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Issue #1911      April 20, 2020


Tanya Day’s family members say their lives will never be the same. (ABC News: Nicole Asher)

On 9th April 2020, Coroner English’s findings on the inquest into Tanya Day’s death were streamed online. Tanya Day died in December 2017 after she had sustained a severe injury from a fall while in police custody. She had been arrested for public drunkenness in Castlemaine after falling asleep on a V/Line carriage travelling to Melbourne. The inquest into her death has historical significance as the first coronal inquest into the effects of racism on an Aboriginal death in custody. This was only possible through the tireless campaigning by Day’s family who maintained that a criminal offence had occurred, that racism led to Day’s death, and that the police should not be investigating crimes they commit. Significant outcomes of the finding are:

A referral to the Director of Public Persecutions to investigate whether the indictable crime of negligent manslaughter had occurred.

For recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991 be implemented, including the abolition of the offence of public drunkenness that led to Tanya Day’s death.

For the Coroner’s Act be revised to give more control over inquest investigations to coroners, rather than have police investigating themselves.

Racism did not influence police handling of Day’s custody.

While it is good news that the officers in charge of Day’s custody are to be investigated for their crimes, it is disappointing, but not surprising, that racism was not found to have lead to Day’s death.

On the same day as Day’s arrest, another woman was picked up by the cops in Castlemaine for being drunk. However, this white woman was merely driven home. The police’s defence for choosing to arrest Day, when compared to driving another woman home, was that Tanya Day did not have a home to go to in Castlemaine since she was travelling. However, the police are very aware that there are safer places than a police cell for someone who is intoxicated.

Tanya Day had a blood alcohol level of 0.33 percent when she was arrested, and so she should never have been taken to a police cell, but rather to a hospital. The police officers did not complete the proper risk assessments and did not assess Day’s risk of falling. Day’s injury occurred within less than an hour of her being in the cell and went unnoticed by the officer on duty until approximately three hours later. Rather than performing the job correctly, the officer was checking Day’s conditions only by briefly looking through her cell window.

The cops’ excuses were that the Victorian Police Manual is just a “guideline” and that they would prefer to leave a drunk person alone to “sleep it off,” rather than properly supervising them, talking to them, etc. This is a rubbish excuse as everyone knows that heavily intoxicated people must always be watched. The contradicting logic of the cops is this: Tanya Day was too drunk to talk to or supervise, but she was also not drunk enough to be taken to the hospital or for the proper risk assessments to be performed.

The coroner did admit that she found racism to have influenced the decision of the conductor on her V/Line carriage. This is because it was the first time the conductor had ever chosen to call the police on a sleeping passenger, even though he comes across sleeping passengers three times a week. The situation, therefore, would have been avoided if the conductor had instead called the ambulance. The actions of the conductor are a reminder that it is unsafe to call cops into the community and should only be done as a last resort.

Interestingly, the conductor was found to have been influenced by racism for calling the cops, but not the cops who outright did not perform their safety obligations or exercise their duty of care for Day. The cops’ decision to throw her in a cell, rather than take her to a hospital was clearly influenced by her Aboriginality, especially when contrasted with the actions of Castlemaine police on that same day in driving a drunk white woman home. Perhaps the blaming racism on the conductor was a diversion from the police’s inherent, systemic racism.

Day’s family said that although they were happy that the coroner found the conductor was influenced by racism, they were “disappointed” that the cops weren’t found to have been “influenced by systemic racism.” They maintained that Day would still be alive if she were not Indigenous or if recommendations from the Royal Commission in 1991 had been implemented almost thirty years ago. In the family’s statement they also acknowledge that the findings mark the “beginning of justice for [their] mum.”


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