Australian Greens Senator Dorinda Cox at Senate estimates in Canberra
Australia's incarceration situation is a "serious emergency", senator Dorinda Cox says. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS
  • indigenous people

Warning over Indigenous custody deaths after voice fail

October 24, 2023

The federal government has been warned not to treat Indigenous deaths in custody as a side issue after the failed voice referendum.

Indigenous Greens senator Dorinda Cox said her community was reeling after a 16-year-old took his life in youth detention in Western Australia.

“A 16-year-old child last week, the first child in West Australian history (to die in youth detention), died in an adult prison,” she said in a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

“Closing the gap targets … are not a side dish in this country – it should be front and centre, it’s the one thing that will save lives in this country.”

The teen was in Unit 18, a standalone youth detention unit within an adult prison south of Perth. He was taken to hospital after he self-harmed and later died.

WA Premier Roger Cook, whose Labor government has faced heavy criticism over its handling of youth justice issues, has admitted the teen was let down.

He said the government was “hamstrung” by infrastructure challenges and staff shortages.

Advocates have demanded the unit’s immediate closure.

Senator Cox urged the government to address the 223 Commonwealth-relevant recommendations from the 1991 royal commission report on Aboriginal deaths in custody.

“We have a serious problem – this child had an intellectual disability, this child should not have been locked down for 22, 23 hours,” she said of the 16-year-old.

NO” is chalked at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra
 Australia is the only former British colony not to recognise Indigenous people in its constitution. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

Labor senator Anthony Chisholm, representing the attorney-general at the Senate hearing, said the first law officer was providing leadership on issues such as raising the age of criminal responsibility and the over-representation of Indigenous children in detention in the hopes of closing the gap.

He noted that the juvenile justice system was a state matter.

Leading ‘yes’ campaigner Thomas Mayo took aim at Australia’s ability to tackle human rights abuses on the global stage, saying the defeat of a constitutionally-enshrined Indigenous advisory body was “embarrassing”.

“It’s hard for Australia to talk about human rights to other countries like China when we … still have such marginalised people and still make decisions about them,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

Australia would have a hard time holding its “chin up” when it was the only former British colony not to recognise Indigenous people in its constitution and hadn’t “closed our colonial chapter yet”, Mr Mayo said.

The prime minister and government needed to move forward to close the disadvantage gap rather than call out racism as a factor of the ‘no’ vote, he said, adding it wouldn’t be helpful.

“There’s a lot of hurt that such a modest proposal was rejected by the Australian people,” he said.

“There is a serious emergency about the situation of incarceration in this country and we are doing nothing.”

Thomas Mayo, -author of The Voice to Parliament Handbook
 The defeat has diminished Australia’s ability to raise human rights issues, Thomas Mayo says. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

The government has said it is waiting to hear feedback from Indigenous people on the next steps forward.

Representatives from the Attorney-General’s Department told a Senate hearing on Tuesday they had not done any policy work on a Makarrata truth-telling commission – another pillar of the Uluru statement, alongside the voice.

General Counsel from the Office of Constitutional Law David Lewis said the department had supported the attorney-general in his role on the constitutional recognition committee and “related processes”, but could not go into detail about cabinet deliberations.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has backed away from his pledge to hold a second referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians following the defeat.

But he has called for an audit of Indigenous program spending and a royal commission into the alleged sexual abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

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