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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 98

Senator NETTLE (4:33 PM) —The Greens support the urgency motion moved by Senator Ridgeway. The ongoing tragedy of Indigenous deaths in custody is compounded by this government's refusal to take action to reduce the entirely unacceptable rates of Indigenous incarceration and disadvantage. Indigenous people are imprisoned at between 15 and 16 times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. In 1991 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous people in our prisons as a key factor in the disproportionate number of Indigenous Australians who die in custody. It is wholly unacceptable that, while Indigenous people represent only two per cent of the total Australian population, in the 13 years since the royal commission the Indigenous proportion of our prison population has risen from around 14 per cent to 20 per cent.

Since the royal commission, the greatest relative increase in incarceration has been for Indigenous women. The Indigenous female prison population increased by 262 per cent between 1991 and 1999. In June 2003, Indigenous women were incarcerated at a rate 19.3 times that of non-Indigenous women. Indigenous women were 24.4 per cent of women prisoners in 1991 and 32.8 per cent in 2003. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified many causes for this overrepresentation, including past colonial practices of government, inappropriate police behaviour, the criminalisation of public order offences, socioeconomic factors including poverty and high unemployment, and a focus on law and order rather than the more modern and appropriate approach of community policing.

The Greens fully support the implementation of all the 339 recommendations of the Aboriginal deaths in custody royal commission. We must seek to massively reduce rates of Indigenous incarceration if we are serious about eliminating Aboriginal deaths in custody. This is essential if we are to prevent the sorts of events we have seen recently in Palm Island and Redfern. But we must go further than this: we must address the disadvantage, the poverty and the appalling health, employment and housing conditions that plague Indigenous communities across the country. We must address this disadvantage by recognising a history of injustice and neglect that generations of Indigenous Australians have suffered at the hands of white Australians and white governments. We must also support Indigenous self-determination and Indigenous representation at all levels of decision making in the community and in the national parliament rather than abolish the only national elected Indigenous voice.

It is heartening to see that, where the government has failed to respond to engage with reconciliation, land rights issues, a treaty or an apology to the stolen generation, the community has taken up these issues wholeheartedly. I hope to join Michael Long tomorrow, as he walks into Canberra on his long walk, to show the support of the Greens for the Indigenous issues he is raising. I hope other senators and MPs will join him in that walk tomorrow morning. We have seen this sort of support—for Michael and for the people of Palm Island and the Redfern community—coming from the community, but we often fail to see it coming from government.