Aboriginal Deaths in Custody - 12/06/2020

12 June 2020



I rise to speak about Aboriginal deaths in custody, and I will begin with the words of Senator Patrick Dodson from the other place:

So I ask you, sincerely, to make this a top priority. For too long there have been nice words and good intentions, but the lack of action and commitment has not seen a reduction in deaths in custody; it's seen an escalation in the social indicators that diminish First Nations people and diminish us as a nation … Now's the time to stop the rot of First Nations people dying in custody, being over-imprisoned and having their children put into out-of-home care.

These are the words of Senator Pat Dodson in response to the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Senator Dodson was a member of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which 29 years ago made 339 recommendations to this parliament to reduce Aboriginal deaths in our jails and remand centres. As he explained in his speech, when the report was published in 1991, 99 Aboriginal people had died in custody. Since publication, a further 437 First Nations people have died. At least three of these deaths occurred in the last week. This is a national disgrace.

In the last week we have seen thousands of people around the country protesting around these issues. I understand why our citizens, the people we represent here, are angry. I understand why they have decided to march despite the health warnings. While there obviously are concerns, as we are dealing with a pandemic, I want to acknowledge that the people who went to those rallies were aware of those concerns but, such is the critical importance of this issue, they marched anyway. They should not be dismissed. Their representatives in this place and across the parliaments of this nation have failed not just our First Australians but all Australians who know this isn't right.

Of course I urge protesters to adhere to social-distancing measures. The pandemic is still a significant risk to the lives and health of Australians, and we all know that. If you want to understand why the Prime Minister is hypocritical to tell you not to protest google 'Scott Morrison it's a free country', and you'll find what the Prime Minister said about antilockdown protests at the height of this pandemic. He certainly didn't call on the police to arrest those protesters.

Here in Canberra, a community that cares deeply about social justice, we are represented by Senator Zed Seselja from the Liberal Party. Yesterday, after several TV appearances to condemn the protests, Senator Seselja sent out an email to his subscribers condemning the protests for 'undoing all the work done to flatten the curve and stop the spread'. Not once in his email did Senator Seselja mention what the protests were about. Not once did Senator Seselja mention that, despite making up three per cent of the population, 29 per cent of Australia's prison population is Aboriginal. Not once did he mention that the percentage of First Nations people in Australia's prisons has doubled since 1985, as research by our colleague the member for Fenner has found. Not once did he mention that one in five inmates in Canberra's jail are Aboriginal and that this had increased significantly since 2014. Nothing: Senator Seselja completely erased the protesters and what they are fighting for.

Australia has actively erased the histories, cultures and experience of our First Nations people. Senator Seselja did that in his email this week, and the Prime Minister did it yesterday when he said there was no slavery in Australia.

I am continually inspired by our First Nations leaders in the Labor caucus. I have already mentioned some of Senator Dodson's words. Senator Malarndirri McCarthy's words on Today were so eloquent, bringing mainstream breakfast news attention to the issues, and the member for Barton, Linda Burney, pushed through the hatred to say we need Closing the Gap targets to reduce incarceration of First Nations people and we need Closing the Gap targets that reduce removal of First Nations children from their parents at rates that outstrip the stolen generation. First Nations children remain 10 times more likely than other Australian children to be removed from their families, and this needs to change. The start would be to make it a Closing the Gap target, as Labor have called for. We also need to bring justice targets into the Closing the Gap— (Time expired)