Thirty years on, I sense the same storm brewing around Aboriginal deaths in custody

Pat Dodson
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

When a 28-year-old Aboriginal man hanged himself in the Brewarrina police cells on 6 August 1987, his family and the Aboriginal community (at least half the population of the town) blamed foul play by the police, and violent protests erupted. For prime minister Bob Hawke, it was “the one death too many” that led to his establishing in October 1987 the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (RCIADIC). As Commissioner Hal Wootten QC would finally report, Aboriginal suspicions that the Brewarrina man was killed by police were “not unreasonable or unnatural”; such suspicions were “voiced all over Australia.”

I was the only non-lawyer on the royal commission (the other five commissioners were distinguished lawyers) and it was my job to inquire into why Aboriginal people were being taken into custody in Western Australia in the first place, and the factors that pertained to their deaths. Of the 99 deaths across the country between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989 that the commission examined, 32 (29 males, three females) occurred in Western Australia, where suspicion and distrust ran particularly deep between Aboriginal people and the agencies of police and prisons.

When I was appointed to the royal commission in July 1989, it had already been decided to establish Aboriginal Issues Units in all states and territories. I recruited the late Rob Riley, a Noongar man, to lead the WA unit. He had worked for the WA Aboriginal Legal Service and was a former chair of the National Aboriginal Conference. His co-workers were Darryl Kickett, another Noongar man, and Jackie Oakley; from Broome (where I chose to be based) I recruited Paul Lane and fellow Yawuru countryman, Peter Yu, now vice-president (First Nations) at Australian National University.

Our work was demanding. It fell to the staff in the Aboriginal Issues Unit to liaise with Aboriginal communities across the state and lay the ground for the commission’s hearings. Working days were long, travel was extensive. We visited prisons and lockups and heard directly from Aboriginal people about their interactions with the criminal justice system. It was depressing and confronting work for 18 months, and only later did I appreciate the mental and emotional toll that our small team endured. I now believe that the repetitive exposure to entrenched racism rekindled painful memories of the traumas that Rob suffered at Sister Kate’s Children’s Home in Perth and contribute to his tragic death on 30 April 1996, age 41.

Related: ‘I want to break that cycle’: the relatives still fighting for justice over deaths in custody

My report for the commission identified family disruption as a common background of those who died in custody: “… each individual who died was exposed to some degree of mission/welfare interference at a primary or secondary level which … resulted in family disruption.”

Police and prison personnel in WA were most wary of our inquiry, and extracting official information, even with all the powers of a royal commission, was often frustrating. John Quigley was legal counsel for police and prison officers and our encounters were always lively (his representation helped him win a life membership of the police union, but he was stripped of that in 2007 after he was elected to parliament and criticised police – he is now the WA attorney general).

In November 1990 I delivered my report (more than 1,000 pages) to Elliott Johnston QC, who by then was heading up the royal commission. In the opening chapter, I wrote: “… I can only conclude that the majority of Aboriginal people in this state remain not only in a destabilised and powerless situation compared to the dominant non-Aboriginal population, but also in a position where their powerlessness remains remarkably unrecognised.” Aboriginal people needed to have control of certain process and resources to direct and manage their legal, social, cultural and economic affairs.

Thirty years on, as the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody over that time approaches the 500 mark, I sense that the same sort of storm of suspicion and accusation is gathering as that which precipitated the royal commission in 1987. Political resolve has been lacking, and the Morrison government’s response to growing concerns about the recent cluster of deaths has been quite desultory.

Demonstrators demand an end to frequent Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia at a protest in Melbourne.
Demonstrators demand an end to frequent Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia at a protest in Melbourne. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

In spite of what I’ve called “this festering crisis”, the government relies on a review by Deloitte Access Economics in 2018 to declare that of the royal commission’s 339 recommendations, “91% have been fully or mostly implemented”. That’s what Senator Amanda Stoker, assistant minister to the attorney general, asserted at an estimates hearing on 26 March. She was wrong on two counts: firstly, the Deloitte review put the figure at 78%; secondly, and more seriously, a subsequent assessment by 32 respected academics found that the Deloitte review was deeply flawed: very few of the recommendations have in fact been implemented and some government policies directly contravene them.

Much thought and insight went into those recommendations and, if they had been acted on and diligently monitored, we would not now be facing another crisis and further loss of faith by First Nations people in the criminal justice system. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic) was in existence when the royal commission reported. It was not responsible for implementing the recommendations, but it did have an oversight role. Since the Howard government’s brutal abolition of Atsic in 2005, the oversight responsibilities of the commonwealth government have dissipated and withered. It’s clear to me, after budget estimates hearings last month, that we are back to the blame game between the commonwealth and the states and territories.

All governments have failed to address the commission’s fundamental conclusion that so many Aboriginal people were dying in police and prison custody because too many were being locked up in the first place. The situation is even much worse today. The royal commission was a commonwealth initiative: it’s for the commonwealth to ensure the commission’s recommendations are effected.

  • Pat Dodson is a Labor senator for Western Australia