The Royal Commission, ten years on: Black deaths, white heat
by Peter Mac Ten years ago the Royal Commission into the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody released its final report. The work of the Commission, one of the most comprehensive and detailed inquiries in Australia's history, cost millions of dollars and took four years to complete. The report revealed a shocking state of affairs in Australia's jails and produced shock waves within Australia and around the world. The shock waves were repeated in 1997, with the release of the report into the generations of stolen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The two inquiries galvanised the Australian community as a whole and led to last year's magnificent nation-wide marches for reconciliation. But ten years down the track from the Royal Commission there has been little or no progress. According to Geoff Clark, Chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the number of deaths of Aboriginal people in police cells has fallen slightly, but the percentage dying in custody has remained much the same. The Royal Commission found that Aboriginal people were no more likely to commit crimes than other people, but that they were much more likely to be arrested for trivial offences and to be jailed rather than cautioned. The percentage being imprisoned, compared to the percentage of Aboriginal people in the community, remains disproportionately high and has actually risen. The life expectancy of Aboriginal people is now 20 years less than for the rest of the community. The unemployment rate has risen to 50 percent, excluding those enrolled in the "work-for-the-dole" scheme. Fifty percent of Aboriginal incomes now fall below the poverty line. Tragically, despite the recent attention paid to the Stolen Generations, the number of Aboriginal children imprisoned or placed in state care has risen. Since 1991 many Aboriginal leaders have maintained that the 1991 Inquiry's recommendation of self-determination for Aboriginal people should be implemented. But State and Federal Governments consistently reject this approach and use the statements of ATSIC leaders concerning the "welfare trap" to promote the idea that Aboriginal people should just "get off welfare" altogether. However, no schemes that provide regular work and the possibility of living normal lives with housing, education and health services are proposed. The Victorian Government is about to introduce laws against racial vilification "which affect many groups as well as Indigenous people", but all States have been slow to implement such legislation. The Commission recommended the use of alternate sentencing regimes in dealing with Aboriginal people charged with offences, with jail as a last resort. In WA and the NT, however, such approaches have been arrogantly dismissed in favour of mandatory sentencing, with tragic consequences for Aboriginal people. Referring to non-indigenous Australians who marched for reconciliation, Geoff Clark commented that: "Their attention and their support — their white heat, if you like — must be harnessed to point the way to an acceptance by our national government of self-determination. "We want a commitment from government that practices which discriminate against our people will be eradicated from their justice systems, their education systems and their welfare regimes. "We want the resources to enable communities to find ways out of the welfare traps they are caught in. We expect to be central to government decision-making, not to be kept on the margins. "I challenge all of our political leaders to show the courage required to ensure the Royal Commission recommendations are implemented in full", said Geoff Clark.