29 March 2021



SUBJECT: Senate Estimates; Aboriginal deaths in custody

SENATOR PATRICK DODSON: Well, we've been in committee and in Senate Estimates over this last week.  Each time I've raised the question of the 30th anniversary of deaths in custody and who's responsible or accountable within the government, we've been fobbed around.  We've been shifted from the Attorney General’s over to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ unit, back to Mr Dutton's unit.  No one knows what's going on, and there's very little organised analysis of why people are dying in custody. And we know that since the Royal Commission there’s almost 500 people who've died in custody, not all from mistreatment by any means. But we just don't know, we don't understand. We know some from health, we know some from police chases, we know that some are from other sorts of causes. But we've got to the chronic stage now where, instead of learning from the Royal Commission and its recommendations 30 years ago, we're standing on the brink potentially of another Royal Commission to inquire into the same sorts of things, the underlying issues that give rise to custodies and the reasons for this. In recent months, a lady died from a from a hanging point, which was recommended 30 years ago to be removed from these cells and where the danger might arise.  People are still being, people are being jailed for fine defaults, people are being jailed for drunkenness, you know. So, the fundamentals have just not been taken seriously. And certainly the Federal Government is not taking a leadership role where it should be taking a leadership role. It keeps popping off these matters to the states and saying that the states are responsible and that they've got some magical system that they're going to work through the COAG agreements with the Coalition of First Nations (peak organisations). That's not good enough. We have, as I say, these families have been seeking to meet with the Prime Minister. We're told today that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs is prepared to meet with them. We don't know whether the Prime Minister will be, but this this matter just cannot persist and be pushed aside in the manner that it's happening because it's far too critical for us as a nation, and we've got the lessons from the Royal Commission before us and we've got good recommendations that should be enacted.

SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY:  Could I just add to Senator Dodson's statement as well that we've seen in this past week, you know, two weeks with hundreds and thousands of Australians taking to the streets about the questions we need to ask in terms of the treatment of women and the safety of women. Last year, we saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in terms of Black Lives Matter and the focus on Aboriginal deaths in custody. And yet the government refused to meet or listen to people. Then this government has got form in not listening to anyone, in not acting. And we will continue to push until the Prime Minister does.

REPORTER:  What did you make of comments in Senate estimates that the NIAA also relies on media reporting to keep track of deaths in custody?

DODSON: Well, how would you run a country on media reports? This is a national disaster, the taxpayer put 50 million dollars into the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. And to just simply rely on media report, whilst they are they good to see, it's not the way you run a professional outfit and the government knows full well the consequences. It just means that they don’t care about these people dying or their families.

REPORTER:  How would you characterise Amanda Stoker’s position on this committee?

DODSON: Well, she hasn't read any of the criticisms of the report that she keeps quoting, that the ANU's discredited, that 33 or so academics in the law have discredited for being over-positive and, in fact, using that as a as a ruse to say, Well, the states have to lift the game. Of course the states have to lift their game, but it requires leadership.  We live in a federation of states, and the Commonwealth has got specific powers under ‘67, the ‘67 referendum to help lead and coordinate matters dealing with First Nations affairs, and this is one of the most critical ones. We've already had a Royal Commission, 339 recommendations, and we know what some of those answers are, some of those processes are. And they say, Well, we just turn a blind eye to it and let it drift along because no one's going to worry about it. That's immoral.

REPORTER:  You've said that the Federal Government is showing a lack of leadership on this issue. And, Senator McCarthy, you also raised the fact that we've seen action on the treatment of women here. That's prompted some questions about how many women are actually in the Liberal Party. Do you think that if there were, I suppose, more Indigenous people in the party room, their attitude to these issues would be different?

MCCARTHY: If there was a Voice to the Parliament constitutionally enshrined, then we would see massive movement here in the Australian Parliament in terms of many issues to do with First Nations people, but in particular around the black deaths of people in our prison system.

REPORTER:  What do you make of Amanda Stoker’s comments where she said we understand the outrage and the upset is real because the lives of every person through our justice system is important no matter what the colour of their skin is, are living beings. They're all Australians and they all matter. What do you make of those words?

DODSON:  Well, of course they matter. I mean, what a silly statement. Of course they matter. Anyone who dies in custody matters. We're talking about the First Nations, people who are being incarcerated at a far higher rate. At the time of the Royal Commission, that was about 14 per cent of the population in prison where Aboriginal people.  Now we’re up to 30 per cent. So the incarceration rates have been blown out to glory compared to only three per cent of the population. So you've got to worry about the people who are dying in custody for whatever the reasons are. And we've got to have clarity around that. If you recall, what caused the Royal Commission was people were starting to believe that the police were doing something wrong, and that's why there was a need for, you know, a Royal Commission into this matter. Now, that same sentiment is starting to come back into this. And there are many good police out there trying to do the, you know, the best they can as well as correctional officers. But you've got to deal with the issues, the underlying issues, health, housing, education, employment, and get on to those things and don't drag the chain.

REPORTER:  Of the four deaths in custody we've seen over the past three weeks, we didn't find out about any one of them at the time when they died. We found out about all of them around a week after they happened. Do you think there needs to be some reform from the federal level to ensure that state and territory police forces are collecting that information and sharing it publicly as soon as that happens?

MCCARTHY:  It's got to be more than that. I mean, what you witnessed today in the Estimates room, everyone keeps passing the buck.  As Senator Dodson says, every agency he's asked, they've shrugged their shoulders and they've tossed the ball over to somebody else. No one is taking responsibility. And that is the fundamental problem here with this government, that no one is taking responsibility for this massive problem that we have in our country and the First Nations people dying unnecessarily.

REPORTER:  Do you think the fact that no one is taking responsibility is in fact leading to more deaths in custody because no one is looking into it or no one's kind of collating all the evidence?

MCCARTHY:  There's an urgency now, there always has been, but it's even more so now. If they do not do something, we will keep asking these questions. We will keep seeing people rallying in the streets, marching in the streets, because there is no justice for these families who are still grieving to know what happened to their loved ones.

REPORTER:  And just because you're from the Northern Territory, what did you make of the NT government's proposed reforms to youth justice laws?

MCCARTHY:  Look, I was very surprised to see those reforms come in. And I certainly want to find out more when I go back to the Northern Territory. We do not want to see more young people incarcerated in this country. And I have been on the record raising that concern, not just with the Northern Territory, but right across the country.

DODSON:  One more question, we've got to get back to committee.  

REPORTER: I wonder if you would comment on Amanda Stoker’s remarks about the states needing to take more role and more responsibility.  Do you accept that? And do you think the new national agreement on Closing the Gap is heading in that direction, and can it make a difference because it involves the states and makes them accountable and responsible for the problem?

DODSON: The problem you’ve got, Paige, is you’ve got a crisis on our hands now. And there has to be immediate action by the minister responsible. And far as I can discern, that's Minister Dutton. And he should be doing something now to pull together the relevant agencies in the states and the Aboriginal organisations, the legal services, and sitting down and saying, Well, why are things happening as they are happening against these 339 recommendations and how can we fix this up? And where's the shortfall, not only in the resourcing, but in the way we go about business, that they should be doing that tomorrow rather than waiting to be promoted into some of the new portfolio.

MCCARTHY: Can I just add to that, Paige, when we had the Black Lives Matter last year in terms of the rallies across the country, the one thing that I pushed the Prime Minister for and the leadership group in the cabinet is that if you can pull together a national cabinet to deal with this major pandemic called the COVID-19, you can pull together a national cabinet on how to stop black deaths in custody.

DODSON: OK, sorry, folks, we have to go, but thank you for coming up. Thank you.