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Report by Amnesty International has criticised conditions for Aborigines in Alice Springs gaol

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: In Alice Springs, today, there's been a mixed reaction to the news that the town has been singled out for international criticism by Amnesty. The human rights group in its first detailed look at Australian Aborigines, found that the Alice Springs gaol contravened accepted standards of human rights. However, the gaol is being rebuilt and the overcrowding issue is being dealt with.

Catherine McGrath this morning asked Stuart Brown from the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service what the gaol is like.

STUART BROWN: It's a very old gaol, and it's overdue for replacement, and there is a deal of overcrowding there.

CATHERINE McGRATH: But is it violating human rights?

STUART BROWN: A lot of our clients prefer to be in a dormitory situation, but there are concerns about the number of people that have been raised by medical people just in terms of infection and things like that. There are too many people in that gaol at the moment.

CATHERINE McGRATH: Do you think Amnesty, though, in this case, has done its research very well, because the new gaol will be up and running soon. It is being built. The issue is being addressed.

STUART BROWN: Well, the issue is being addressed and I don't know if Amnesty spoke to the Department of Corrections here to raise that issue with them.

CATHERINE McGRATH: And you say that most of your clients prefer dormitory accommodation. Why is that?

STUART BROWN: Because they're people who are from small remote bush communities. They are happy with their relatives and friends; whereas we found that European prisoners in there prefer to be in a single cell.

CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, Amnesty has issued this report. What sort of effect is that going to have on the ground in Alice Springs?

STUART BROWN: I don't know. I was interested to hear the reports and I spoke to Amnesty when they came to Alice Springs last year, and the concerns that I have are over-policing, institutionalising of people into the criminal justice system, and I hope it leads to a greater degree of sensitivity by police, by the magistracy, and by the judiciary generally to think of means of diverting Aboriginal people from getting involved in the whole criminal justice system in the NT, because they make up the vast majority of people who appear before the lower courts and end up in gaol.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Stuart Brown from the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service in Alice Springs. The Opposition spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs, Dr Michael Wooldridge, says the Amnesty report is so strong that if it were released in Europe or the United States, it could bring down a government. Catherine McGrath asked Dr Wooldridge if he was surprised by the report's findings.

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: I wasn't surprised at all. I've spent the last three years of my life looking at Aboriginal issues, meeting and talking with Aboriginal people, and I think anyone who's done that would not be at all surprised by a report like this.

CATHERINE McGRATH: Do you agree that there are massive human rights violations, even today?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Well, what's really disturbing about this is Amnesty is an organisation of great credibility. Australia wants to be part of the international community and the international community is passing judgment on us here, in relation to Aboriginal people, and I think the country really has to take note of that.

CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, what would be so different if there was a Coalition government?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: We would certainly try very hard to see that the issues here are addressed. They're not something that I want to see swept under the carpet.

CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, one of the most significant criticisms from Amnesty was that the States have been too slow to implement the findings of the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. Now would you be prepared to put extra pressure on the States to implement those findings?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: Absolutely. I think in the end, you're going to have the most success if you can work co-operatively, and I would certainly hope for a co-operative approach, initially. It has been slow. The Government's response was something like nine months coming to the Royal Commission, and so I think they, Amnesty, has a fair enough case to say it's been slow but that we now have a response, we now have a commitment to extra funding. The Coalition has said that it will honour that commitment, and we want to see it implemented. I mean, at some stage you've actually got to get down and do the hard practical work on the ground, and that's the sort of thing I'm looking forward to doing.

CATHERINE McGRATH: Now, the performance of Robert Tickner as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has been applauded in many sections of the Aboriginal community, and the comments by the Prime Minister late last year also were very well received. What would a Coalition do to make things any stronger than that?

MICHAEL WOOLDRIDGE: If I had to be critical of the Minister, I think he's probably neglected some of the more practical issues at the expense of trying to take more abstract issues, such as reconciliation. Now, we've supported reconciliation. We will continue to do that in government. But for example, my basic training is in medicine. Now under me as Minister, you will have introduced, hopefully, a nationally co-ordinated program to prevent HIV in Aboriginal communities.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Opposition spokesman on Aboriginal Affairs, Michael Wooldridge.