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Uluru Statement

Thank you, Madam Speaker. Paragraph 1(i) of this motion draws attention to the need ‘to create better outcomes for all Australians’, including ‘closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’. There is not one member of this Assembly who would disagree with the importance of this. I know that members of the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community certainly wouldn’t. The gap here in the nation’s capital is very real.

Tragically, it also begins very early. As measured by the Closing the Gap Information Repository, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who are born healthy and strong in Canberra is not improving.[1] And the latest Australian Early Development Census found that Canberra has the nation’s second lowest rate of Indigenous children who are on track across all five domains – only 27.3 per cent.[2]

And the figures get much worse if I look at my shadow portfolio of corrections. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest ‘Prisoners in Australia’ report reveals that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men in the ACT are imprisoned at a rate 19.6 times greater than non-Indigenous males, 17.5 times greater if age-standardised data are used.[3] Both measurements are the worst rate ratio of any Australian state or territory.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the ACT are imprisoned at a rate 47.4 times greater than non-Indigenous women. Please note that I did not just say, ’47.4 per cent’.[4] No, it is actually 47.4 times greater! Similar to the situation for men, this is Australia’s worst rate ratio, coming in at more than double the national average.

And although the imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has increased across the entire nation over the past decade, it has increased faster here in Canberra than anywhere else. Admissions of First Nations people into the ACT’s prison have surged by an average of 5.7 per cent each year.

According to more data from the ABS, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recidivism rate here is likewise the nation’s most dismal. Fully 94 per cent of Indigenous detainees at the Alexander Maconochie Centre have a prior conviction. This Labor-Greens government is good at locking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people up, but it then fails to provide the supports and services they need to succeed once they are released. Detainees in our prison had no access to structured education for approximately two years. Employment opportunities continue to be very limited, as does access to computers and higher education. The promised reintegration centre still has not been funded. Years after it was created, the transitional release centre has not been used to its full potential. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

A thorough investigation of the situation could make the actual situation much clearer. This is one reason why, since July 2020, local Aboriginal community leaders have been asking the ACT Government for a fully independent board of inquiry into the territory’s justice and corrections systems. From July 2020 till now, those opposite have failed to grant this unanimous and persistent request.

As I pointed out in last week’s appropriations debate, this response shines a light on the priorities of ACT Labor and the Greens. The inquiry into the handling of the Bruce Lehrmann case was announced last December, and by February this year the government had provided $4.3 million to fund it. If the inquiry into the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system were on this government’s agenda, it would have been completed by now.

Clearly, this is not on the agenda … and it is not hard to understand why. As I have mentioned before, in preparation for a meeting with Aboriginal community leaders in 2020 to discuss this matter, Minister Stephen-Smith asked the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to provide some guidance to the Justice and Community Safety Directorate. As revealed through a freedom-of-information request, the first piece of advice was, and I quote, ‘The meeting needs to have modest goals for what will be achieved by Government’. In other words, don’t get anybody’s hopes up that this government will do anything meaningful to address their concerns.

This approach stands in stark contrast to something else that this motion calls on members of the Assembly to note. Paragraph 1(j) boldly states that, quote, ‘the voices of First Nations people will be heard, and [– importantly! –] the Government will have a responsibility to listen and act’. I can assure those opposite, including the many Labor and Greens MLAs who are jointly moving this motion, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Canberrans would be thrilled if they had a local government that listened to them and then took action, as this paragraph promises. The bitter reality is that they don’t.

There is perhaps no better evidence of this government’s blatant disregard for the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than its agonisingly slow response to the Our Booris, Our Way review into the territory’s child protection system. As I pointed out just last week, the all-Indigenous steering committee first met in February 2018, and by August that same year it delivered four early recommendations. In doing so, the committee asked the Labor-Greens government to implement those four recommendations ‘immediately’[5] ‘to accelerate improvements to the child protection system so that the community may see change during the Review’.[6]

That was five years ago. As reported in the update tabled in May 2023, not one of those first four recommendations has been fully implemented, according to the Implementation Oversight Committee. In fact, the committee accepts that only two of the 36 recommendations have been completed, with one more that has moved to the monitoring stage.[7]

Things may finally be starting to improve, according to the committee’s chair, but that improvement is relative to a very low starting point. Instead of working cooperatively with a government that is responsible to listen and to act, the committee has instead faced what the chair described as, quote, ‘ferocious indifference when it came to a commitment to action to implement recommendations’. The chair has also noted that, quote, ‘throughout the review many attempts were made to diminish our voices and our decisions’.[8]

A pattern of irresponsible indifference can be seen in how the ACT Government treated the 2009 ‘We Don’t Shoot Our Wounded’ report. Produced by the Victim of Crimes Coordinator in collaboration with the local Indigenous community, this report makes 12 recommendations to protect and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children, and young people who experience domestic violence. The government completely ignored this report for ten years until the minister was forced to acknowledge it and apologise.

I stand today to call on this territory’s government to start acting like the responsible government idealistically depicted in paragraph 1(j) of this motion. Words are cheap. Indigenous Australians in this territory need far better outcomes, not the ‘ferocious indifference’ they have been getting from ACT Labor and the Greens. Thank you.

[1] Productivity Commission, ‘Closing the Gap: Annual Data Compilation Report’, July 2023, p. 46. [2] Australian Early Development Census, ‘2021 Results for the ACT’, p. 17. [3] ABS, ‘Prisoners in Australia’, 2022, Table 17. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] Our Booris, Our Way Steering Committee, ‘Our Booris Our Way Interim Report’, Aug. 2018, p. 3, emphasis added. [7] ACT Government, ‘Our Booris Our Way Review, Six-monthly Update: July – December 2022’, May 2023, pp. 21, 35, and 39. [8] Ibid., p. 7.


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