By Robert Tickner, Chair of the Justice Reform Initiative - Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2021
Thirty years ago to the day, as Aboriginal affairs minister in the Hawke government, I presented the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to the national Parliament. I said then that it stood as an indictment of how our legal and corrective services system operated in respect of the most disadvantaged group in Australian society, and as an indictment of our society itself in allowing this terrible situation to develop and persist.
While the world has changed in many ways since 1991, it angers and pains me deeply that governments around the country have failed to progress the most fundamental recommendation of the royal commission – that imprisonment should be a last resort.
This recommendation was adopted by every state and territory government from all political persuasions, in the face of incontestable evidence that jailing was failing Aboriginal people. They were and remain the most incarcerated people on Earth.
Thirty years on, the proportion of Indigenous people in Australian prisons has doubled from 14.4 per cent to 29 per cent. And far from reducing the overall numbers of people in our prisons, governments on both sides of politics have continued with archaic policies which ignore the overwhelming evidence that jailing is failing our society.
In the case of Aboriginal people, this disadvantage is compounded by marginalisation and dispossession.
It was these and other “underlying issues” which were identified by the royal commission as the root cause of the over-representation of Aboriginal people in jail and their consequent tragically high numbers of unnecessary deaths in custody. My heart goes out to the Aboriginal families who have suffered these losses of loved ones, sometimes in the most horrific of circumstances, as the royal commission showed us.
I wholeheartedly agree. However, there have been enough words by our national political leaders. We need Australian government co-operative leadership on these challenges.
This is not just a message to one side of politics but very pointedly to both. This is one area of public policy where Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese should be working together, setting party politics aside and getting all our state and territory government leaders in the tent with Aboriginal leaders at their side to progress reforms under the closing-the-gap initiative.
The imperative for change has driven the establishment of the Justice Reform Initiative, a multi-partisan alliance which has banded together to present the strong evidence-based case for reform to governments. We also strongly support the leadership role of the Aboriginal-led advocacy organisation Change the Record.
Our founding group includes former governors-general Dame Quentin Bryce and Sir William Deane, former judges and magistrates, police commissioners, corrective service commissioners, Aboriginal leaders and others who have longstanding experience and knowledge of our failing criminal justice system.
One of our national patrons is Aboriginal leader Pat Turner, who was absolutely right in her call last week for governments to stop buck-passing on Indigenous over-representation in the prison system. As she said: “We have the solutions but we need to get on with it.”
When the royal commission was released in 1991, it seemed a watershed moment for us as a nation – a spotlight on the appalling treatment of Australia’s First Peoples and the situation which led them to be disproportionately represented in our prisons. It is to our great shame that, 30 years later, we have progressed so little. Instead, Australia has become an international outlier in its approach to criminal justice.
Robert Tickner is Australia’s longest serving minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and is the chair of the Justice Reform Initiative.