The fight to end Indigenous deaths in custody
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am.
Thirty years ago Australia held a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
That commission found that Aboriginal people had never been treated as equals in Australia, and that the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people was conducted on the basis of inequality and control.
Three decades on, most of the Royal Commissions recommendations still haven’t been implemented and hundreds more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody.
Today, activist and academic Gary Foley, on what led to the Royal Commission being held, and why white Australia needs to face up to its own history.
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Gary today marks 30 years since the findings into Australia’s only Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody were handed down. But can you tell me how that Royal Commission actually came about - what were the events leading up to it?
Archival tape -- Protestors:
“Land rights now… land rights now”
Well, the 1980s were a very eventful decade in terms of political action by Aboriginal people.
1982, saw major Aboriginal demonstrations at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane.
Archival tape -- Spokesperson 1:
“The fact that so many blacks came together. And the fact that our children took part and the fact there was no violence…”
And they had quite an impact both locally, but more importantly in terms of international coverage of what was going on in Australia.
Archival tape -- Spokesperson 1:
“We exposed the government, the hysteria they generated earlier this year about the threat of violence…”
So, when Bob Hawke became prime minister, he was very conscious of just how effective Aboriginal campaigning could be, to such an extent that he loudly pronounced upon becoming Prime Minister that his government would deliver, and I quote, “national uniform land rights legislation”.
Archival tape -- Bob Hawke:
“But it’s terribly important I think, not just for the Aborigines, but it’s just as important for the non-Aboriginal population.”
But the dodgy bodgy Bob Hawke, did a double backflip and suddenly stopped talking about national uniform land rights legislation. That resulted in a great deal of anger in the Aboriginal community. And major demonstrations were planned by Aboriginal activists to disrupt the 1988 bicentennial.
Archival tape -- Spokesperson 2:
“The Aboriginal people are in a position to embarrass Australia severely during the Bicentennial celebrations. And he’s hoping to try and shut us up.”
Archival tape -- Spokesperson 3:
“We’re going to embarrass the Australian government something shocking.”
And there had been, for the previous five or eight years, growing pressure on the issue of indigenous deaths in custody, which had reached a fairly high number by the lead up to 1988.
Archival tape -- New Reporter 1:
“The Aboriginals of Roven in WA’s iron country are burying another of their dead: John Pat.”
John Pat was one of the high profile, if you like, or highly publicised cases that had contributed significantly towards the push for a Royal Commission.
Archival tape -- New Reporter 1:
“Pat was bashed and kicked in a brawl with police outside the Roven pub. He was drunk and 16.”
So Bob Hawke, in an attempt to appease Aboriginal activists and in an attempt to defuse potential demonstrations at the bicentennial, he announced a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Archival tape -- New Reporter 2:
“Although numerous inquests to date have found no evidence of foul play, Prime Minister Bob Hawke ordered a Royal Commission into the deaths that have occured this year.”
The important thing about the Royal Commission is that it was born of political expediency in the first instance, and it wasn't something that Bob Hawke would have done otherwise. But such was the number of deaths. Such was the growing intensity of Aboriginal campaigning, that he was forced into it.
Ok so the Royal Commission was called in 1987. Can you tell me where you were at this time, and what your involvement in the commission was?
At the time the Royal Commission was announced, I met the first appointed Royal Commissioner, Justice Jim Muirhead, in Adelaide, because at the time I was doing a report in Aboriginal health in South Australia for the South Australian Health Minister. And I'd encountered Jim Muirhead in Adelaide as he was in the process of setting up the Royal Commission itself. And I, I said to him at the time, have you made suitable arrangements for Aboriginal voices to be heard?
And he gave me an assurance that he had, he said he'd set up a research unit, that would be looking at all issues. And I asked him if I could talk to the head of the research unit, and he said, sure, had a chat to him. I said, how many Aboriginal people on it? And he gave me this funny look, and sheepishly said to me, “we've got a black South African”.
So I went back to Jim Muirhead and pointed out to him that he needed to create mechanisms for Aboriginal people to have their say in this Royal Commission. And he got me to go around the country and help establish local Aboriginal advisory committees to the commission, that would provide a means by which Aboriginal people could get their voice heard. So right from the beginning, there were flaws in the commission itself.
Right, so it was a flawed process, and you argue that was also set up for pretty cynical political reasons, but you did help facilitate Aboriginal voices into the discussion. So what did the Royal Commission actually find?
Well, one of the primary findings of the Royal Commission, was that Aboriginal people were dying in custody back then, not at a greater rate than white people were dying in prisons, it's just that there were so many Aboriginal people in prison at the time.
Aboriginal people back then, had one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world, you know, and the Royal Commission, said that a primary reason for the imprisonment rates of Aboriginal people wasn't because Aboriginal people were any more criminal anyone else, but because of the deeply entrenched and embedded racism in the Australian criminal justice system from your prison officer and police officer all the way up to the high court.
Now that deeply embedded racism is just as strong as it ever was, it's still there. It remains a significant part of the reason why so many Aboriginal people are now in jail. Still, there are more Aboriginal people in prison today than there were at the time of the Royal Commission.
So it is pretty obvious and clear, that Australian society didn't give a rat's arse and still don't.
We’ll be right back.
Archival tape -- News Reporter 3:
“The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody warned that far too many Aborigines were being locked up. 20 years on from that, Indigenous imprisonment rates have more than doubled.”
Archival tape -- News Reporter 4:
“Next week will be 30 years since the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was handed down. It came about after the deaths of at least 99 Indigenous people over a nine year period in the 1980s. But since then at least 450 more have died. Including five people in just the last month.”
Archival tape -- Unknown person 1:
“Now we’ve got over 400 deaths since that RC. And we have 30 years that have passed that have not addressed the underlying issues that give rise to people being taken into custody. And consequently dying in custody.”
Gary we’re now 30 years on from when the recommendations of the Royal Commission were first handed down. But the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal people, the number of deaths in custody, they’re still as bad now as they were back then. So can you tell me what exactly the Royal Commission recommended and how state and federal governments responded?
Well, there were 300 recommendations, most of them or many of them designed to try and find ways to prevent Aboriginal people being incarcerated at the rates that they were. Now, even in the end result of the Royal Commission, there were bizarre inequities, like there were 300 recommendations.
But when it came to major government grants that were dished out in the aftermath of the royal commission, one of the great ironies is that the first beneficiaries of these major government grants in Victoria were, in fact the Victoria Police and Victorian prison officers who were given 300,000 bucks or something like that to I think the term was sensitise them to indigenous issues.
You know, things like creating hang proof cells and bizarre ideas like that. And within a year or so, every state government claimed or announced that they had fulfilled the relevant recommendations in their state.
Now, if the states had done that then or even now, then how is it that we've got a situation that was worse than back then? And I put it to you folks, that it has to do with the deeply embedded and deeply entrenched white supremacist racism that has pervaded this country since it became a country, Australia, Australia became Australia in order to be a last bastion of white supremacy. Hence, the first act of the first parliament of Australia was the white Australia policy designed to keep non-white people out.
Gary, so much of what you've been talking to me about today, whether it's the organisations that were formed or the changes that were forced through, seem to have come off the back of really big social activist movements in the 70s, in the 80s, and I think throughout the 90s, in the 2000s, we saw a lot of that dissipate. Last year, we saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia. Do you see that as a new groundswell? What does that remind you of what happened back then?
I said on Invasion Day, that I see, I see clear parallels between the sort of things that were going on locally and globally back in the late 60s and early 70s in Australia. And what's going on now locally and globally.
Archival tape -- New reporter 5:
“More than a thousand protestors have rallied in Melbourne calling for an end to black deaths in custody.”
Archival tape -- New reporter 6:
“Flanked by police hundreds of BLM supporters slowly snaked their way through the city…”
Archival tape -- BLM supporters:
These young WAR mob, the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance in Melbourne, are regularly pulling around or over 100,000 people onto the streets in Melbourne in support of them against Australia Day on invasion day.
Archival tape -- New reporter 7:
“A crowd refusing to mark the national day. Instead commemorating what they call invasion day.”
Archival tape -- Invasion Day protestor:
“This our day of mourning, not a day of celebration!”
The global issue now, is Black Lives Matter and Australians may not realise it, but in places like America and Europe, the issues raised by the global Black Lives Matter movement have filtered down, right down to levels in society that you wouldn't have heard of.
You know, even little local hockey clubs in Michigan, in America are sort of facing up to and coming to terms with and debating and arguing issues of race, history and politics.
Now, that doesn't seem to have hit Australia yet, but it is coming. You know, the reckoning is coming. Australia needs to face up to these issues. And one can only hope I've got very little hope in Royal Commissions or commissions anymore. But one can only hope that this truth and reconciliation or justice, whatever commission is the setting up in Victoria, may provide opportunities to start the debate that is so necessary.
And, you know, you just said that you don't have a lot of faith in these sort of bureaucratic commission processes. There are calls from some people that, given how little action there has been over the past three decades, there should be another Royal Commission looking at Black deaths in custody, what do you think about that?
I think it would be a waste of time. I think that there are issues that need to be resolved first, is Australia coming to terms with itself and its own past and history and making amends, reparations, you know? None of this Mickey Mouse native title rubbish. That was a fraud from beginning to end. None of these little, you know, chickenshit grants handed out and then that we’re supposed to feel grateful for. I mean, reparations!
I mean, in the 1930s, the Communist Party of Australia had the strongest manifesto on Aboriginal rights in the history of Australia. They advocated the handing back the greater part of Australia to the Aboriginal people to be run by the Aboriginal people with their own police force, their own army, if possible, their own navy, but to have genuine self-determination, genuine control of their own affairs, genuine benefits from whatever economic interests are derived from the land, if any, you know?
So, you know, there was a time when people had a better comprehension and analysis and understanding of what the real needs of Aboriginal people were.
Australia remains the only former British colony that, whose original indigenous inhabitants have no genuine land rights whatsoever, let alone, you know, self-determination.
Until such time as Australians face up to the truth of their own history, the truth of the ideas that were born with eugenics and evolved into the protection policies and the apartheid system in Australia. Until they inform themselves about the truth of the history of this country, there can be no beginning, because until until Australians are prepared to look honestly at the past and without guilt or any sort of other illogical response and think clearly and understand the manner in which settler colonialism has fucked over Aboriginal people, to such an extent that they have in this society today, you know?
Australians still show not the slightest sign of even beginning to comprehend this, let alone come to terms with it and deal with it.
Gary, thanks so much for talking to me today.
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Also in the news today.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to apologise to the former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate, who has accused him of bullying her out of a job.
Last October Scott Morrison said he was ‘appalled by Holgate’s actions’ after she gifted four employees at Australia Post Cartier watches.
Morrison says he regrets the distress caused by his ‘strong language’ but dismissed suggestions his comments ended her career.
Meanwhile Morrison has confirmed he will meet with former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins to discuss the "range of issues" that she has raised with his office.
I’m Osman Faruqi, and I’m very excited to say that Ruby Jones will be back in the chair tomorrow. See ya next time!
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Thirty years ago Australia held a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, but most of its recommendations still haven’t been implemented and hundreds more Indigenous people have died in custody. Today, Gary Foley on what led to the Royal Commission, and why white Australia needs to face up to its own history.
Guest: Dr. Gary Foley, Professor of History at Victoria University
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Elle Marsh, Atticus Bastow, Michelle Macklem, and Cinnamon Nippard.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.
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