Skip to main content

Site navigation

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Speech presented at the Melbourne
Launch of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner's
Social Justice Report, 2001

By Marcia Langton, Foundation
Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne

Knowing Bill Jonas
as I do, I am immensely re-assured that the burden of reporting on the
human rights compliance in this country with respect to Indigenous people
has fallen to him. This is not a task for the faint-hearted or the cowardly;
nor for the mere technical or academic expert. As the Aboriginal and Torres
Strait islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr Jonas has reported fearlessly
on the facts of the systemic, structural discrimination that Indigenous
people face in Australian society, and what governments should do to overcome
this discrimination and racism. It is with honour and sadness that I have
accepted his invitation to launch the 2001 Social Justice Report.

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

He was appointed
Australia's second Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Commissioner in April 1999. He is also the Acting Race Discrimination
Commissioner. Until his appointment, Dr Jonas was Director of the National
Museum of Australia. From 1991 until 1996, he was Principal of the Australian
Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.
Dr Jonas comes from an academic background. Before becoming Director of
Aboriginal Education at Newcastle University in 1990, he was senior lecturer
in geography at the University of Newcastle and before that he lectured
at the University of Papua New Guinea. In 1980 he was awarded a PhD by
the University of PNG for research into Papua New Guinea's timber industry.

In the mid-1980s
Dr Jonas was a Royal Commissioner on the Royal Commission into British
Nuclear Tests in Australia with the late Justice Jim McClelland. He has
held positions on the Immigration Review Tribunal, the Australian Heritage
Commission and the State of the Environment Advisory Council. He chaired
the Joint Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Heritage and Culture in
NSW and the Heritage Council of the ACT. He is a longstanding member of
Newcastle's Awabakal Aboriginal Co-operative and has been both Director
and Chair of its Board.

Dr Jonas has worked
tirelessly in the community sector since the early 1980s. His awards include
membership of the Order of Australia (AM) 1993, Honorary Doctorate of
the University of Newcastle 1998, Professional Excellence Medal of Convocation
of the University of Newcastle 1999, and the Professional Service Commendation
of the Institute of Australian Geographers 1999.The role of the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice commissioner, Dr Bill Jonas,
is to provide a report regarding the enjoyment and exercise of human rights
by Aboriginal Persons and Torres Strait Islanders to the Attorney-General
as required by Section 46c(1)(a) of the Human rights and Equal Opportunity
Commission Act 1986. The Commissioner is also required to make recommendations
that should be taken to ensure the exercise and enjoyment of human rights
by those persons. This year the Commissioner has made 12 recommendations,
with emphasis on Indigenous youth in the juvenile justice system and on
the failure of the federal government to advance the process of reconciliation.

In his 2001 Social
Justice Report
, Bill draws attention to the inadequacy of governmental
responses to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal
Deaths in Custody
. As Commissioner Jonas notes (2002:8), writing in

"While this
year is the tenth anniversary of the Royal commission, next year will
be the tenth anniversary of the Mabo decision, which rejected
terra nullius and recognised the continued existence of native
title. It is also the fifth anniversary of the Bringing them home report.
Again we will have anniversaries of events where the fundamental recognition
and acknowledgment of wrongs committed in the past have not been matched
by adequate remedy and redress by government.

It is also close
to a year and a half since the release of the Australian Declaration
towards Reconciliation
and the Roadmap to Reconciliation,
and a year since the final report and recommendations to government
by the council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. These documents were the
result of a ten year process partly instigated by the Royal Commission,
The National Report of which identified reconciliation as 'an essential
commitment on all sides if change is to be genuine and long term'.

I ask myself of
this, is it adequate that at the end of a sustained ten-year process
of reconciliation the government has failed to provide a national response
and detailed plan of action for implementation of the recommendations
of the council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and has instead dismissed
them as of symbolic rather than practical application?

The symbolism of
this approach is crystal clear - it shows a demonstrable lack of respect
for the distinctive culture of Indigenous people and a lack of commitment
to seeking a just accommodation of our distinct identities within the
Australian societal fabric.

Commissioner Jonas
has recommended that the Senate empower the Legal and Constitutional References
Committee to conduct an inquiry into the implementation and response to
the reconciliation process. He recommends that the terms of reference
of the inquiry should require the Committee to examine the recommendations
contained within the Roadmap to Reconciliation, the final report of the
Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the Social Justice Report 2000
as well as the adequacy of the response of the Federal Government to each
of these. In determining the adequacy of the response, the Committee should
be required to consider processes by which government agencies have reviewed
their policies and programs against the documents of reconciliation; as
well as the adequacy of targets and benchmarks adopted and monitoring
and evaluation mechanisms.

If the government
does not furnish a response to the report and its recommendations to Parliament,
the Senate should consider the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry
to consider matters that appear in or arise out of the report.

I support these recommendations.
As I travel and work in Aboriginal communities around the country, it
is plain and clear that life is more difficult for most Aboriginal people
than it was 10 years ago. Discrimination and disadvantage is palpably
worse. Poverty, low standards of education and high rates of unemployment
remain endemic. While conditions in Aboriginal communities have deteriorated
to a distressing extent, the Aboriginal population has increased by 16%.
The capacity of governments to cope with the disadvantage gaps created
by this situation lessens exponentially. As Dr Jonas notes, the Federal
government's contempt for what it calls 'symbolic' reconciliation and
championing of something called 'practical' reconciliation' constitute
a failure to deal with the complex problems that face Indigenous people,
including racism, discrimination, and continued disadvantage.

The Federal government
has blamed Indigenous people for their suffering, ignoring the historical
legacy that has placed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at
the bottom of all social and economic indicators. This crude response
works as an electoral strategy for the Liberal and National parties, but
this is not governance; this is not policy-making; and it is not program

Australians are entitled
to a comprehensive review of the failure of governments to deliver real
changes in the situation of Indigenous people, and Indigenous people are
entitled to know why their situation gets worse rather than better. So-called
'practical' reconciliation is not working. This is evident in the situation
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, especially Aboriginal
women, as the Social Justice Report shows:

18% of all people
who died in custody 1990 to 2000 were Indigenous

During the passage
of that 10 year period (2002:12), 18% of all people who died in custody
were Indigenous. Commissioner Jonas found that:

  • Indigenous people
    continue to be grossly over-represented in the criminal justice processes;
    the level of over-representation has in fact worsened; and the high
    number of deaths in custody has continued;
  • The recommendations
    of the RCIADIC have been poorly implemented, if at all;
  • There has been
    lack of adequate progress in addressing the underlying issues which
    lead to contact with the criminal justice system.

'That a group that
constitutes just over 2% of the total population provides 20% of the country's
prisoners is shocking' is how Dr Jonas rightly puts it.

A total of 115 Indigenous
people died in custody in the period from 1990 to 1999, compared to 110
people in the period from 1980 to 1989. Over the ten years from 1990 to
2000, 18% of all people who died in custody were Indigenous. The occurrence
of Indigenous deaths in prison rose from 39% in decade prior to the Royal
Commission to 78% in the decade since.

Indigenous rate
of imprisonment now 14.9 times the non-indigenous rate on a national basis

The ratio of imprisonment
of Indigenous prisoners compared to non-indigenous prisoners has increased
steadily from 1991 to 1999, to a national average almost 14 times the
rate of non-indigenous prisoners in 1999. Statistics for 2000 and 2001
have worsened -with the indigenous rate of imprisonment now 14.9 times
the non-indigenous rate on a national basis for the June 2001 Quarter.
Commissioner Jonas states in his Report, 'The lack of concern and urgency
from governments to rectify this situation is distressing. As the Royal
Commission stated, this situation would not be tolerated if it occurred
in the non-Indigenous community.'

Indigenous juveniles
in corrections 42% of the total juvenile detention population

In 2000, Indigenous
juveniles were in juvenile corrections at a rate 15.5 times more than
the non-Indigenous rate, compared to 13 times in 1993. Since 1997, Indigenous
juveniles in corrections have consistently made up approximately 42% of
the total juvenile detention population.

Indigenous female
prisoners increase by 262% between 1991 and 1999

Dr Jonas expresses
great concern about the rise in imprisonment of Indigenous women in the
decade since the Royal Commission. The total number of Indigenous female
prisoners on a national basis increased 262% between 1991 and 1999. This
compares to a rise of 185 % in the total female prisoner population (2002:

The rate imprisonment
for Indigenous women has also nearly doubled between 1991 and 1999 from
104 to 207 per 100,000 population.

At the end of the
June 2001 quarter, Indigenous women were incarcerated at a rate 21 times
that of non-indigenous women. In Western Australia the incarceration rate
was 29.7 times the non-Indigenous rate., while it was 26.3 times the non-Indigenous
rate in New South Wales. In New South Wales, Aboriginal women consistently
constitute between 25-31% of the female prison population at any given
time despite comprising approximately 2% of the state's total female population
Aboriginal women remain largely invisible to policy makers and program
designers with very little attention devoted to their specific situation
and needs. Commissioner Jonas points out 'This is of critical importance,
particularly because of the impact that imprisonment has on Indigenous
families and communities especially through separation of children).'

The Prime Minister's
response to Indigenous incarceration-say nothing, do nothing

On the day of the
launch of the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation,
the Prime Minister stated (2002: 198):

I have received
on behalf of the government . . . the final report of the council. It
contains a number of recommendations. We will consider all of those

The only response
of the Prime Minister to the final report since was in a question on notice
in Parliament on the day that the final report was released (2002: 197).
He expressed his reservations about 'a treaty' as if that was the only
content of the report, and urged us to look at the areas of reconciliation
on which we agree. He did not say what those 'many areas of agreement'
might be.

Of last year's Social
Justice Report, the Attorney-general and Minister for reconciliation and
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (2002: 199), jointly stated:

It is not unexpected
that the Social Justice Report includes a number of criticisms but the
government believes that these add nothing new to the debate about Indigenous
rights and reconciliation in Australia.

Indigenous Australians
do not want new matters raided in debate. We want action from governments,
Federal, State and Territory, and monitoring of developments, so that
an improvement in the catalogue of disastrous conditions that Indigenous
people face might come about.

This Social Justice
Report not only tells us how things are getting worse, but also makes
specific recommendations about how to correct them. I urge all Australians
to read the report and to follow up with their governments to ensure the
implementation of the recommendations on Indigenous imprisonment, especially
in relation to youth and women, and for an inquiry into the progress of

Along with the millions
of Australians who have demonstrated their support for reconciliation
and social justice, I expect action from governments on these matters
of national importance. Dr Jonas' Social Justice Report for 2001 is a
wake up call to Australia. The Federal Government's failure to deal with
the reconciliation issues in good faith is alarming, and deserves full
scrutiny by the Parliament on behalf of Australians.


updated 28 June 2002