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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 29

Senator RIDGEWAY (2:27 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Ellison, and relates to recent events on Palm Island, Far North Queensland, and Aboriginal deaths in custody. Is the minister aware that the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous people has increased at a rate disproportionate to that of non-Indigenous people and that Indigenous people are now 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than their counterparts in the broader community? I refer the minister to two recent race riots, one in Redfern in February of this year and the Palm Island one, that were both directly related to Aboriginal deaths in custody and anger over police relations. Can the minister explain why little progress has been made in the last eight years to address the high incarceration rates and the disproportionate number of Indigenous deaths in custody? Does the minister recall his government's commitment to the development of a National Indigenous Justice Strategy? What progress has been made there and why has little been done to release a comprehensive and full strategy that addresses these issues?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —At the meetings that I have attended of Australian police ministers and the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, the National Indigenous Justice Strategy has been a standing item on the agenda for discussion. Progress has been slow—I agree with Senator Ridgeway—but this is the responsibility of all governments in Australia, not just the Commonwealth. The incident on Palm Island is a matter for the Queensland government and Queensland law enforcement. Having said that, though, we are keen to work with the state and territory governments in resolving the issues that Senator Ridgeway has mentioned.

We have a ministerial task force on Indigenous affairs which is coming up. As you know, we face a new landscape in relation to Indigenous affairs. We are not looking at the past. We simply had responses with regard to funding and really did not look at a grassroots approach, if you like. One of the examples of this grassroots approach, which I think has merit, has been in the Northern Territory. We have continued to support the Aboriginal juvenile justice diversion program up there. I think it is with that sort of program that we can achieve some success.

Certainly, justice issues will continue to be at the forefront of our ministerial task force on Indigenous affairs and we will continue to work on these issues. When you look at the fact that the inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody was some years ago, progress has been slow, but we will continue to work at it. I think that the answer lies in on-the-ground programs in relation to things like juvenile diversion and targeting drug abuse and substance abuse, including alcohol. That entails a much broader response than simply looking at just incarceration in a rather narrow sense. So my answer also reflects or represents other areas of government—in fact the whole of government—and that is how we are approaching Indigenous affairs with the new ministerial task force.

Senator RIDGEWAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am aware of the minister's response to these particular issues, but isn't it true that the current Commonwealth government removed the requirement of all Australian governments to report annually on the implementation of the recommendations of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody? After the tragic recent deaths in custody in Redfern and on Palm Island and the resulting riots, will the government now commit to re-instigating the annual reporting requirements of state and Commonwealth governments on the implementation of the recommendations of the royal commission? It seems to me to be particularly important given that the incarceration rates are increasing and that there is a need to ensure that leadership is shown at the federal level. Will the government commit to re-instigating annual reporting by state and territory law enforcement agencies?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —We have no problem with annual reporting by state and territory governments on deaths in custody. As I recall it, with the exception of the last Police Ministers Council and the last Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, which I was not present at, there have been those reports. I will take the matter up with the Attorney-General's Department and ascertain where those reports are at. Also, if there is anything further to add, I will provide that information to the Senate. In relation to COAG, we have addressed this at a very senior level with our COAG trial sites across Australia—and there are 10 of them—and this is part and parcel of those trials that we are conducting.