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Leading Indigenous academic calls on governments not to ignore protesters


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Leading Indigenous academic calls on governments not to ignore protesters

One of Australia’s most eminent Indigenous academics is calling out systemic inaction on Indigenous deaths in custody, using her Queen’s Birthday honour to call for urgent action.Key points:Indigenous leaders are calling for policy change in the wake of Black Lives Matter ralliesQueen’s honour recipient Marcia Langton decried the lack of convictions of police over Aboriginal…

Leading Indigenous academic calls on governments not to ignore protesters

One of Australia’s most eminent Indigenous academics is calling out systemic inaction on Indigenous deaths in custody, using her Queen’s Birthday honour to call for urgent action.

Key points:

  • Indigenous leaders are calling for policy change in the wake of Black Lives Matter rallies
  • Queen’s honour recipient Marcia Langton decried the lack of convictions of police over Aboriginal deaths
  • More than 400 Aboriginal people have died in custody since a 1991 royal commission report found death rates were unacceptable

Following a series of Black Lives Matter rallies around the country, much of the public debate has centred on whether protesters should have been there at all due to health concerns, with little discussion around justice reforms.

Professor Marcia Langton was recognised in this weekend’s awards and used the opportunity to call for more to be done to combat racism and ignorance in Australia.

“I would have thought it’s pretty straightforward. Do not kill Aborigines,” she said.

Almost three decades ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found that Indigenous Australians were dying at rates that were not acceptable and that too many Indigenous Australians were coming into contact with the justice system.

Marcia Langton speaks at a lectern with a laptop open in front of her. She is wearing a green top

Marcia Langton was recognised for her decades-long career as an educator and advocate.(ABC News: Tim Leslie)

Since the royal commission’s final report in 1991, more than 400 Aboriginal people have died in prison and the Indigenous incarceration rate is double what it was 30 years ago.

Professor Langton said she felt some of the deaths should have resulted in criminal charges.

“There have been no convictions — no convictions — of any police officer ever for killing (or assaulting) Aboriginal people,” Professor Langton said.

In Australia, there have been convictions for police officers for assault, but none for deaths in custody. 

Earlier this year, a coronial inquest found police may have committed an indictable offence by failing to adequately check on Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who died after she was taken into custody in 2017.

“Here in Victoria, there is no acknowledgement of this problem by the politicians and no effort to re-train the police force to stop them from killing us,” Professor Langton said.

Leaders are hopeful the large numbers of people rallying will lead to change.

Crowds gather in Brisbane for a Black Lives Matter protest.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

Professor Langton was celebrated in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her decades of work as an anthropologist, educator, prominent advocate and revered community leader.

“I believe we’re all one species and we all have the same potentialities,” she said.

“There are people who don’t believe that and they actually threaten our society, they threaten our democracy, they threaten our health — racism has an enormous impact on one’s health.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt acknowledged there was more the Government could do to address Aboriginal deaths in custody but said the responsibility for incarceration rates rested largely with the states.

“I certainly will make every endeavour with my agency and with the relevant state and territory ministers to look at what we can collectively do.” Mr Wyatt said.

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“The trouble is that jails are in all reality managed by states and territory jurisdiction, but collectively as leaders there are things that we need to revisit and consider and that would include looking at the triage process for Aboriginal people presenting in hospitals whilst they are in custody.”

On social media, Mr Wyatt defended the Federal Government’s record, citing the findings of a review of the implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations, conducted by Deloitte in October 2018.

“Seventy-eight per cent of the 339 recommendations have been fully or mostly implemented; 16 per cent partially implemented; and 6 per cent not implemented,” he tweeted in a seven-part thread on the issue.

“Around 90 per cent of recommendations relating to the safety of Indigenous Australians taken into custody have been fully or mostly implemented.”

Mr Wyatt said the Federal Government had “fully or mostly implemented 91 per cent of recommendations” for which it had responsibility.

But the Deloitte review was limited to looking at whether actions had been taken on the recommendations, not what outcomes those actions achieved, and was criticised by many academics.

It also concluded that “while there have been positive steps, it is clear that further work is still required to successfully address the disproportionately high, and growing, rates of incarceration among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

‘Complete silence’ on law reform

Prominent human rights lawyer Hannah McGlade joined calls for urgent state and commonwealth action following the unprecedented turnout at rallies this weekend.

“The momentum and the groundswell have been so strong, as shown by these rallies, but I really hope that this is going to be a turning point for Australia because we can’t have reconciliation without human rights being respected,” she said.

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Stan Grant says he doubts substantial political change will come from the widespread protests.

Dr McGlade was an advisory member to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) of Inquiry into Indigenous Incarceration and said the report tabled to Parliament in March 2018 had been ignored.

“One of the key recommendations being that states and territories should establish the Aboriginal justice advisory committees,” she said.

“We are seeing mass incarceration of Indigenous people. It is a pretty simple response that governments could implement. We’re not seeing that at all.”

She called for funding for new prison facilities to be diverted to crime prevention programs.

“Here is a new super-max prison built in Western Australia to house all the Aboriginal men, women and children,” she said.

“There has been ample evidence to the Australian Government that Aboriginal people need culturally informed healing-based programs, that discrimination is rife, including in the police force.”

Dr McGlade said she hoped the turnout of Australians on the weekend would lead to policy change.

Professor Langton said Australia should not import all the elements of America’s struggle, as we had a strong reconciliation movement which was working towards educating the larger population.

“I think the genuine commitment of ordinary Australians to getting past the old way of doing things, makes us very different from America,” she said.

“I would say 50 to 60 per cent of Australians, from the polls that I’ve seen, just want everybody to stop being racist, be nice to each other and get on with it.”

Walking Together is taking a look at our nation’s reconciliation journey, where we’ve been and asks the question — where do we go next?

Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia’s First People.

Editor’s note 09/06/20: This story was amended to add context surrounding the convictions of police officers for assaults on Indigenous people in custody.

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