Hawke Cabinet decision on deaths in custody

Gerry Georgatos - Australians did not have to wait for the National Archives of Australia to release Cabinet papers (for 1987) to find out more about why the Government of Prime Minister Bob Hawke brought on what would become the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. There is nothing in the Cabinet documents that has not been widely known since Prime Minister Hawke moved on the dissent from the rising deaths in custody toll.

It has long been known Prime Minister Hawke had only intended for a short term inquiry into some of the deaths in custody. But what happened was that in 1987 there was one death in custody after another, and this tragedy catalysed the call for more to be done. It had been building up for a number of years, especially since the death of young John Pat (16 years old) in Western Australia’s Roebourne. Till his death many Australians had never heard of Roebourne, an impoverished dusty Pilbara town with a population of less than 1,000 – mostly Yindjibarndi people.

Four off-duty inebriated police officers and an off-duty police aide fought viciously with Yindjibarndi youth, for no good reason. Young John Pat came to the aid of his friend Ashley James, trying to pull him out of the melee but one of the police officers launched into John Pat, killing him. John Pat's injuries were horrific.

In an abhorrent decision, the four police officers and the police aide were acquitted by an all-white jury. Last September, 30 years after the death of John, the West Australian Government unanimously upheld a motion of apology to the Pat family. However, there is no financial restitution at this time to compensate at least the torn lives of the family members – nothing can console the loss of a son and of a brother.

Roebourne became to Western Australia what two decades earlier Birmingham had become to Alabama.

In 1987, a year shy from the fast-approaching Australian bicentenary celebrations, the Hawke Government was faced with a continuum of complaints from Aboriginal groups and organisations, from families of death in custody victims who were now being supported by a rise of organised groups. The political landscape included a significant rise in the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander voice, the peak of the call for Treaty, Yothu Yindi was all the rage, and the rise of land rights with Wik and Mabo around the corner.

The National Committee to Defend Black Rights was growing in stature, and communities and groups coalesced around it. A pressure point was achieved when the Committee presented a submission to the United Nations in July 1987. This attracted national attention because significant international attention had been attracted – and with the majority of the world’s governments sanctioning apartheid South Africa, the Australian Government had to do something fast. It was only weeks later that Cabinet would decide on a royal commission.

The United Nations and the world’s media all of sudden heard of 16 year old John Pat killed at the hands of an inebriated police officer. The light shone on Australia, and on Australia’s own apartheid and its racism were there for all to judge.

Something had to be done about Aboriginal deaths in custody now that the light was being shone – and brightly so - now that the national consciousness was hearing, seeing, learning about the disproportionate rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The Cabinet papers from 1987 suggest that Prime Minister Hawke had hoped that a royal commission could deal with this in less than six months, and come back with some recommendations early in the new year – the Bicentennial year. But the Australian public have always known that Prime Minister Hawke had intended this, he had publicly said this at the time.

The Cabinet papers show that on August 11, 1987, Prime Minister Hawke’s Cabinet made a spurious decision, without any submissions from any quarter, to initiate a royal commission. Public opinion had cornered the Australian Government.

In the days leading up to the Cabinet decision to launch the royal commission Lloyd Boney was found hanging in a Brewarinna (NSW) police cell – the 16th Aboriginal death in custody that year.

The Cabinet had decided to investigate only the custodial deaths since January 1, 1980. It had intended for a smaller number of deaths to be investigated than the 99 that were ultimately examined. Cabinet had also hoped that State and Territory ministers could coalesce and examine ways forward in the interim as to how to reduce the high number of deaths in custody.

But the royal commission took on its own form independent from Government and went on for nearly five years – finishing up in April 1991 with a five-volume report and 339 recommendations; with the Australian Government accepting 338 of the recommendations. But to this today the majority of the recommendations have never been implemented, and with most reviews suggesting that less than 25 per cent of the recommendations (or in terms of their full weight) have been implemented.

But the Government set aside $400 million for the implementation of the recommendations, but much of this money was eventually used by the Keating and particularly the Howard Governments for other purposes. The royal commission had cost $40 million. The Royal Commission – a Commonwealth one – was complemented by a suite of State and Territory inquiries.

Cabinet had intended for a smaller number of deaths in custody to be investigated than were ultimately examined, but so too had the royal commission at its commencement. The royal commission started out with 44 cases but more than 130 cases were submitted to them and they settled on 99 cases for examination.

The royal commission concluded that the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration was predominately responsible for the disproportionate rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody. But as a PhD researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody, and with my academic work in the study of racism, I beg to differ. By the end of the royal commission one in seven of all Australian prisoners were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. However today they are more than one in four and fast approaching one in three. By 2020 they will be one in two. Their deaths had more to do with historical and contemporary racism, impoverishment and disenfranchisement, social and cultural attitudes and institutional attitudes to Aboriginal peoples.

Australia imprisons its Aboriginal adult males at rising rates, and at the world’s highest rates – from a racial perspective – and Australia’s Aboriginal women are being imprisoned at higher rates and numbers than ever before. The racism has not desisted – the racism continues, racism by neglect, racism by censorship, racism by omission, racism by diminution, racism by abject poverty (third-world poverty in a first-word nation), racism by hate.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that Aboriginal people are imprisoned at 15 times the rate of the rest of the population, even though Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples are only 2.6 per cent of the total national population. The raw totals of Aboriginal deaths in custody during each of the last two decades are higher than the number of deaths in custody during the 1980s - the decade of death that led to the call for the royal commission.

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Deaths in custody, when will something be done?
Deaths in custody, few are listening
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