Interview with Patricia Karvelas: Their names deserve to be heard

17 June 2020


SUBJECT: Black deaths in custody

PATRICIA KARVELAS, ABC: Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy joins me this afternoon. Senator, welcome.


KARVELAS: As we showed there, today you read out the names of First Nations people who have died in custody. Why did you decide to do this?

MCCARTHY: Its been a difficult fortnight in sittings. Were not quite over yet; weve still got another day to go. And I thought it was important that we put on the record the human side of the many deaths. And as I said there, we dont know all the names, but those that we do, it was important to bring forward to the parliament, in the midst of many obscene things that have been said in the Senate in particular, that were talking about families, and were talking about people who I felt that their names needed to be heard.

KARVELAS: The, actually naming these people, explaining as you say that theyre real people with names, with families, with lives that were taken, how important is that, that dimension in trying to connect with broader Australian public about this story?

MCCARTHY: I think its really important, Patricia, given the various sort of breadth this debate has gone, from complete division, hatred to understanding to trying to bring about not only the Australian parliament but the Australian people, to find that sense of empathy and respect. I spoke in the Parliament the other night about so many things that we dont understand but that doesnt mean we should close the door to those people that we dont understand. And I asked and urged the Prime Minister not to demonise the Australian people who were walking the streets. So I guess my role and certainly Senator Pat Dodson in this instance was just trying to bring about some sense of humanity to this debate. That sometimes in life, and in a lot of times in political life, were very much challenged and we have to put our case, and in our instance, we put a very human case.

KARVELAS: Senator, these names, these numbers are not new. The only new part here is what appears to be a sort of public appetite for change. How frustrating has it been to get these stories onto the sort of national agenda?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, thats a really important question, Patricia. Its been enormously difficult. I mean I reflected just today on even reporting on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and even then at the time how difficult that was. What weve seen I think in the last two or three weeks is an absolute movement, an almost incredible wave of movement throughout the globe, that things should not remain the same, that things have to change. And even here in the Parliament, I can feel it, I can sense it, that we have to be careful as politicians not to further incite hatred and division, and its important that even our language and what we say in here matters. It really does.

KARVELAS: In terms of action thats needed, you know that the Minister for Indigenous Australians is working with the Prime Minister at a sort of national level with State and Territory leaders, on new targets in the Closing the Gap process to include a reduction of indigenous incarceration. Theyre working out, theyre nutting out the ambition now. How ambitious should it be? How much do the actual targets matter?

MCCARTHY: Well I think its going to need a great deal of, not only talking Patricia, but investment and serious focus in each state and territory jurisdiction. Weve certainly as a First Nations Caucus been briefed by Pat Turner whos the chair of the peaks just in relation to just how things may be going in those negotiations, and what Ive also said on the record here is that weve seen with the handling of the COVID-19, that the Prime Minister, and the leadership around the country, are very capable of dealing with something, and why not have this at the highest level through the national cabinet.

KARVELAS: So theyre working clearly on this as a priority. They say next month theyre going to be releasing the new targets. You said youve been briefed by the co-chair of that process, are you confident that they are going to deliver targets that this movement of Australians now who want to see action on this will be satisfied by?

MCCARTHY: Im certainly confident in Pat Turner and the peaks who are meeting around the table. Theyre enormously passionate but theyre also very experienced in this space in all the areas of justice and health and education, and also First Nations Media who are also involved. So I have a lot of confidence in their ability to try and put to the Prime Minister, Ken Wyatt as the Indigenous Affairs Minister, the direction that they should go. I guess what we need to see is what kind of commitment there will come from the Prime Minister and Ken Wyatt in response.

KARVELAS: We already know one of the sticking points because Pat Turner put it on the record on this program just last week. She said it was housing, and Commonwealth funding for housing. She said the Commonwealth says its a state issue, but they were pushing for more money for housing because of course this is seen as a whole sort of Government approach, not just this one issue, its all linked. Do you think the Commonwealth should be investing in more housing and do you have a figure that you think they should be working towards?

MCCARTHY: Well there is no doubt that housing is at the root of a lot of the issues in terms of First Nations people, weve seen that through the COVID experience. We know that just through the entrenched poverty and the concerns that we have with homelessness. Theres certainly a figure more broadly nationally which I wouldnt have, but I certainly know from the Northern Territory, Patricia, we definitely need well over what we have there, in particular not just for our communities, but also the homelands and outstations.

KARVELAS: Just finally, the Western Australian Parliament has passed a Bill to end the controversial imprisonment of people with unpaid fines and of course this has been a call for decades now. Its finally officially happened in the last jurisdiction in the country. Its a pretty significant moment, isnt it?

MCCARTHY: An absolutely significant moment Patricia and you know just your thoughts go to the families whove had people die in custody especially in WA. The most obvious one that comes to mind is Ms Dhu over unpaid fines and having lost her lines there. I think for that family in particular and the people who have pushed since 2016 in terms of Ms Dhu were incredibly relieved. But like with most things, it should never have to take that long.