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QUT Indigenous Law and Justice Dinner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


It is with respect and gratitude that I acknowledge that we sit today on the lands of the Turbal, Jagera/Yuggers, Kabi Kabi & Jinibara peoples.

My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland. On behalf of my Elders I also pay tribute to your Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for their country and their culture.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today amongst those of you who aspire to promote equality and social justice.

Personal Background

Let me start with a bit about myself. Gangulu country takes in what is known as the Dawson Valley area and extends to just east of the Carnarvon Gorge.
Like many Aboriginal groups we have a matriarchal lineage and I am one of the lucky ones who only have to go back to my mother’s mother, my grandmother to find out where our country is. My mother was raised in the Woorabinda mission and my father was born at Barabala, a little town about 30 kilometers from Woorabinda.

I come from humble beginnings. I grew up in Sarina in North Queensland and moved to Rockhampton with my family while I was still very young. My first paid job was at the Meatworks and in my early years I worked on the railways like many other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I then took on a position at what was then Social Security and as a result of that, I have worked in Indigenous affairs for all of my professional life including:

  • The Chief Executive Officer of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health (CRCAH)
  • The Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission; and
  • The Senior Consultant to the Aboriginal Legal Service (WA).

When I was first approached about the position of Social Justice Commissioner in December 2009, I was hesitant at first because I didn’t see myself as a human rights activist. But as one of my closest colleagues pointed out, you can’t work on Aboriginal issues without being a human rights activist, working in Indigenous affairs means that you are working with human rights day in and day out.

Overview of Commissioner’s duties

I am fortunate enough that the role I now play as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Social Justice Commissioner provides me with an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the quality of life our people are able to enjoy.

2013 marks the 20th year since this position came into being as a result of the the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and a HREOC Inquiry into racial hatred.

Professor Mick Dodson was the first Social Justice Commissioner followed by Dr Bill Jonas and Dr Tom Calma. Ms Zita Antonios acted in the role in 1998-99. When I first started in this position I was asked if any of these previous Commissioners had left any words of advice. I tell them ‘no but they all left really big shoes to fill’. So it was with some trepidation and a big dose of humility that I began my work knowing that the bar has been set fairly high. What was going to be my agenda, my plan for these five years?

To begin with I have some statutory duties. I’m required to report to the Australian Parliament on social justice and native title. I’m also required to:

  • review the impact of laws and policies with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • promote an Indigenous perspective on issues and
  • monitor the enjoyment and exercise of human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

But in a real sense, I’m handed these general directions and it’s up to me to sort out my priorities in terms of how I do what the legislation requires of me.

As Social Justice Commissioner I have only six staff members, so I quickly realised that it would be unrealistic to pick even one of the myriad of challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - housing, health, education to name a few and expect to fix it by January 2015.

I believe that fixing these issues will require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation.

After listening and accepting the reality of the limitations of this position compared to the enormity of the task confronting us at the centre of my priorities is the belief that we need to firstly develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australia.

Secondly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all levels of government.

And, perhaps even more importantly, we need to develop stronger and deeper relationships between ourselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Relationships are built on understanding, dialogue, tolerance, acceptance, respect, trust and reciprocated affection.
And relationships are destroyed by misunderstanding, intolerance, and a lack of acceptance, a lack of dialogue, mistrust and a lack of respect.

I believe human rights are one of the most powerful tools to help build good relationships. 

Role of Indigenous Professionals

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is being able to meet with people from all walks of life about how we can achieve more for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I come from the perspective of recognising strengths - in communities, organisations and individuals - as the building blocks for these achievements.

More and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are obtaining legal qualifications and becoming lawyers. The idea of an Indigenous lawyer was almost a foreign concept when I was first beginning my career in Indigenous Affairs.

It is through achievements like this that will foster the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and I feel proud to be here.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples around the country are thinking individually and collectively about the type of future we want to leave to our kids and grandkids.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is the oldest continuing culture in human history. Our survival, our nurturing of land, and our achievements are not simply a matter of our identity as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – but something that informs the nation’s identity.

One of the greatest thrills of being in a senior position is watching our young people develop into leadership positions. Having our own people in professions such as law helps our communities to fully realise their rights.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the foundation document in human rights for all Indigenous peoples.

The Declaration contains a number of key principles underpinning the rights it protects. Those key principles can be summarised as:

  • First, self-determination
  • Second, participation in decision-making and free, prior and informed consent
  • Third, respect for and protection of culture
  • Fourth, non-discrimination and equality.

One of the main challenges I face as Social Justice Commissioner – and the Australian Human Rights Commission faces more generally – is communicating to the Australian public what ‘human rights’ mean in practice.
Human rights are not just abstract concepts that exist in documents such as treaties, conventions and declarations alone.

Human rights provide governments with a set of minimum legal standards which must apply equally to all people. A human rights framework provides parameters – universally agreed parameters – for a society to foster dignity and equality of all citizens. And equality means substantive equality – equality in outcomes, not just in writing.

As some of you here today are students and aspiring lawyers, I would like to impart the message today that no matter what profession or career path you choose in the future, the promotion of our rights will still be part of your day to day work.

I think if you keep coming back to those four principles I just mentioned - self-determination, participation in decision-making and free, prior and informed consent,  respect for and protection of culture  and non-discrimination and equality - you get a good idea about the what this means in practice.  Putting our rights into practice is of great importance in regards to criminal justice issues.

Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Given that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was part of the impetus for the creation of the Social Justice Commissioner role, it is not surprising that criminal justice issues have been a significant focus over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, during this time, the statistics have grown worse.

Social Justice Commissioners have been actively involved in trying to explain why our people make up the majority of Australia’s prison populations and how we can remedy this. Some of this has been in response to particular policies, such as mandatory detention, whilst other work has considered the particular needs of groups such as women and offenders with cognitive impairments and/or mental health issues.

The RCIADIC investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the custody of police, prison or juvenile detention centres between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989. The circumstances of each person whose death was examined by the Royal Commission differed vastly, yet the Commission found that in each case ‘facts associated… with their Aboriginality played a significant and in most cases dominant role in their being in and dying in custody’.[1]

But the fundamental problem remains - we must reduce the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the criminal justice system. We need to come back to the RCIADIC recommendation that imprisonment should be used as the last resort.

One of the ways to meet these challenges in my opinion is justice reinvestment.

Justice reinvestment is a criminal justice approach that diverts a portion of the money for imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders. The money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested into services that address the underlying causes of crime in these communities.

When I talk about justice reinvestment I like to set out two caveats. The first is that I’m not talking about not locking people up. There are some people, including some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who need to be separated from society for a while. But let’s use prison as a real option of last resort.

Secondly, I prefer to talk about justice reinvestment as an opportunity to create safer communities, rather than just concentrating on reducing incarceration rates. I’m a fairly simple bloke so I figure if we can create safer communities it means less offending which in turn will mean less people going to jail.

So how does it work?

Justice reinvestment is essentially about investing our resources at front end, to prevent crime, rather than the back end, in prisons.

This focus on early intervention is not new. However, justice reinvestment is different because it invests early intervention services in specific communities where there is the greatest need. Most importantly it is done with the communities contributing to how these funds are spent to prevent crime.

Justice reinvestment was developed in the United States. Since 2006 it has been implemented in 17 states. It is interesting that it is predominantly conservative Republican States that have seen the social and economic benefits of justice reinvestment. This is because justice reinvestment is a fiscally sound policy. It looks at whether imprisonment is a good investment. It considers ways to reduce corrections spending in favour of evidence based prevention and diversionary programs.

There have been some terrific successes. For example, in Kansas they have reduced imprisonment from a record high and avoided building a new prison. This is expected to save $80 million over five years.

Texas reinvested $241 million that would otherwise have been spent on the construction of prisons on treatment programs. The prison population stopped growing for the first time in decades.

These results are great but what really interests me is how we can make it work for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Justice reinvestment is a policy which is built on effective participation and self-determination to improve our lives and the well-being of our communities by diverting our people away from jails and from the criminal justice system to community-led development programs.

Advocates like me have been arguing for justice reinvestment since 2009. We are now starting to see some traction. At the government level, there have been recommendations in a number of Commonwealth and state reports. At the community level, we are seeing some really exciting work about what justice reinvestment could look like in Australia.

I want to finish by saying the work that you aspire to in the future can play a significant part in promoting human rights and helping to shape stronger communities into the future. We all have a role to play in building stronger communities where our rights are respected.  I thank you for your work and your time today.

[1] Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report – Volume 1, AGPS Canberra 1991, p 1.


Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner