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Patrick Dodson's Senate mandate



On 15 April 1991, 25 years ago this Friday, Elliott Johnston QC, Patrick Dodson and their fellow commissioners signed off on their final reports for the long running royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Frank Brennan and Patrick DodsonThat commission was set up by the Hawke government at the end of 1987 to investigate 99 Aboriginal deaths that had occurred in custody during the previous ten years.

When tabling the reports in Parliament, Robert Tickner, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, noted that of the 99, 43 had experienced childhood separation from their natural families through intervention by state authorities, missions or other institutions; 83 were unemployed at the date of their last detention; 43 had been charged with an offence at or before the age of 15; and only two had completed secondary schooling.

On Wednesday, Patrick Dodson on the eve of his entry to the Senate representing the Labor Party in Western Australia, addressed the National Press Club setting out very troubling statistics about what has changed and what has remained the same in the last quarter century.

At the time of the royal commission, Indigenous Australians constituted 14 per cent of the prison population; now they are 27 per cent of the prison population. In Western Australia, they are 38 per cent of the adult prison population.

Admittedly the number of Australians identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander has increased similarly in that time. In the 1986 census, there were 227,593 people who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. In the last census (2011), there were 548,370. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates that there are now more than 713,600 Australians who are Indigenous. Having been 1.5 per cent of the population at the time of the royal commission, they are now 3 per cent.

At the very least, we as a nation need to admit that a person who identifies as Indigenous is just as likely to be in jail today as they were at the time of the royal commission — and ten times more likely than the rest of us. In that regard, nothing has changed.


"An Aborigine in custody was no more likely to die in custody than a non-Aborigine in custody, just ten times more likely to be in custody in the first place."


 The royal commission definitely improved the systems for supervision of persons in detention, reducing the risk of deaths in custody. It also led to better coronial procedures. But it failed to reverse Indigenous imprisonment rates and it did little to counter the underlying causes of Indigenous imprisonment.

When Bob Hawke announced the royal commission in 1987, Bob Collins, who was a Northern Territory Labor Senator with an Aboriginal family, made three key points. An Aborigine in custody was no more likely to die in custody than a non-Aborigine in custody. An Aborigine was just ten times more likely to be in custody in the first place, and thus ten times more at risk of dying in custody.

In his maiden speech in the Senate, Collins said, 'The attention paid quite rightly to the deaths of Aboriginals in custody should not overshadow the much more serious problem of the number of premature deaths of Aboriginal people out of custody.'

Collins was convinced that the underlying causes of disproportionate Aboriginal imprisonment had adverse impacts on all Aborigines, especially those in remote communities.

On Wednesday, Dodson suggested one major change which has occurred in the last quarter century. At the time of the royal commission, he saw police as the main problem. Now, he thinks it's the legislators who are the problem — attempting to be overly prescriptive to police and judges.

He pointed to serious issues in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, including mandatory sentencing laws and the NT scheme of paperless arrests which has received the green light from the High Court. Dodson offered a damning assessment of the legal system: 'For the vast bulk of our people the legal system is not a trusted instrument of justice; it is a feared and despised processing plant that propels the most most vulnerable and disabled of our people towards a broken bleak future.' 

He pleaded, 'Surely as a nation we are better than this.'

It is good to see that the Australian Bar Association (the national body representing Australian barristers) has pledged to join a national campaign to amend or remove all mandatory sentencing laws, review fine default imprisonment, and invest in justice reinvestment.

It was distressing but ultimately reassuring to hear Dodson, the Father of Reconciliation and soon to be the nation's most prominent Aboriginal politician, publicly telling his own people: 'We will not be liberated from the tyranny of the criminal justice system unless we also acknowledge the problems in our own communities and take responsibility for the hurt we inflict and cause on each other.


"Having been a royal commissioner all those years ago and having remained engaged with grassroots communities, Dodson was not offering any short term solutions to the underlying causes of Indigenous disadvantage and imprisonment."


'Family violence, substance abuse and neglect of children should not be tolerated as the norm. And those that perpetuate and benefit from the misery caused to our people need to be held accountable.'

Having been a royal commissioner all those years ago and having remained engaged with grassroots communities, he was not offering any short term solutions to the underlying causes of Indigenous disadvantage and imprisonment.

But looking ahead to his role as a senator in light of his recent experience as co-chair of the expert panel on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, he did put out this challenge to his new colleagues in Canberra:

'The Australian parliament needs to be more open to the idea of engaging in a formal way with Indigenous peoples on matters that affect our social, cultural, economic interests, as well as our political status in the nation state.'

He is ready to subject himself to caucus solidarity in the Labor Party and to compromise in the parliament. When asked by The West Australian about the cashless welfare card about to be trialled in the East Kimberley, he told the Press Club: 

'It's an attempt to deal with the set of circumstances at a regional level that people believe that's going to deal with some of the social impacts that are occurring that they find difficult, troubling, concerning. It's been devised by people in that part of the world, under the leadership of people from that part of the Kimberley.

'I think the Labor Party would be open to matters where regional solutions are being worked through, where people's rights aren't necessarily being violated, but where there is a remedy brought about that will enable an improvement to the social circumstances. Sometimes you need some kind of a circuit breaker.'

While continuing to oppose such targeted, discriminatory measures as permanent arrangements, he conceded the need for some temporary arrangements and experiments, provided only they were sought by the local people and implemented with their consent.

This distinguished Aboriginal leader and proud Australian told us all, 'We have a wonderful democracy.' He will be an adornment to the Senate, and he may even help the nation address some of those underlying causes he identified as a royal commissioner a quarter of a century ago.


Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Patrick Dodson



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Existing comments

It's very heartening to see Senator Patrick Dodson take his place in parliament. He brings experience and empathy to his role. Statistics, in relation to Indigenous issues, often tell a story that doesn't seem to change. Moving forward is an imperative. Non-indigenous people need to understand the imbalance of power and the need to relinquish control. That is the way to help build equality. In conversations, the foundation for reconciliation lies in challenging assumptions and recognition that respectful relationships do not seek to control.

Pam | 14 April 2016  

A great addition. Hopefully Mr. Dodson can demonstrate astute political persuasion such that these ground roots and community driven policies span the Australian political divide and provide lasting benefit to our indigenous brothers and sisters and indeed to all Australians.

LPS | 14 April 2016  

Patrick's address at the press club this week was inspirational .He will be a negotiator who will have a positive effect in the senate in not only indigenous affairs but other pressing humanitarian needs . Patrick reminded us that the question of taking responsibility and being accountable for our own actions , especially in family violence, substance abuse and child neglect is a task for indigenous people . There are many of us in society who need to address this need for accountability for our actions. Maybe some circuit breakers Could stop the outbreak in alcohol and drug abuse and violence in the homes and streets of all of us. Services and support to those in need would be a good place to start. Maybe a legacy of a local council in providing housing for people , drug awareness programs , access to case workers etc. may be of more importance than a firework display, or a floating Christmas tree on the bay. It is time for local , state or federal legislators to act with respect, vision and decency as they negotiate for a better way and life for all Australians . Right now they should above al explore ways to cut out excessive indigenous imprisonment. It is a national disgrace

Celia | 14 April 2016  

Crikey, Frank! The increase in the aboriginal population doubling over 25 years must be the greatest population explosion this world has ever seen. Or does it simply mean that you and I are not Australians but Hibernian Celts? Does the maths mean that with doubling of the population, the prison population which has also doubled in the same period is precisely the same as it was 25 years ago. Can't help wondering why Patrick Dodson is running for election to the senate on behalf of the Labor Party which so effectively failed in implementing any changes that improved imprisonment rates for Aborigines. Also can't help wondering why Aborigines insist on ignoring the laws of this country (even though many of the offences are petty) when they do not appear to have any problems in accepting the benefits. There are many non-Aboriginals who also pay little heed to the law and accept all benefits even if to do so demands deliberate deception. They also serve prison sentences if they can't pay the fines - penalties Aborigines ignore almost certainly because of enduring penury despite generous, free monetary benefits paid by those of us who work. There is nothing definitively special about aboriginality when it comes to breaches of the law.

john frawley | 14 April 2016  

Senator Dodson identifies the reason why so many initiatives have failed, and so much money has been wasted. All attempted solutions must be 'sought by the local people and implemented with their consent.'

Alan Hogan | 14 April 2016  

Just a quick comment on another comment - by Mr John Frawley. My Christian namesake seems to have very little Christian compassion in his mindset on past indigenous injustices over the past 2 centuries. These injustices have, in anthropological terms, largely led to the problems that many indigenous people here still find themselves.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 14 April 2016  

John Frawley, well said. And with compassion. As to the cashless welfare card - it may improve things a tad. But it's a band-aid over a suppurating sore. The problem is not so much the cash as it being welfare. It's high time to recognize that the loopy ideas of romantic 1960s commies like Nugget Coombs et al have failed, and that a subsidized welfare-founded settlement is light years from a traditional aboriginal culture which daily dealt with nature red in tooth and claw. These artificial communities must be scrapped now. Those who want to resume the traditional, welfare-free tussle with nature should be free to do so. Those who don't will be most welcome to join the majority of their indigenous brothers and sisters who are flourishing in mainstream Australian society - which on the stats is one of the most prosperous and humane societies in human history. Either way, many of these chronic problems, which have grown notwithstanding billions of dollars in welfare, passionate apologies and endless guilt-ridden breast-beating, will disappear overnight.

HH | 14 April 2016  

Good afternoon John Cronin. Like you I am a Toowoomba boy. ( Even Fr Frank was fortunate to have spent a significant part of his school life there). Perhaps I knew some of your family - I went to school with Cronins. If you were able to outline the details of the injustices for which your mother and father, my mother and father, you and I and our future descendants are responsible, I will make every effort to correct those injustices with compassion. I have tried to help Aboriginal people on many occasions in the past not only as a doctor working in aboriginal communities but also as a volunteer, only to be disillusioned and disappointed by Aboriginal lack of interest and sheer lack of any commitment to help themselves or their children. But If you can help me to understand the problems for which you and I are responsible I will try again.

john frawley | 15 April 2016  

Welcome to the senate I know you will do a great job for your people!!

Elizabeth McAlpine | 15 April 2016  

Well Frank, I guess some of he comments above from respectable God-fearing folk will demonstrate just how far we have yet to go toward a proper settlement with the descendants of the people whose country we invaded, whose land was taken, and whose culture was denigrated.

Ginger Meggs | 20 April 2016  

I would also like to welcome Senator Dodson to Parliament. I sincerely hope he will make a difference. I don’t question why Senator Dodson joined the Labor Party, as I don’t question why Ken Wyatt is a Liberal. I’m sure they chose to join the parties that align more to their own beliefs and I’m sure they want to make positive changes. Sadly, our Indigenous policy failures are bipartisan. Both sides got it wrong. Perhaps the presence of more Indigenous members across all parties will make a difference. It was encouraging to have Senator Dodson talking about accountability and better engagement. He recognises the need to work together. People like me from positions of advantage in the community shouldn’t be making unreasonable demands and presenting ultimatums to Aboriginal people. It doesn’t help. I have very little direct understanding of Aboriginal culture but I have read some of the histories and stories. I’d suggest there is a case to say Australian law has failed Indigenous Australians, not the other way around.

Brett | 20 April 2016  

Aboriginal women and young girls in particular have been massive beneficiaries of Western culture, which arrived with the "invasion" by the British. For a brief glimpse at the absolute terror, violence and degradation on a daily basis they were forced to endure in traditional aboriginal society, see: https://tthomas061.wordpress.com/ It's a disgrace that significant elements of this brutality are permitted to exist to this day in remote communities, with judges passing it off as "traditional" behaviour while far away in safe cities, the Royal Commission into Family Violence, against all the massive evidence of history, mendaciously blames the still extraordinarily high rates of family violence among aboriginals entirely on "invasion".

HH | 22 April 2016  

Next time you quote some article on the web HH, I suggest that you check the qualifications of the author. The one that you have quoted is well known for his far-right position and his ability to be selective in the evidence he presents. But whatever you think on this matter, it must be difficult for either of you to deny that there actually was an invasion, or are you still both stuck in the terra nullius era?

Ginger Meggs | 22 April 2016  

Just a short reply to John Frawley. For MANY years, I laboured under the many superficial "solutions" to many issues of horrendous indigenous disadvantage that the traditional christian churches practised. My personal turning point came after spending some time working during 1981-82 for the Qld DPI at Doomadgee Station. This showed me the pernicious effects of paternalistic "christianity" on indigenous culture & self-respect. This small "c" christianity that the Brethren there, and that most RC indigenous missions also doled out to their inhabitants, was well meaning (as you too undoubtedly are). However, it was woefully inadequate to help these original Australians to adapt and reach their God-given potential. Only the popes like John Paul II & Francis have taught and showed us what genuine CHRISTianity means (for practising RCs) for indigenous people worldwide. I know the current Aussie solutions are mostly a mess - a mess of 200+ years of mainly OUR making. However, we owe no less to these fellow Aussies. They are beautiful people & deserve the best that this nation can do to help them. Having Senator Patrick Dodson will prove to be a great movement forward in redressing historical indigenous injustice.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 26 April 2016  

Ginger Meggs: What difference does it make that there was an 'invasion' (more a political hypothesis than a philosophical conclusion)? Or that there was cruelty to previously alive Aborigines? The people to be compensated are the ones who were hurt. They are now dead. Can their descendants, claim injury by proxy? Are Catholic Irish today still hurt by the Easter Uprising? Yes, terra nullius never happened: there were already Aborigines here. Yes, the British should have bargained with the indigenes on ways in which an economy of enclosed land with identifiable land-owners who could legally exclude strangers (because of the expense the owners had incurred to own and manage this land) could co-exist with a society in which land was gleaned in transit. The notion of psychic injury lingering from the past is similar to the notion subscribed to by one part of the gender debate: if I feel it, it must be true. If you're raised to feel cheated by some historical event, I guess the past will feel real. But, is it?Should we still be trapped by the Easter Uprising or Changi or Sandakan? Should Aborigines still feel trapped by 1788?

Roy Chen Yee | 27 April 2016  

Thanks HH for accepting the fact of invasion. And of course it's not all about 1788 but rather the ongoing frontier conflict that is still going on. Rather than reading Tony Thomas's shallow and selective musings, I suggest that you try to get access to a copy of 'Clean, Clad and Courteous: A History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales' (1989) by JJ Fletcher for a meticulous and scholarly account, by someone who knows his subject from the inside, of the systemic exclusion of Aboriginal children from schools in NSW right through the 20th century including the period when you and I were getting our education.

Ginger Meggs | 28 April 2016  

David Biles, one of Australia’s leading criminologists, makes a lot of sense when discussing indigenous imprisonment rates at http://www.theage.com.au/comment/plenty-of-myths-and-halftruths-about-black-deaths-in-custody-20160429-goimuc.html

Frank Brennan SJ | 02 May 2016  

GM, I'm familiar with at least some of the primary sources on which Tony Thomas is relying. He's not misquoting. If you have evidence that Watkin Tench, Edward Eyre, etc were blatant liars about the treatment of aboriginal women in traditional aboriginal society, please supply. I also note this remark on Thomas' blog...perhaps this chap too is a blatant liar? "Some 60 years ago as a young Engineer in Central Queensland I came across a drover’s camp which had quite a few aboriginal stockmen. There were also a few aboriginal women. It was lunchtime and I was asked by the lead D[r]over to have a cuppa with them – which I gladly accepted. I noted that the aboriginals had their own fire a distance f[ro]m that of the “whites”. I somewhat gingerly asked why the separation. I was told, somewhat abruptly, that was because the aboriginals wanted it that way apparently because they had their women with them. I couldn’t help but notice that the aboriginal men sat around the fire cooking and eating. Behind them were their dogs whom they fed with scraps. Their women were huddled further back from the fire and being completely ignored. I was told that when the men were finished they would wander off and the women moved in to eat whatever scraps were left that the dogs didn’t get to first."

HH | 25 May 2016  

HH, I called nobody a 'liar' nor did I claim that Thomas 'misquoted'. I referred to his work as 'shallow and selective'. . But if you are looking for examples of the maltreatment of women by men, rather than looking for support for a racist argument (how often does Thomas quote evidence contrary to his long-held and ingrained point of view - remember his formative years in WA), and then weigh the conflicting evidence objectively?), then you don't need to look far back in world history, or even European history, to find plenty of examples. Think Europeans on the frontier (any frontier), Japanese in China, victorious armies of almost any culture (including ours), Australian men in their own homes.... The are all gender issues, that need to be addressed as such.

Ginger Meggs | 26 May 2016  

G.M. To the charge that aboriginal women were brutally oppressed in traditional society you answer that women are/were also oppressed in other cultures. How is that relevant, unless you're implying that, relatively speaking, aboriginal women had it good? If you're indeed making the claim that women in families of Western European/British extraction today in Australia are routinely treated as badly or worse than women in traditional aboriginal society routinely were, I say: evidence, please, from authoritative sources.

HH | 26 May 2016  

Once again HH you seek to change the subject by insinuating that I said something that I clearly didn't. I referred to Thomas's work as 'shallow and selective' because I believe that, in general, he picks and chooses his quotes and sources to suit his preconceived opinion, that he avoids quoting evidence to the contrary, and that he does not interrogate his sources. He is, I suggest, a polemicist, not a serious seeker after truth. A serious historian or investigative journalist would look at all the evidence, ask what it said about the source as well as what was said by the source, and then draw conclusions. Granted Thomas writes in an engaging style. He has a barrow to push and he pushes very well. But it's still a barrow.

Ginger Meggs | 26 May 2016  

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