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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 44

Senator RIDGEWAY (3:28 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Justice and Customs (Senator Ellison) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ridgeway today relating to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

I am somewhat concerned about the dismissive way in which the Minister for Justice and Customs regards this issue. The minister was prepared to acknowledge that little progress has been made over the last eight years in dealing with high incarceration rates and Aboriginal deaths in custody. There is no excuse for the Commonwealth government to not show leadership on this issue when you consider the circumstances in relation to Palm Island and what has happened over the past few days and, certainly, the response by the Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, in declaring a state of emergency and the consequences that that has had for the entire community. Australia needs to understand that what we have seen in not less than 12 months is the second race riot in this country because of the nature of poor relations between Aboriginal communities and police. We ought not forget that a lot of this comes about largely as a result of the endemic poverty that exists within communities right across the country.

This parliament needs to take more leadership on this issue, and guarantee that the state and territory governments and the Commonwealth report on these issues. We are talking about an incarceration rate that is 15 times higher than it is for the rest of the population and, since the royal commission in the 1990s, deaths in custody have also increased. We have to ask: how is that sustainable? It is not enough to continue to beat up Aboriginal communities and to suggest that the problem lies with them, when the government deals with the issues after the fact, rather than investing the resources to ensure that young people do not end up in juvenile detention centres and do not become subjects of the criminal justice system.

The facts of this issue come down to recommendation No. 1 of the royal commission in 1990. Elliott Johnston QC, who was the commissioner at the time, made it clear that Commonwealth leadership and annual reporting by state and territory governments were needed. The current government removed the requirement for state and territory law enforcement authorities to provide reports about what they were doing to implement the recommendations of the royal commission. Australia deserves better than this. This parliament is entitled to an answer about why these issues have still not been resolved. Today's Australian talks about the tragic circumstances of what occurred. Tony Koch, a senior journalist with the Australian, says:

It is incredible to see tactical response police in full gear—riot shields, balaclavas and helmets with face masks, Glock pistol at the hip and a shotgun or semi-automatic rifle in their right hand—walking the streets and arresting unarmed and unresisting Aborigines.

Let us consider the circumstances. We are talking about people rioting and a week of public meetings which followed the death of a local Aboriginal man. He was found dead inside a police cell on the island at 11.20 p.m. on Friday, 19 November, an hour after he had been locked up—for what? For `causing a public nuisance'. That is the extent of it. He was walking along the street, drunk and singing, and an hour later he was dead from internal injuries. Two Aboriginal men said at the time that they had given statements about him being punched and beaten by police. We need more than just the report of the initial autopsy inquiry, which suggested that his death was not the direct result of the use of force—which document no-one was prepared to release to the public so that people could make up their own minds.

This is an important issue and it requires leadership from the minister for justice and the federal government. The situation is unsustainable. This government has to ensure that the state and territory governments meet their obligations under the royal commission, whose recommendations will guarantee that needless deaths like the ones that have occurred this year will not happen in the future. It is not enough to act after the fact. We have to make sure that this does not occur again. The Beattie government must give answers.

Question agreed to.