and upper class and company tax avoidance schemes. We need to operate as a collective, for reasons of care and also of environmental stewardship.


Administrative violence in action

The Royal Commission into Youth Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory recently completed, which provides a number of case examples but the one which describes a grandmother’s hard road hanging onto her grandchildren and the day that her grandchildren were taken away from her stands out strongly.

The case explores a grandmother who is trying to help out young parents that want to be able to balance having a social life, responsible parenting and caring. How are you supposed to be decent parents, having some kind of life that is not chained to the home 24-7? Why not create an event that enables them to enjoy their weekend and be responsible by leaving their child with a carer and having a healthy balanced lifestyle? So together the grandmother and the parents develop workaround. Every so often, on a weekend, the parents can go out, and leave their child in the grandmother’s care

Only it seems there is some rule, not mentioned in the case study, but we can imagine what this absent rule is about. It's one thatm says the parents, and not some other kin, need to be in attendance at all times. And the weekend case workers turn up to check is the weekend they are having their respite. From paperwork, people get swept into a journey which too easily ends up with horrible trajectories. 

The deeper issue is that institutionalised racism is perfectly legal and it becomes this thing that is hard to name so people call it things like "the system."

Associate Professor Tess Lea is an anthropologist who specialises in the anthropology of policy. Her fundamental interest is with issues of (dys)function: how it occurs and to what, whom and how it is ascribed. 


The new series of Struggle Street is on tonight at Wednesday 29 November 8.30pm on SBS.  

A two-week event: Tuesday-Thursday. 


Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

All episodes of Struggle Street will be available to view on SBS On Demand after broadcast.

Episodes one, two and three will encore on Viceland on Friday 1 December from 8.30pm, while episodes four, five and six will encore on Viceland on Friday 8 December from 9pm.

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