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Government failure to adequately implement recommendations by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody has led to little improvement in the death rate and an increase in imprisonment rates of Aboriginal people

MATT PEACOCK: Three hundred and thirty-nine recommendations later, with $400 million from the Federal Government to implement them, what's happened to the work of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody? The Commission was set up back in 1987 when Australian governments were embarrassed by an epidemic of Aboriginal and Islander deaths in police lock-ups and gaols around the country, just as the nation was preparing to celebrate 200 years of white settlement. Since then, the death rate has fallen slightly, but as Peter McAvoy reports, the imprisonment rate is up and there's little evidence that the underlying issues which became the Commission's focus of concern are being tackled.

UNIDENTIFIED: We were in the courtyard at Fremantle Prison. If you look up at the buildings, it goes four storeys high and, gosh, it must be, what, 20 windows long on each building. So you've got roughly 200 windows looking at us and it's all looking at this one dip in the ground here which is where it's alleged that Robbie Walker was bashed to death on 28 August, 1984.

PETER MCAVOY: Was that evidence presented to the Royal Commission?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, well, that's why I mentioned the windows to you. There were a lot of witnesses to that event, and the Commission took note of the evidence. But like a lot of the hearings, yes, the evidence was heard and there were no convictions. So, yes, that's the kind of realities that families are facing at the moment, that they actually went through the process and heard about all those dreadful things that happened to their kid or their brother, and no one was charged.

PETER MCAVOY: The Royal Commission heard evidence on the death of Robbie Walker from 55 witnesses over 33 days. But the fact that no charges were laid is not unusual. The role of the Commission was to investigate our justice system rather than pursue criminal investigations, and by the time its final report was released in 1991, the emphasis had shifted from allegations of murder to the issues of why so many Aboriginal people were in custody in the first place, and how our custodians could meet their duty of care.

When the police or prisons take someone into custody, they take away their ability to care for themselves. It's an accepted part of Australian law that police and prison services have a duty to take care of prisoners and ensure their safety. Eddie Isaacs was an Aboriginal prisoner in Canning Vale Prison. He died from a heart attack, but Eddie's family doesn't believe his death was simply natural causes. His brother-in-law, Joe Nannup (?), says the Western Australian prison system failed to respond to Eddie's medical needs and it failed to meet its duty of care.

JOE NANNUP: It's hard to understand the reaction towards it because of seeing family members of being in great pain through the same illnesses and being hospitalised for it more or less straightaway. The urgency of the pain, that's what happens, and couldn't understand why, with what Eddie was going through at the time, that he wasn't put in hospital. He didn't make my wife aware of the pain that he was in, how sick he was feeling. He made a mistake in life; he's inside; he's doing his time for the mistakes that he made. His health and welfare should be looked after while he's in there.

PETER MCAVOY: Eddie Isaacs is one of almost 60 Aboriginal deaths in custody which have occurred since the Royal Commission closed its books in May 1989. The fact that many of those deaths followed a similar pattern to the 99 cases that were examined, raises some disturbing questions. Ten years after Robbie Walker died, why are Aboriginal people still dying in custody? Three years after the final report, what's happened to the 339 recommendations?

Helen Corbett led the fight to establish the Royal Commission.

HELEN CORBETT: It's achieved a lot of things but it may not have been necessary, the things that we set out in the first instance. The magnitude of what was to be done prior, during and after was just too huge for us, and we had an expectation that the community, the general Australian community would pick up the tab, if you like, and to ensure that what we struggled for and fought for, and some of us died for, the banner would be taken up by the rest of the community. That hasn't been the case.

PETER MCAVOY: Implementing the hundreds of recommendations is now the responsibility of governments, police, prison services, judges, magistrates and coroners, ATSIC, government departments, Aboriginal medical and Aboriginal legal services, all of the instrumentalities whose work touches the lives and deaths of Aboriginal people. There are eight governments multiplied by 339 recommendations, $400 million in Commonwealth money and thousands of bureaucrats. But when we do all the sums and measure the columns, what's the result? How far have we gone along the path set by the Royal Commission?

The most obvious measuring stick is the number of deaths. At least 64 people died in custody in 1993, the highest rate in five years. Eight of the 64, or 11 per cent, were Aboriginal people, yet Aboriginals make up just one per cent of the Australian population. That sort of disproportion is what the Royal Commission was all about. Aboriginal people are more likely to be in custody and therefore more likely to die in custody, yet this extraordinary statistic, 11 per cent of deaths, one per cent of people, is an improvement on earlier years.

According to criminologist, David McDonald, there's been a reduction in Aboriginal deaths as police have responded to the recommendations.

DAVID MCDONALD: Police are holding in custody fewer people than they were before and, in other words, they're using their discretion to deal with people in other ways, rather than lock them up. Now, secondly, what the police are doing is they're screening people carefully so that people who are at risk of suicide in custody or at risk of dying from illness in custody are diverted off to other suitable facilities such as a sobering-up shelter or to hospitals; and thirdly, and also importantly, what we've seen is that the police services around Australia are much better in terms of implementing the Royal Commission's recommendations, about caring for people in their custody, better supervision of people who have to be locked up, and better health services and other caring services such as cell visitors for those people who do need to be locked in custody.

PETER MCAVOY: Can I get you to tell me who you are?

CAMPBELL FOLKS: All right. Superintendent Campbell Folks from the Police Administration at police headquarters in East Perth.

All right. We're currently in the security yard at the back of the East Perth lock-up. Dividing the lock-up from the central police station is a security yard. Entrance to the lock-up at East Perth is controlled by a security door. Entrance to that is a security which you must activate and identify yourself as to who you are before you can get access to the lock-up. Once you've got access, then we move through into the lock-up. Again, various stages of security. Well, we're now into what is called the celli-port (?) and this is where the vehicles are brought in with the police officers and those that are taken into custody. From that, we then pass through another security into the charge room area.

Having entered the charge room area, the police officer, with the person who's been arrested, is then taken to the charge counter where his details are taken from him - the way he's been arrested, and all his personal details, as to whether in fact he may have been in custody before, and any problems that he may have had, whether it be medical or whatever, and his request for bail, medical needs and the like, they're all taken from him, documented for his safety and security at the lock-up.

PETER MCAVOY: Would whether the person is an Aboriginal person or not be documented at that stage, too?

CAMPBELL FOLKS:Doesn't matter what race you are, Aboriginal, white, the same procedure.

Right, Peter, we're still in the East Perth lock-up. Now, we're in a cell that's been modified to prevent perhaps someone in custody from coming to any harm whereby they might attempt suicide. You'll see that the lighting has been secured; they can't possibly reach it. We still have the open, but we've replaced bars with Armour-glass. The door provides them with privacy. The bedding is such that we now have a fire retardant mattress. There's no way in which, if they did secrete matches or anything in here, there's no way that the mattresses will burn, offering them safety again, as with the toilet area that no longer has anchor points whereby they might put material around it to perhaps do themselves some harm. In the cell itself, we've added drinking water whereas before they used to have to ask for water; now they can simply help themselves. Again, there's no anchor points. Within the cell itself, we also have visual. We have monitoring so that monitoring stations can watch what is actually taking place on those persons in the cell, again affording them some privacy if they wish to use their toilet facilities.

PETER MCAVOY: And what about changes to the procedures that happen here when someone is put in the lock-up? I mean, how much change have you made there?

CAMPBELL FOLKS: Quite a lot of change, really, over the years, because when prisoners used to first come into custody, their name and address, charge and the likes, and their bail requirements and medication, they were never ignored. They were documented, but now we have a system whereby, as the prisoner comes through, it's all computerised what his needs are, his bail requirements, doctors that may have spoken to him, his solicitors, the whole lot so as that all that now is documented and that information follows him whilst he's in custody. So those charged with the responsibility of looking after him, or caring for him, are aware of what his needs are.

PETER MCAVOY: But improved procedures and new cell designs don't tell the full story. The overall reduction in deaths is marginal and, in the '90s, Aboriginal prisoners are dying for the same reasons that they died in the '80s - lack of care. Jason Berrent is co-author of the National Committee to Defend Black Rights report on Aboriginal deaths in custody since the Royal Commission, and the stories he's collected are all too familiar.

JASON BERRENT:Daphne Armstrong was an elderly Aboriginal woman. She died in police custody in May 1992, and it's interesting to note that that's around 12 months after the Royal Commission recommendations were released, and she died of a heart attack while in custody and she'd been arrested for drunkenness, and a post-mortem on her body revealed that she had no trace of alcohol in her body, and it highlights perfectly how Royal Commission recommendations are being ignored. And the Royal Commission was quite specific in saying that, well, for a start, drunkenness should be decriminalised and that police should only use arrest as a sanction of last resort, and it also highlights the fact that police are incapable of medically assessing the health of a detainee.

It's quite clear that in this case Daphne Armstrong, who was acting oddly because of her cardiac problem, was presumed, because of her Aboriginality, to be drunk. Obviously, there's a view or a stereotype within many public services, hospitals and police, that if an Aboriginal person is acting strangely, the logical conclusion to come to is that they're drunk. Now, she wasn't drunk, she was placed in custody and she died there, and there were many Royal Commission recommendations aimed at preventing that situation occurring and they were ignored, and as a result, another Aboriginal person has died in custody when there was absolutely no reason for them to be in custody at all.

PETER MCAVOY: Two months after the Royal Commission's final report, Mark Nichols died in Parklea Gaol.

JASON BERRENT: Mark Nichols slashed his wrist after being put in a cell by himself. His death highlights why there have been so many deaths in prison custody. He had a medical file which deemed him suicidal, which recommended that he shouldn't be placed in a cell alone, which recommended that he be placed in a particular institution rather than others, yet that information was never passed on to Corrective Services, and withheld by the prison medical service on the basis that it was confidential medical information, and that is just an absurdity. I mean, how can the Corrective Services take care of a prisoner if the medical information which is crucial to his well-being is withheld from them? The lack of communication between prison medical services and Corrective Services and prison medical service, and the general health system was a cause in a number of deaths that we looked at. And the Royal Commission looked at these very same problems, and they made recommendations that were supposed to fix the problem, and those obviously have not been done.

PETER MCAVOY: Berrent's report found that in almost every case examined, Royal Commission recommendations hadn't been followed.

JASON BERRENT: Although most of the States have claimed to implement them, in practice it hasn't made a difference, and I don't believe that's because the recommendations were inadequate. I believe that the Government is kidding themselves about the degree to which they've effectively met the spirit of what those recommendations were about. I mean, it's all right to say: Well, we've told police not to do such an act, or we've told police to deal with prisoners in a certain way, or we've told prison medical services to operate in a certain manner. It's another thing to ensure that that actually happens in practice. And it is my view that, in many cases, there might have been directives to the extent that certain procedures be followed, but on the ground where it really matters, they're being ignored and might not even be aware of. Certainly, I believe that in some quarters they're just not taken seriously, and it's unfortunate because it costs people their lives.

PETER MCAVOY: More than half of the deaths in custody since the Royal Commission have occurred in prisons. Criminologist, David McDonald, says the reason is simply that more and more people are now in prison custody.

DAVID MCDONALD: The increase in Australia's prison population is a direct response to policies of government. Let's be clear on this. When we look at the numbers of deaths in custody, it immediately takes us to look at the number of people in custody and particularly in prison. Now, the increasing number of people in prison is not a reflection of any increase in the amount of offending in our society. People are not committing more crimes. The increase in the prison population is directly caused by government policies that are put forward under slogans such as: Law and Order, or Get Tough on Crime. The result really is more imprisoning of poor people, more imprisoning of the people who are the most powerless in the society.

PETER MCAVOY: And does that mean more imprisoning of Aboriginal people?


PETER MCAVOY: When the Royal Commission examined the deaths of 99 Aboriginal people, it didn't find that Aboriginal prisoners die more frequently than non-Aboriginal prisoners. It simply found that Aboriginal people are detained, arrested and imprisoned more often. In the words of the final report: 'Too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often'. Recommendation 92 calls for governments to make sure that prison is used only as a sanction of last resort, but although that recommendation was accepted by all eight governments, the number of Australians in prison has continued to rise, and Aboriginal people are more over-represented than ever.

Rob Riley is Chief Executive of the Western Australian Aboriginal Legal Service.

ROB RILEY: If I can just quote some figures that come from a report that's soon to be released from the Institute of Criminology, the Australian Institute of Criminology, that says in Western Australia, Aboriginal people are 24 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal people; in Western Australia, Aboriginal people make up 31 per cent of the prison population; in Western Australia, if you're an Aboriginal person and you're employed, you are 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than a non-Aboriginal person; if you're an Aboriginal person unemployed, you are 259 times more likely to be incarcerated; in Western Australia, if you're an Aboriginal person and you've finished school, you are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than a non-Aboriginal person; but if you're an Aboriginal person and you did not finish school, you are 127 times more likely to be incarcerated.

Now, when those statistics stare at you like that and you try and put into your mind there's been a Royal Commission that operated for a number of years, came up with specific recommendations to try and address issues, there's 55 of these recommendations that specifically talk about the diversion of Aboriginal people away from custodial care and things like that, but when you look at these sorts of statistics, you've got to ask the question: Why haven't things changed? And I think it more particularly is because governments are either lazy, they won't accept the fact that there is a need to co-operate more completely with Aboriginal people, or that governments, for whatever reason, when it comes to funding, don't accept the fact that those organisations have a greater ability to achieve an end result that is far more effective.

PETER MCAVOY: Western Australia's record on Aboriginal imprisonment isn't good, but the pattern isn't confined to one State. In 1988, there were 1,800 Aboriginal people in prison in Australia. By the time the Royal Commission report came out in 1991, there were more than 2,100. In December last year, more than 2,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were in gaol. The same pattern is there when you examine the figures for Aboriginal over-representation. In December 1993, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult were 17.5 times more likely to be in prison than a non-Aboriginal adult, and over the last five years, the rate of over-representation has increased in each and every State.

New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia seem to have made locking Aboriginal people up a State priority, but their figures are still lower than those for Western Australia where Aboriginal people are 3 per cent of the general population but more than 30 per cent of the prison population. David Grant is the Director-General of the WA Justice Department.

DAVID GRANT: We've reached, in this State now, or begun to reach - let's not over-play it - begun to reach an understanding of the need to work with Aboriginal people. That's the essence of it all, and once that is recognised, then a whole range of programs can and are being put in place which will then go to the very heart of the problem that you describe, which is an extraordinarily and unacceptably high rate of imprisonment. So we are very optimistic about that and we are absolutely determined to put those programs in place.

PETER MCAVOY: When do you expect the level of disproportion to disappear? When do you expect to have 3 per cent of the prison population Aboriginal people?

DAVID GRANT: This is going to sound like I'm prevaricating. I don't know, but the structure is being put in place to allow and encourage a very significant reduction in the Aboriginal imprisonment rate.

ROB RILEY: Peter, I've got to take that in with a grain of salt. I mean, if you forgive the colloquialism, they're doing arse about face. They're just not dealing with the community and involving the community, in resourcing the community to address these issues in the proper way, and what they're looking to is some politically popular, quick-fix solution when it comes to political popularity in addressing the issue of juvenile justice or criminal justice system and how it operates in Western Australia and how much it becomes an election issue in many respects, or a politically popular issue, to beat up when it's necessary.

PETER MCAVOY: Would you say then, in a sense, that the recommendations of the Royal Commission have been swamped by the law and order tide that's swept through Western Australia and other States?

ROB RILEY: Well, I certainly think it's been swamped by the law and order issue that's been developed on occasions, and again I say that's for politically popular purposes rather than a political resolve to address a very serious issue that needs, not only a comprehensive approach, but there needs to be a very practical and compassionate approach because if we're going to address the issue successfully, especially in the area of juvenile justice, we've got to be a little bit more concerned about how these kids are going to fit into society sooner or later, and we've got to try and look at ways of trying to address the issues that cause them to get into trouble, and if it means addressing the things at home with family or in the extended family or just particularly with the individuals and get some specialised counselling and things like that, that's what we ought to be doing instead of building $15 million prison complexes or $40,000 a year boot camps for kids. I think that's a very negative approach, and in the end, I have a view that it has more of a capacity to educate the kids in a more hardened way about criminal activities rather than trying to teach kids about nurturing and loving and respect and things like that.

PETER MCAVOY: Helen Corbett shares Rob Riley's fears for the future of Aboriginal youth in Western Australia.

HELEN CORBETT:One of the things which frightens me is that the majority of the Aboriginal population is young. We have an extremely young population, and we have a situation where in some communities 90 per cent of detention centres are our children. And, given the fact that our Aboriginal community nationally has a life expectancy of 39 years of age, I have to ask myself the question: Who's left on the street? Do we have a future generation? When the men are dying longer, the youth are in custody for longer periods, and many of them are young girls of child-bearing age, and the women who are out in the community are getting murdered at such horrific rates, then it appears that what we have is a situation not of poisoned water holes and flour, and the nigger hunts that used to take place, but we have a modern version of genocide in this country.

PETER MCAVOY: Helen Corbett. Thirty-three of the deaths investigated by the Commission happened in Western Australia, but over the last five years, the rate and nature of WA deaths in custody has changed. Five of the eight deaths were Aboriginal kids killed in high-speed car chases, deaths that are now classified as deaths in custody. The deaths of innocent bystanders during some of those chases caused a wave of public hysteria led by talk-back radio host, Howard Sattler. The result was Australia's harshest juvenile crackdown, a story covered by Background briefing's Liz Jackson in 1992.

UNIDENTIFIED: A candlelight vigil will be held outside Parliament House this Saturday night, beginning at 8.00 to remember Margaret Blurton and her little boy, Shane, and the other innocent victims killed by juvenile car thieves.

UNIDENTIFIED: All I can say is save the community some money and hang this bastard. That's all I can say.

HOWARD SATTLER: Well, some people would say you can't even contemplate that. We're talking about a 14-year-old boy here.

UNIDENTIFIED: You're talking about a 14-year-old boy and, as someone else said on your radio, if you commit an adult crime, get the adult punishment. You have any problems hanging him, I'll do it. I'll readily bloody do it.

LIZ JACKSON: A new policy was announced within two weeks of the Blurton's death. Hard-core young offenders declared Acting Premier, Ian Taylor, would be excised from the community, held in detention at the Governor's pleasure, and those who caused death or injury in cars could be sentenced to up to 20 years in gaol. Here's Ian Taylor on Howard Sattler's show.

IAN TAYLOR:It's the rally, it's people like yourself, it's a lot of good opinion out there in our community, that has led me to come to support the need for these people to be put away, and that will hopefully make the streets safer in Perth and in Western Australia.

PETER MCAVOY: The law that Ian Taylor and Carmen Lawrence finally passed has now been replaced by legislation that the Aboriginal Legal Service believes is just as harsh. But the basic fact about juvenile justice in Western Australia remains. Aboriginal people make up 4 per cent of the young population, but they make up more than 70 per cent of the population in juvenile detention. Western Australia's poor record on Aboriginal justice has generated Australia's most active community response and a watch committee now monitors the implementation of the Royal Commission. Janine Barren is a member of the committee.

JANINE BARREN: If there's no one holding people accountable for their actions in implementing these recommendations, you're never going to see a real change. Look, at the moment, you've got this fantastic report which is the most up-to-date examination of Aboriginal lifestyle in this country sitting on people's shelves, and the point of having an independent body is to get people to take the reports off the shelves and talk about how to implement them in reality. It's the same old argument - if you have public servants involved implementing policy, okay, they're not passionate about the issues, they're passionate about the fact that they have a job. Okay? And this is where voluntary organisations and pressure groups have traditionally been very powerful because they're people who are pressuring an issue from their heart. You know, you can have the keenest people you want in the public service, but the structure is not set up to make sure things happen fast. You've got to get the reports off the shelf.

PETER MCAVOY: The Royal Commission emphasise this by recommending a process to monitor our progress. Each government is expected to produce a yearly report. To date, only Queensland, Western Australia and the Commonwealth have published reports, and they've attracted mostly criticism. Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, this week blasted the Commonwealth over what he called a 'Yes, Minister' document.

MICK DODSON: It's of no use to the reader to find there's been a huge amount of bureaucratic activity. There's been meetings and discussions and exchanges of correspondence, and that tells us nothing about outcomes. It's my firm belief that if the recommendations of the Deaths in Custody Commission had been fully implemented, we would have already seen a dramatic change in the situation of indigenous Australians across-the-board. That hasn't happened. The rate of people going into custody has sky-rocketed. That's, as I said before, to me indicates either the diversion in custody recommendations haven't had a chance to bite or they're just not being implemented.

PETER MCAVOY: What sort of report would you like to see?

MICK DODSON: It ought to be honest and comprehensive about the outcomes and be a warts-and-all approach, explain the difficulties and why they've occurred. It's a very difficult document to read. I mean, I'm a trained lawyer and I have trouble reading it. I think a lot of people would have difficulty reading it and following it. I mean, there's no cross-referencing, there's no indexes.

PETER MCAVOY: Who's actually expected to read it?

MICK DODSON: Well, perhaps, that's part of the design of it. I don't know. I'm really a bit coy about answering that question, but perhaps it's designed not to be read.

PETER MCAVOY: So three years after the final report, how do we judge the achievements of the Royal Commission? It's the most important assessment of Aboriginal life and Australia's social justice record ever undertaken, but what have we done to take up the challenge? Commonwealth, State and Territory governments are writing thousands of new pages to record their efforts, but amid the tables and graphs of dollars spent and programs planned and implemented are some glaring facts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still far more likely to be detained, arrested and charged by the police. When they go to court, they're still far more likely to end up in gaol. The over-representation of Aboriginal people in Australian prisons is getting worse and the over-representation of young Aboriginal people in custody is extraordinary.

Three former Royal Commissioners, Elliott Johnson, Hal Wootten and Patrick Dodson agreed to discuss the achievements with Background briefing.

So, what have we done? If the figures on Aboriginal imprisonment are increasing three years on, what does that say about the implementation of the recommendations?

ELLIOTT JOHNSON: Well, it says that our recommendations are either not being carried out satisfactorily or they're not the right recommendations.

HAL WOOTTEN: Or a third thing, Elliott, is that a great many of them were recommendations that take quite a while to have their effect. The great body of the recommendations and subjects like health and housing and education, employment, they have their effect over time. One of the things that worries me is the time that things are taking. A lot of them have to take a long time, but they're taking a lot longer than they need to take.

PETER MCAVOY: This might be a good time to bring you in, Pat Dodson. I mean, Western Australia certainly doesn't have a very good record on the imprisonment of Aboriginal people.

PATRICK DODSON:Well, it hasn't, and I think it didn't have it at the time of the Royal Commission. Certainly the custody rates for youth, I think, are appalling. I don't see much change in the attitude at the political level towards how youth should be treated in this country, particularly in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission again, to involve the families, to involve the Aboriginal organisations in developing and devising the strategies that are required to respond to these things. That would be the overall disappointment I would have, is that there's a lot of lip-service given to consultation with the Aboriginal organisations and groups, but there's little evidence of that actually taking place in the way these recommendations were to be implemented.

PETER MCAVOY: Yet, according to the annual reports that the Commonwealth and the State governments that have done them so far have put out, all of these recommendations are being implemented or are in the process of being implemented; everything's pretty rosy.

PATRICK DODSON:Well, that's what they say. I haven't seen anything that's given any confidence to me that there's been some qualitative analysis of the nature of that implementation. A lot of lip-service is paid to the fact that governments have ticked it off on a list, but the quality of what's happening on the ground we're not clear on. We're not clear because the ATSIC monitoring unit hasn't been able to do its job in the way I think that the Commission intended it to do, or hoped that it might do, and certainly the Social Justice Commissioner finds that he hasn't the resources or the mandate, I don't think, within his legislation to carry out the monitoring role that's required here. So I think this is a serious area that needs redressing.

HAL WOOTTEN: If the job's going to be left with the ATSIC monitoring unit, it will have to completely recast its approach. There's nothing that's really monitoring at all. All that the unit has done is chase up the various departments to write their contributions and staple them together. It's made no attempt to assess them, and reading that report is a very, very dispiriting experience. In fact, I think it makes the Commonwealth achievement sound much worse than it probably is. But in the area of criminal justice, including coroners, police, courts and so on, there's a very ambivalent Commonwealth attitude - on the one hand, they take the moral high ground about how concerned they are about everything, but then, when it comes to the pinch, they drop most of the recommendations out of the report and don't even comment on them, say they're a matter for the States. Well, of course, that's nonsense. The Commonwealth's got complete constitutional responsibility since 1967 for Aboriginal people.

When you go to the other part of the response which deals with the underlying issues, the overwhelming impression that the report leaves is that the people who write the report thinks that what matters is how bureaucrats fill in their time, not what happens to Aboriginal people. You've got a report that tells you about all the meetings that are held and the programs that are developed and the reports that are written and the projects they have devised, and you know, you rarely get a glimpse of anything happening to actually affect the lives of Aboriginal people. It seems to me that something that is very badly needed is real backing and encouragement for the many people working lower down who are really keen to do something, and one of the things that saddens me greatly is the lack of that sort of leadership in a country.

We have had the Prime Minister giving very strong leadership on a number of issues on the Mabo and land titles, and indeed on recommendations of the Royal Commission generally, but when you get around the States, where do you see the sign of this sort of interest and commitment? It seems to me, if you really had a bit more fire at the leadership level, who really told the public service that they wanted things to happen, and expected things to happen, things might move a lot faster than they are moving.

ELLIOTT JOHNSON: Look, there's a couple of comments I'd like to make about that. Firstly, it was our first recommendation that there be reporting. Now, that's a very unusual thing with royal commissions - formal, official reporting on their recommendations. At least it's out in the open. I agree with Hal that many - not quite the extent that he says - but that many of the reports are unsatisfactory, but at least they are now being subject to public criticism. Secondly, you know, the very essence of what we said about underlying issues and, to some extent, criminal justice matters, is that progress is made, has been made in the past, will be made in the future, where you get Aboriginal organisations, grassroots organisations, with strong support on the one hand, and opposite numbers in the non-Aboriginal community who recognise the rights and interests of Aboriginal people and are prepared to deal with those Aboriginal organisations on the basis of mutual respect and equality. Now, Hal rightly says that's where the good things are coming out, and I think that there are quite a lot of good things that are coming out. But what Hal said earlier is absolutely right, that a lot of these recommendations take time to put into effect your changing social attitudes. You can adopt a recommendation; you can put a tick, as Patrick says, against it; you can provide some money; you can appoint somebody to do the job, or to set the wheels in motion; but until you change attitudes lower down the scale, then you don't get very much done.

PETER MCAVOY: Pat Dodson, do you feel a sense of frustration with the process of implementation?

PATRICK DODSON: Well, I'm frustrated to the extent that often the responses have been seen in terms of programs - what government can do in terms of a new program or a re-arrangement of a program, missing the fundamental point, I think, of setting up strategies that empower and enable the participation and positive determination by Aboriginal people of how to go about these things. Until we actually get that level of participation and interaction taking place, it'll be left to the people in the public service who are very well disposed, by and large, but who just don't see the realities on a day to day basis as someone that lives in the community and who has to justify to the community what it is that they're trying to do about changing the nature of relationships with the police, with the courts, and with prison systems.

PETER MCAVOY: And what about the factor of the Royal Commission having to swim against the tide, in a sense; that State Governments are cracking down on law and order? How do you implement the recommendations in that situation?

ELLIOTT JOHNSON: Well, of course, it makes it more difficult. It doesn't make it less necessary, but it makes it more difficult. It makes it more difficult for the people that are involved. But all that can be done is keep picking away at it, and I think that what Patrick's brother said, following that IJAC (?) meeting in Western Australia is very important. They will be putting the steam on the IJAC committees to look more closely at the recommendations, and I think that the Aboriginal organisations that are being funded to check on the performance will also have an important part to play.

PATRICK DODSON: I think that the key thing is the simple .. what seems to be a simple concept, that the Royal Commission highlighted, that the people who have custodial responsibilities and enforcement responsibilities didn't have a well-developed sense of duty of care. They don't understand what their responsibilities are and what their duties are in terms of a duty of care towards others. And when we see that concept being responded to in the bureaucracies, the duty of care that they have as administrators and as those who are providing of services to others, not just in the criminal justice area, but outside of that, then I think we'll see some of the changes taking place and finding the expression that the Royal Commission was hoping to see in the specific fields. So, to me, you can't expect a policeman to be an anthropologist, but you do expect that person to have a proper and adequate sense of their duties and the duty of care that they owe to others that they take into their custody.

HAL WOOTTEN: It's no use pretending its not a very difficult problem. I don't, by any means, think, you know, that we've got all the answers. We're feeling our way all along. We've got institutions like police forces that are terribly difficult to change; we've got, for that matter, ingrained habits on the Aboriginal side, in many places associated with alcohol that have built conflict into situations. I think, you know, we're going to expect a fairly long, hard road in changing these things.

PETER MCAVOY: Elliott Johnson in Adelaide, Pat Dodson in Broome and Hal Wootten here in Sydney, thanks very much for talking to me.