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Thursday, 9 May 1991
Page: 3411


Mr TICKNER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Reconciliation) —I present certain reports of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and seek leave to move a motion for the publication of the reports.

Leave granted.


Mr TICKNER —I move:

That this House, in accordance with the provisions of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1908, authorises the publication of the following reports of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody:

National Report Volumes 1 to 5; Regional Report of Inquiry in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania; Regional Report of Inquiry in Queensland; Regional Report of Inquiry into Individual Deaths in Custody in Western Australia Volumes 1 and 2 and Regional Report of Inquiry into Underlying Issues in Western Australia Volumes 1 and 2.

Question resolved in the affirmative.


Mr TICKNER —by leave-The reports I have just tabled are historic documents. They must command the attention not only of the governments and the parliaments of Australia but of the nation itself. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody evolved into an unprecedented national inquiry into the conditions of Australia's indigenous people operating under letters patent issued by the Governor-General, Governors in all States, and the Administrator of the Northern Territory.

The 11 volumes of the reports, ranging over 5,000 pages and containing 339 recommendations, provide an agenda for the nation over the coming decade. As honourable members are aware, one of my priority objectives as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has been to build a movement of cross-party and community support for initiatives in Aboriginal affairs. This objective will take on greater significance as governments across Australia respond to the Royal Commission reports.

The Royal Commission was established on 16 October 1987 and inquired into the deaths of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the custody of police, in prison or in youth detention institutions. It also investigated action taken by authorities subsequent to these deaths. The inquiry was established with the support of the Federal Opposition and as the direct result of the perception of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that Aboriginal deaths in custody were both far too common and the public explanations too sketchy to discount the possibility of foul play.

Commissioner James Muirhead, QC was requested to report by 31 December 1988. The huge scale of this task became evident only too soon. Commonwealth and State letters patent were subsequently amended to increase the number of commissioners to five, to extend reporting deadlines and to extend the Royal Commission's jurisdiction to the important social, cultural and legal factors contributing to the deaths. Mr Elliott Johnston, QC became National Commissioner in April 1989.

At the outset, I would like to place on record the Government's appreciation of the work of commissioners Johnston, Muirhead, Wyvill, O'Dea, Dodson, Wootten and their staff. The Royal Commission has examined in close detail both the lives and the deaths of the individuals concerned, and the huge range of historical and social factors operating to produce the situations these people faced. Public hearings were held, families were represented by legal counsel, relevant people were interviewed wherever poss- ible, and all aspects of custodial care and legal processes were examined. The views of Aboriginal people were sought, particularly through the work of the Aboriginal Issues Units. Reports on the circumstances of individual deaths have been presented in the relevant jurisdictions and tabled as they became available. I know I can speak for the Parliament in expressing on this occasion the deepest sympathy to the relatives of the deceased.

Although some individual reports recommend consideration of further action against individuals, the Royal Commission's final report does not accord with initial expectations of foul play. The commissioners have not found that any deaths were the result of deliberate unlawful violence or brutality by police or prison officers. To that extent, families and friends in their continuing grief and anger have found the findings of individual reports difficult to accept. But they cannot, I think, doubt the sincerity, dedication and compassion with which the commissioners have carried out their task.

Nevertheless, the report stands as an indictment of the operation of the legal and corrective services system in respect of the most disadvantaged group in Australian society, and of our society itself, in allowing that situation to develop and persist. The Royal Commission finds that there has been a failure to live up to the standard of care owed to those in custody; it has found many system defects and many individual failures to exercise proper care and basic human compassion.

Particularly prior to the establishment of the Royal Commission, in very few cases were initial investigations into deaths other than perfunctory and limited in focus, leading invariably to deteriorating relationships between Aboriginal people and the broader community; leading to increased anguish and cynicism on the part of the families and friends; and to neglect of opportunities to avoid future deaths.

The report contains an extensive charter of law reform related to the criminal justice system, police and prison authorities, which falls primarily within the responsibility of State and Territory Governments. The recommendations range through the full extent of the criminal justice system to include: diversion from police custody; imprisonment as a last resort; reform of police and prison practices; and reform of custodial health and safety practices, including a formal recognition of the States' duty of care to those held in custody. The report also makes wide-ranging recommendations about future post-death investigations and the independent monitoring of deaths in custody.

In all these circumstances and on these issues, I must stress that this Royal Commission report must not be seen as some prison officer bashing or police bashing exercise. It is not. The report puts forward constructive and practical proposals for law reform. Significantly, it acknowledges that improvements have already been made in Aboriginal-police relations and puts forward proposals to further advance this process. It is vital that Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal organisations, such as Aboriginal legal services, play a key role in developing these reforms.

I turn now to Commissioner Johnston's consideration of the issues underlying Aboriginal deaths in custody. In response to this aspect of its work, the Royal Commission has proposed a transformation of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this country. Put simply, too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often. They are over-represented in custody at a rate-calculated nationally-29 times that of the general community. In some cases that rate is considerably higher.

As a result, Aboriginal people die in custody at rates that have been the subject of international attention. The circumstances of these deaths are set out in chapter 3 of volume 1 of the report. Thirty of the 99 deaths resulted from hanging. In those 30 cases, the following objects were among those used for suspension: strips of sheeting, strips of blanket, football socks, a length of electric flex, a belt, the sleeve of a jacket, a shirt, a mattress cover, a shoelace, the sleeve of a cardigan, a bandage and a pair of jeans. Other deaths occurred as the result of shocking self-mutilation such as a razor to the throat, and the driving of a paint brush into an eye.

I give these examples not to sensationalise or shock but to bring to this House a sense of the human tragedy which underlies a death in custody. The finding that foul play on the part of authorities was not a factor in the deaths in no way diminishes the standing of the Royal Commission or undermines the reason for its establishment. History will record that the Royal Commission has played a vital role in laying open before us the harshness and oppression experienced by so many contemporary Aboriginal Australians.

I ask the House to consider the damning picture of the lives and deaths of these 99 predominantly young Aboriginal Australians who died in custody. The average age at death was 32 years. Of the 99 Aboriginal people who died, 43 had experienced childhood separation from their natural families through intervention by State authorities, missions or other institutions; 83 of the 99 were unemployed at the date of their last detention; 43 of the 99 had been charged with an offence at or before the age of 15-just kids; only two of the 99 had completed secondary schooling; 43 of the 99 were taken into custody in the period immediately before their deaths on matters directly related to the over-use of alcohol and, in the remaining cases, the Royal Commission concluded that alcohol was a contributing factor in their being taken into custody for the last time.

The Royal Commission concluded that the standard of health of the 99-whose average age, I remind the House, was 32-varied from poor to very bad. The average age of those dying from natural causes was a little over 30 years.

There are many reasons why I am proud to be an Australian but these statistics can be no source of pride for any of us in this House or in any elected sphere of government in Australia, or any non-Aboriginal Australian. Fundamentally, the disproportionate number of Aboriginal people in custody stems from the underlying factors which bring Aboriginal people into contact with the law in the first place.

The report finds that the single most significant contributing factor to incarceration is the disadvantaged and unequal position of Aboriginal people in Australian society in every way, whether socially, economically or culturally. Much of the national report and the associated regional reports is devoted to demonstrating the existence of that inequality and disadvantage. The report documents, in a way never before achieved, the impact of European settlement upon Australia's indigenous peoples, their dispossession and subordination within a dominant and often hostile society frequently motivated by self-interest, the development of racist attitudes both overt and hidden and the way in which these attitudes became institutionalised in the very practices of legal, educational, welfare and Aboriginal assistance authorities.

That these attitudes were themselves the product of a particular time or society and often well intentioned, does not excuse our society from attempting the task of reconciliation and redressing disadvantage. The report documents the impact of these things upon the lives of individual people and the way that that impact continues to be felt and demonstrated today, especially where Aboriginal people have lost their way and where despair and hopelessness have been bred of the destruction of Aboriginal culture and the stifling of independence and initiative. The report demonstrates the close link between this continuing inequality and disadvantage and the refuge sought in alcohol over-use and high custody rates for Aboriginal people.

The report refutes at every level the myth sometimes put forward that the special assistance available for Aboriginal people has put them in a position above that enjoyed by other Australians. It is evident that there are no quick and easy answers to these continuing problems.

There is, however, one principle which looms large as central to change for Aboriginal people. The Royal Commission describes as fundamental the issues of empowerment and self-determination. As a senior and experienced lawyer with considerable knowledge of Aboriginal issues, Commissioner Johnston acknowledges that he had no real idea of the degree of `pin pricking domination, abuse of personal power, utter paternalism, open contempt and total indifference' which confronted Aboriginal people in their everyday lives, with no personal control over one's own children, one's employment, personal savings and decisions as to whether to buy a car or other personal belongings. He points out that communities today are still faced with a multiplicity of grants which effectively mean that agendas are being set elsewhere, that assumptions as to what is best for Aboriginal people are made elsewhere.

Commissioner Johnston highlights what he describes as the first prerequisite of the empowerment of Aboriginal society-the will for renewal and for self-determination. He also stresses the important role played by Aboriginal community based organisations. The role of these organisations is continually emphasised in the recommendations of the report. At every level control of lives and communities must be in Aboriginal hands, in the same way that non-Aboriginal Australians expect to control their lives and communities.

For this to happen, the report makes clear, Aboriginal Australians must themselves have the will and capacity to put an end to their disadvantaged situation, and to take charge of their lives. Commissioner Johnston quotes impressive evidence of the efforts being made all over Australia by Aboriginal organisations and communities, at the local and wider levels, to demonstrate that this can be done, indeed is already being done. Aboriginal people do have the determination and capacity to succeed.

A prerequisite for Aboriginal self-determination is the creation of conditions which will eliminate the systematic and entrenched disadvantage which permeates every aspect of Aboriginal life. The Royal Commission's report contains detailed and comprehensive recommendations to address that disadvantage which are directed to governments at all levels.

Within the time available to me it is obviously not possible to refer to the hundreds of recommendations to government directed towards overcoming the continuing and critical disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal Australians. However, to convey some understanding of the breadth of those recommendations I note that they include, in no order of priority:

- a national survey of Aboriginal population and infrastructure;

- Commonwealth, State and Territory governments to develop a system of single block grant funding for Aboriginal communities with a model accounting system;

- triennial funding of Aboriginal communities;

- the Commonwealth to negotiate with the States and Territories to achieve the equitable distribution of local government funds to Aboriginal residents, as a condition of funding;

- the development of codes of practice by the media industry and media unions;

- a progress report on the Australian Law Reform Commission's customary law report;

- the urgent provision of funds to enable implementation of the national Aboriginal health strategy-I note that the Commonwealth has already made a significant additional allocation for this purpose;

- review of liquor licensing legislation, notably in the Northern Territory, with a view to reducing the availability of alcohol and meeting the needs of Aboriginal communities;

- support for the Aboriginal employment development policy, including specific inter-government agreements on objectives and outcomes, and the establishment of a peak industry body and local industry, community and local government groups to promote employment equity in the private sector;

- a review and extension of the community development employment program, including to rural towns with large Aboriginal populations; and

- the Commonwealth to act to provide a right of individual appeal on human rights violations to international committees.

- funding to be provided to organisations such as Link-Up for the purpose of allowing Aboriginal people to re-establish links with families separated by past government policies;

- the establishment of a national task force on alcohol abuse;

- an urgent requirement for governments and Aboriginal organisations to negotiate to devise strategies for Aboriginal youth to reduce the rate at which Aboriginal juveniles are involved in the welfare and criminal justice systems;

- Aboriginal communities to be given equitable access to ongoing expenditure by the Commonwealth, State, Territory and local authorities on roads;

- the Department of Employment, Education and Training to be responsible for the development of a comprehensive national strategy designed to improve opportunities for the education and training of those in custody;

- high priority to be accorded to the development of social, economic and cultural development plans by Aboriginal communities on a local and a regional basis;

- recognition that the success of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education policy will depend on the success of pre-schooling initiatives;

- the establishment of a small unit of Aboriginal people from northern Australia to study the means of achieving greater self-sufficiency in remote northern communities;

- the implementation of a strategy for the training of Aboriginal people to build and maintain essential community infrastructure; and

- all jurisdictions are urged, where this has not already occurred, to provide a comprehensive means of addressing the land needs of Aboriginal people.

I turn now to the critical issue of the process to be adopted by governments in responding to the Royal Commission report. Australia has a commendable international human rights record and acknowledges that human rights issues are of international concern.

I acknowledged at the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva last August that the Government is aware that the Working Group, Amnesty International and other international non-government organisations will be monitoring the implementation of the Royal Commission's recommendations. In a very real sense the world is watching.

However, our motivation in ensuring a coordinated and comprehensive national response to the Royal Commission's report will not be, and should not be, international scrutiny. It is the historic and comprehensive nature of the Royal Commission report itself, and our commitment as Australians to a fair go for all, which should drive us to ensure such a response. As a nation we must not squander the opportunity presented by the Royal Commissioner's report to act on an agenda of reform in Aboriginal affairs for the coming decade.

Prior to receiving the Royal Commission's report I had already indicated my predisposition to support an open and publicly accountable process to monitor the response of all governments to the report. I was, therefore, gratified that the first recommendation of the report proposes a public and comprehensive reporting process by the Commonwealth, States and Territories in consultation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Commissioner Johnston also stresses the need for extensive consultation with and involvement of Aboriginal people in the implementation of the Royal Commission's recommendations.

It is a matter of the utmost importance for me to emphasise that the Royal Commission report does not impact solely on the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio at any level of government. The recommendations are addressed to the whole range of government departments at Commonwealth, State and Territory levels. It will be necessary, therefore, for there to be a response from the whole of government in each Commonwealth, State and Territory jurisdiction.

I report to the House that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has asked me to assume responsibility for coordinating the Commonwealth Government response across all portfolios, supported by the Aboriginal Reconciliation Unit within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody demands careful consideration by all governments. Its recommendations have implications for a range of government activities, from Australia's international obligations down to the everyday contacts of individual police, prison, hospital or welfare officers with Aboriginal people, and for every Australian.

I do not pretend that all the changes proposed can happen quickly, even though a number of recommendations may be capable of fairly rapid implementation. The recommendations reflect the linkages between many areas of policy affecting Aboriginal people, and point to the need for coordinated action between and within governments.

The Government has already set in train a process for consideration of the report which acknowledges the status of that report as a joint Commonwealth-State investigation, and the overlapping nature of responsibilities in many areas. The Prime Minister has written to Premiers and Chief Ministers in every State and Territory seeking their cooperation in a joint strategy of response.

I look forward to meeting with Ministers from those portfolios most immediately concerned in the near future to discuss the implications of the report and to agree on a timetable for implementation. The need for empowerment is at the heart of many of the recommendations, and governments will need to allow adequate time for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves to consider the report and formulate a response.

I turn now to what is the final and perhaps the most important recommendation of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. I appeal to all honourable members of this House and to the wider community to give this section of the report deep consideration. As honourable members would be aware, last December I issued a discussion paper as the basis of future legislation to enable our nation to embark on a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

As I said earlier, it has been a fundamental objective of my time as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to create a climate of cross-party cooperation in and community support for significant progress in Aboriginal affairs. I was, for this reason, delighted by the final recommendation of the Royal Commission report, which states:

. . . that all political leaders and parties recognise that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided. To this end the Commission recommends that political leaders use their best endeavours to ensure bi-partisan public support for the process of reconciliation and that the urgency and necessity of the process be acknowledged.

In discussing the framework of the report and the other recommendations in the report, the Royal Commission describes the reconciliation process as `the fundamental backdrop to reform and change'. The Royal Commission further states that reconciliation of the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities must be an essential commitment of all sides if change is to be genuine and long term.

As the Royal Commission observes, the process of reconciliation proposed by the Government will have as a principal focus the need to educate non-Aboriginal Australians about the cultures of Australia's indigenous peoples and the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by European settlers and their descendants. This sad history-which includes the dispossession and dispersal of Aboriginal people, confinement in reserves, removal of children from their families and the destruction of much Aboriginal culture-needs to be recognised as a primary cause of the current disadvantaged position of Australia's indigenous peoples. All Australians need to understand this country's past and the place of Aboriginal people in it. We must come to terms honestly with our own history as a nation, with the intention not of creating guilt, but of building compassion and empathy for Aboriginal people and their disadvantaged position in society, as well as appreciation of Aboriginal cultures and achievements, and the unique position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the indigenous peoples of this continent.

The Royal Commission recognises, as I do, four key issues essential to the process of reconciliation: first, the taking of concrete measures to tackle disadvantage and establish self-determination as being essential building blocks to that process of reconciliation; secondly, the reconciliation must have cross-party support and support from Aboriginal people; thirdly, the focus should concentrate on the process of reconciliation and not on a document or instrument which might be one of the outcomes; and finally, the process should not be impeded by either Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people setting preconditions in advance.

The report suggests that if we are to remove the cause of distrust and enmity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and build good community relations, we must not only eliminate existing disadvantage but also recognise Aboriginal rights, cultures and traditions. This process of reconciliation must carry with it the complete rejection of the concepts of superiority and inferiority which have informed Australian society over the past 200 years.

Importantly, the Royal Commission's report emphasises the extent of past cross-party cooperation in Aboriginal affairs. The report traces the history of Aboriginal affairs policy and recognises that the first step in the reconciliation process-and the one which achieved the clearest endorsement from the Australian people-was the 1967 referendum. These are the words of Commissioner Johnston:

Since 1967 there has been an evolution of thought on the part of non-Aboriginal Australians which has been reflected in the actions of successive Commonwealth Governments irrespective of party composition.

In the final chapter of the report, the Royal Commission chronicles in some detail the changes that have occurred. The Royal Commission also recognises the widespread community support which, at the time of writing, had already been forthcoming for the process of reconciliation. I can report to the House that the ground swell of support for the reconciliation process has continued with endorsement coming from a wide range of Aboriginal organisations and individuals as well as from diverse sections of the non-Aboriginal community.

I have a responsibility on the occasion of the tabling of this report to invite the Opposition to join with the rest of the Australian Parliament to give unanimous backing to the proposal for the process of reconciliation endorsed by the Royal Commission. I embrace wholeheartedly the concluding aspiration of the Royal Commission, which reads:

In the end, perhaps together, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, the situation can be reached where this ancient, subtly creative Aboriginal culture exists in friendship alongside the non-Aboriginal culture. Such an achievement would be a matter of pride not only for all Australians but for all humankind.

If Australia, as a nation, had been able to achieve this recognition and reconciliation before this date, these tragic deaths may have been avoided. We might have been able to spare families the suffering they have experienced. It is not too late, however, for other deaths to be prevented. The Royal Commissioners have given us their insights, their advice and a clear direction for change. The families of those who have died, and indeed all Australians, have a right to expect that governments at all levels and of all political persuasions will act together to make sure that that change takes place. I commend the report to the House and I present the following paper:

Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody-Ministerial Statement, 9 May 1991.

Motion (by Mr Duffy) agreed to:

That the House take note of the paper.

Motion (by Mr Duffy)-by leave-agreed to:

That so much of Standing and Sessional Orders be suspended as would prevent the honourable member for Chisholm speaking for a period not exceeding 33 minutes.