Senator Pat Dodson, who worked on the 1991 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, has criticised 30 years of government failure to “relieve this awful blight on this nation’s history”. In a speech to the Senate on Wednesday, Dodson demanded the federal government make it a “top priority” to pressure the states and territories to take action on reducing Aboriginal incarceration rates and deaths in custody.
That the Senate take note of answers given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) and the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Payne) to questions without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) and Senators McAllister and Gallagher today relating to deaths in custody of First Nations people and early childhood education.
Thirty years ago, the royal commission that I was part of made 339 recommendations to the parliament. That commission had been set up by the Hawke government. At that time, there were 99 deaths that we were concerned about in this nation to effect a national royal commission. Now we’ve had over 400 deaths since that royal commission. Thirty years have passed, and we have not addressed the underlying issues that give rise to people being taken into custody and, consequently, dying in custody. So the social factors of health, housing, education and employment and the legal factors surrounding those have not been addressed in a manner to relieve this awful blight on this nation’s history.
There’s a continuing, systemic pattern here. I appeal to the government and this new-beaut system that the minister is believing is going to find the answers to it—this new Federation Reform Council—to actually look at the systemic approaches that take place. First Nations people are likely to come to the attention of police; we know that. First Nations people who come to the attention of the police are likely to be arrested and charged; we know that. First Nations people who come to the attention of the police will be charged, but they will also be sent to court. When they go to court, what will happen? They’ll be sent to jail. This is a pattern and a paradigm. This is systematic, systemic and institutionalised.
If you look at this from a First Nations point of view, this is about the subjugation of the First Nations people. This is not about enlightened policy; this is about subjugating the First Nations people. If you correlate that to the number of people who have been taken away—the 30,000 kids in out-of-home care—and if you come up with things like, ‘It’s going to take time,’ or, ‘It’s complicated, and it’s really difficult,’ well, it’s not. Address the underlying issues—health, housing, education and employment—and work with First Nations people through the COAG system, or through the new system of the reform council or whatever it is, to actually set some targets around these things, as Senator Wong had asked, such as for lower incarceration rates and for the diminishment of removing kids from their homes and families and being put into custody, which will ultimately lead to the adoption out of these things for kids. I remind the government that the Bringing them home report that had analysed the policies and practices that pertained to those heinous practices bordered on genocide.
So I ask you, sincerely, to make this a top priority. For too long there have been nice words and good intentions, but the lack of action and commitment has not seen a reduction in deaths in custody; it’s seen an escalation in the social indicators that diminish First Nations people and diminish us as a nation. It diminishes us as a nation because we are incapable of dealing with it. So I ask the government to sincerely put into practice the best intentions—to put those intentions into commitments and into really working with the First Nations peoples and to getting real agreements with the states. And don’t pussyfoot around with the states, saying, ‘Oh, it’s the states’ responsibility.’ Well, we know you’ve been capable of finding ways of dealing with that. Now’s the time to stop the rot of First Nations people dying in custody, being over-imprisoned and having their children put into out-of-home care.