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Patrick Dodson's Senate mandate

  • 15 April 2016


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.

That 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