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Launch of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner's: Social Justice and Native Title reports for 2001

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Launch of the Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner's: Social Justice and
Native Title reports for 2001

Perth and Broome Launches
of the Social Justice Report 2001 and Native Title Report 2001

Speech delivered by Patrick
Dodson, Lingiari Foundation
1 July 2002

We're here today
for the launch of two reports: a report on social justice and another
report on native title. These reports are to be launched by their author,
the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Social Justice Commissioner, Dr William

They provide a yearly
scorecard on how Australian governments are meeting their obligations
to ensure that Australia's Indigenous peoples can fully exercise their
rights and interests.

Both these reports
show that, yet again, Australian governments are failing. They are failing
on the big questions, and they are failing in the day-to-day administration
at the ground level.

We have a national
government that is unable to respond in a meaningful way to the reconciliation
and social justice agendas. It will not allow native title rights and
interests to be fully recognised and exercised. And this is because it
cannot accept our inherent rights as the first peoples of this continent.

We know who we are
as Indigenous peoples; we know we have fundamental human rights; and that
these rights have international recognition. But without the recognition
of our inherent rights in Australia, there can be no meaningful reconciliation
because there is no real equality and no social justice.

We are curtailed,
diminished; our rights extinguished. Terra nullius lives on in the minds
and hearts of this mean-spirited and short-sighted government and they
will not respond to our concerns, nor to our suggestions for moving forward.

The reconciliation
process, agreed to by both sides of the Federal Parliament, held out great

But the Federal Government
has not responded to the documents and the recommendations from the Council
for Aboriginal Reconciliation, presented at the end of the Council's 10-year
process. The final report, Australia's Challenge, was tabled in
the Parliament at the end of 2000 and, like so many other documents and
reports, lies on the table and gathers dust.

For this reason,
I support Commissioner Jonas's call for a Senate Inquiry into the implementation
of, and the Government's response to, the Reconciliation Council's recommendations.

The Government gets
plenty of good advice. These two reports Dr Jonas is launching here today
are full of such advice. But they listen to no-one and continue to get
it wrong.

There is no discussion
of an agreement, or treaty, between us. There is no agreed process for
dealing with the unfinished business. There is no self-determination -
the policy of self-determination has not failed, as some would claim;
it hasn't been tried yet.

Instead, there is
limited and circumscribed rhetoric about 'practical reconciliation' -
another failure of vision and policy, like so many other failures.

There can be no reconciliation
without a just native title system - one that recognises our rights and
interests in land and waters; provides the mechanisms for the enjoyment
of those rights, and for our economic and social development.

This was the promise
held out in the High Court's Mabo decision.

Mabo was an opportunity
to transform our social, economic and political relationships - a transformation
based on the recognition of our inherent rights. Instead, the system we
have now takes more of our rights away and minimises our ability to exercise
those that remain.

We continue to lose
common law ground in the courts. In every negotiation about co-existence,
our native title rights are treated as secondary to others.

Governments need
to accept our authority structures when negotiating our native title rights
and interests. The issue of recognition of the Aboriginal community, the
majority of the traditional owners, is more important than recognising
individual dissenters. Governments should be prepared to deal with us
on our terms and for the common good, and not be distracted by peripheral

Governments talk
about our disadvantage; this is how the talk about practical reconciliation
is justified. But then they fund our organisations at a lower level than
other groups in the native title process, and they drown them in a sea
of administrative and statutory requirements for which they are not funded.

This government is
committed to our disadvantage, and our marginalisation, and acts accordingly
- with its inability to listen, respond, work with us and provide resources
for our participation.

The implementation
of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths
in Custody is a complete failure of government policy and action. After
339 recommendations, $400 million allocated to implementing them, and
the passage of 11 years, the deaths continue at high rates.

Implementation means
more than looking around your particular government department, working
out which programs or spending is already in place, and attaching it to
a recommendation - whether it meets the objective of that recommendation
or not - then putting a tick next to it in your annual report. Then forgetting
about it.

It means understanding
what the recommendation is actually saying, what it is trying to achieve,
and then working with others - within government and in the community
- to make that happen. It means understanding the link between action
and outcomes. It means understanding that there is a link between action
and outcomes - this is one of the missing links in government.

In the meantime,
too many of our people continue to die in custody, and are being incarcerated
or detained as youth.

In the 10 year-period
examined by the Royal Commission, 99 Indigenous people died in prison
or police custody. In the 10 years after the Commission, 115 Indigenous
people died in custody, and a further 30 Indigenous people died during
police operations, many of them young people in high-speed car chases.
Eighty-one per cent of these people died in jails.

Many of these deaths
are preventable. The WA Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee says
that, over 50 per cent of Aboriginal people who die in jail, die of ill
health. This compares to about one per cent of non-Aboriginal prisoners.
The average age of the Aboriginal deaths in custody is 31 years, and they
die of treatable illnesses.

Health services to
people in prison continue to be poor and inappropriate to the needs of
our people - even in the so-called 'Aboriginal jails', in Kalgoorlie,
Roebourne, Broome.

Providing good and
appropriate prison health would be one, simple way of preventing many
Indigenous deaths but in spite of the findings of report after report
(Royal Commission, the WA Ombudsman and statements from the AMA) that
this should happen, it doesn't.

Aboriginal people
die in custody in high numbers because they are in custody in high numbers.
This was a key finding of the Royal Commission and has been repeated constantly
since. Bringing down the numbers of people dying in custody requires doing
something about the incarceration rate of Aboriginal people.

But instead of going
down, the Indigenous imprisonment rate has steadily increased, by about
eight per cent per year, since the Commission reported in 1991.

In June 1992, there
were 90 Kimberley Aboriginal people in prison. By April this year that
figure had jumped 64 per cent to 141.

The number of Aboriginal
women in Australian prisons has increased by a staggering 262 per cent
since the Royal Commission reported.

Aboriginal people
continue to be grossly over-represented in the criminal justice system
- both as inmates and victims - and Western Australia is the worst.

In the year 2000,
Aboriginal people in Western Australia were 10 times more likely to be
arrested than non-Aboriginal people.

In June 2001, the
adult Aboriginal imprisonment rate was 21 times the rate for non-Aboriginal

Juvenile detention
rates among our young people were 31 times the non-Aboriginal rate. This
is the highest rate in the country and is twice the national rate.

Mandatory sentencing
persists in Western Australia. Concern and alarm is consistently expressed
about the effects of mandatory sentencing, taking more and more of our
young people away and putting them in jails - whether for juveniles or
for adults. Dr Jonas is one of many who have called for the repeal of
these unjust laws.

When our young people
do come into contact with the police, they are more likely to be arrested
and charged than non-Aboriginal young people are. And they are less likely
to be diverted from the juvenile justice system into other programs to
try and keep them out of jail - only 54 per cent of our young people get
offered other programs, compared to 80 per cent of non-Aboriginal youth.

Dr Jonas found that
the WA diversion schemes are sub-standard in general, and that they particularly
fail Aboriginal young people. Most diversionary schemes are in urban areas,
and the little that is available in regional areas is culturally inappropriate.

Our young people,
our future, are failed in many ways. They live in families with a per-capita
income of around $120 per week, compared to $350 per week for non-Indigenous

Only 11 per cent
of Aboriginal student in the Kimberley complete year 12. This compares
to a national rate for all students of more than 70 per cent.

In the face of continuing
deaths in custody and the overwhelming evidence that there is too little
justice for Aboriginal people in the justice system, the State Government
has abolished the Aboriginal Justice Council. These AJCs were to provide
an independent voice on these issues.

In the Social Justice
report, the Aboriginal justice councils are listed as one of the advances
from the Royal Commission. This is another lost opportunity in Western

Whilst governments
continue to deny our inherent rights, and the structure and culture of
governments cannot deal with us and our interests and concerns, we must
continually look for ways to work with and outside the system. And, whilst
these issues are of national and international human rights significance,
they are about our lives and we must deal with them every day.

We must also keep
speaking the truth about what is done, and what is not done; and assess
rhetoric against action and outcomes. We must hold governments accountable;
and keep saying these failures are not right - they are not good for our
people, and they are not good for our country.

Dr William Jonas
is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. These social justice
and native title reports - from him and his office - do this work of assessing
outcomes from the policies and programs. They highlight the failures as
well as the few successes, and call on governments to be accountable -
to meet their human rights obligations.

Dr Jonas is a Worimi
man from the Karuah River area of New South Wales.

He has a great breadth
and depth of experience - in government, academia and the community.

Dr Jonas became the
second Social Justice Commissioner in April 1999. He has been the Director
of the National Museum of Australia; Principal of the Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Studies; Director of Aboriginal Education, and a senior
lecturer in geography, at Newcastle University; a lecturer at the University
of Papua New Guinea; and a Commissioner on the Royal Commission into British
Nuclear Tests. He has also held positions in the areas of immigration,
heritage and environment.

He is a long-standing
member of Newcastle's Awabakal Aboriginal Co-operative, and has been both
its Director and Board Chair. His work in the community was recognised
in 1993 when he was awarded a membership of the Order of Australia (AM).

As well as his PhD
from the University of PNG in 1980, Dr Jonas has received an honorary
doctorate of the University of Newcastle in 1998, a Professional Excellence
Medal of Convocation of the University of Newcastle in 1999, and the Professional
Service Commendation of the Institute of Australian Geographers, also
in 1999.

Welcome to Broome
Dr Jonas.

updated 11 July 2002