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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 92

Senator RIDGEWAY (4:04 PM) —I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Commonwealth government to take responsibility for leadership at a national level to reduce incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians and address the continuing problem of Indigenous deaths in custody—made especially visible by the Redfern and Palm Island race riots in 2004—in particular, the need for the Commonwealth Government to re-instigate the requirements of the first recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, including annual reporting by state, territory and federal governments on the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

This is a particularly important matter and one I think needs to be debated in this chamber—most of all because it almost went by without being noticed. The context of this urgency debate, as we all know, is that on Friday, 19 November yet another Indigenous Australian died in custody on Palm Island. The community has requested that we refer to him as Kumanjayi Doomadgee out of respect for family mourning after his death. The day after, on 20 November, another Indigenous man died in police custody in hospital at Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is for these reasons and for the many deaths that have occurred over long years that I believe there is a growing indifference to the great Australian silence about the increasing rates of imprisonment and deaths in custody of Indigenous people and the lack of fair treatment under the criminal justice system.

I will talk more about Palm Island, but it is important to emphasise the broader context: Indigenous people are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than anyone else in Australian society. Indeed, last year 75 per cent of deaths in custody of prisoners who were detained for no more than public order offences were Indigenous Australians. In 1991 we spent enormous amounts of money on a royal commission to address these issues and deal with the 99 deaths that had occurred in the preceding decade. Yet, despite the 339 recommendations, since that time the number of deaths has continued to increase parallel with the increasing rates of imprisonment of Indigenous people in this country. We have to do something to address this problem because the way it is being played out is unsustainable.

Most of all, recommendation 1 was that all governments at federal, state and territory levels should report annually on how they are implementing these recommendations. You might recall that on Monday I asked the Minister for Justice and Customs, Senator Ellison, about this issue. He said he did not know that annual reporting on the implementation of the recommendations no longer occurs and that, in the government's massive surpluses, they cannot find the funding to properly implement and monitor a national strategy to deal with the problem of overrepresentation and deaths of Indigenous people in custody. The Commonwealth funding to report on the implementation of the recommendations ended in 1997—a decision by this government—and no decision was made to renew it.

In the last eight years we have seen little if any improvement in conditions in Indigenous communities and there is much unfinished business. We saw race relations boil over on numerous occasions earlier this year in Redfern and more recently on Palm Island—these poor relations are often reflected at the coalface between the local police and local community members. The riot on Palm Island on Friday, 26 November 2004 was a reaction to the news that an autopsy revealed that Kumanjayi Doomadgee died with four broken ribs and a punctured spleen and liver. Police statements reported by the Australian on 22 November 2004 said:

... a check on the man shortly after he was placed in the cell revealed he was asleep ... A subsequent check showed he appeared pale and had a weak pulse. Although an ambulance was called, paramedics were unable to revive him.

Is it any wonder, given the circumstances of finding out about the tragic loss of life, that the community was upset? A young man, drunk and singing in the street, is detained by police for causing a public nuisance and an hour later he is dead. Two other prisoners have made statements saying that they witnessed him being beaten by a police officer, and I am told by the Palm Island Council that they have confirmed that the accused officer was removed from other Indigenous communities, namely Doomadgee and Burketown, because of similar violent incidents.

It gets worse. The Queensland government knew about the possibility of local unrest and they sent in additional police to retain law and order. Later, as we all know, a state of emergency was declared. The tactical response police were in full gear—riot shields, balaclavas, helmets with face masks, a Glock pistol at the hip and a shotgun or semiautomatic rifle—walking the streets and arresting unarmed and unresisting Aborigines. I ask: how is it that all of us can read about Palm Island in the papers, see the pictures of children standing next to members of the riot squad, pictures comparable to those that we see on our television news daily about Iraq, and not be shocked and spurred to action? Why is it that Australians have become so indifferent to the misery of fellow Australians? How is it that we can dismiss this in such a light way?

I believe there has been a massive overreaction by the Queensland government and certainly by the local police. Comments made by Premier Beattie and the Police Union are inflammatory and sensationalist. How can we know, outside official inquiries, that excessive force was not used and why is it that the Police Union are calling for charges of attempted murder? Do they not already see that there has been a death in the community and that that person had a name—Kumanjayi Doomadgee?

While police are allegedly too frightened to return to Palm Island, it is encouraging that all Palm Island teachers have returned to the island. They are working with the children to help them deal with this horrific situation and have no fears for their safety. It seems to me we do have problems with the state of race relations in this country. For the Commonwealth government to watch over two major race riots in the space of 10 months and not see an urgent national problem beggars belief. This country has major race relations problems that are escalating under the reign of the Howard government.

It is true that the state governments also bear responsibility. Indeed, criminal matters and corrective service issues, as we all know, fall under state jurisdiction, as do health and education, but all of those institutions are failing Indigenous people right across Australia and all Australian governments are failing Indigenous people. It is not so much that the responses are slow: they are inadequate because we refuse to use the power we have in a better way, we refuse to empower Indigenous Australians—for example, by abolishing ATSIC, we have no idea what is going to happen with regional councils come 30 June—and then we play the game in a small way. You only have to ask the Palm Island Council, which has no power and no say over what happened in the Palm Island community last week.

All we hear about from the government is blame, not their own governance, their lack of leadership or lack of understanding. We hear of Indigenous people who continue to struggle with living conditions that most Australians could not imagine. Why do Australian Aborigines now have a life expectancy that is 20 years lower than the rest of the nation? Why is it that, if you were living on the streets of Nepal, Bangladesh or Vietnam, you could expect to live longer? These facts alone ought to ring alarm bells about the need for a proper response.

I ask again why Australians have become indifferent. It is because it now seems to be acceptable to blame Aboriginal people for their own circumstances. Yet, if this were happening in any other community in this country, there would be a major outcry. Is it any wonder then that Aboriginal people have this perception and belief that there is one rule for some and another rule for the rest? Many strong Indigenous people across this country are struggling with deaths in custody. They are doing so under very difficult circumstances. I highlight the fact that, while we wait for the second autopsy report, none of the 18 rioters arrested for being a public nuisance have been released on bail. They are all still locked up in Townsville, mostly because there is no local police station on Palm Island. If you were a member of the community charged with rape, robbery or something like that, so long as you had the means and your solicitor argued in your favour, you would roam free, but that is not the case for these rioters. We ought to look to the law to be more fair and equal and to be applied to these people in the way it should be applied. The Beattie government and certainly the federal government ought to show more leadership. (Time expired)