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Yes we can achieve justice for Indigenous Australians

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© AAP Justice for Mr WardThe Edmund Rice Institute for Social Justice, Fremantle, has called for a large ex-gratia payment to the family of Mr Ward. The 46-year-old Aboriginal elder and cultural leader died on 27 January 2008 while being transported from Laverton to Kalgoorlie, in the back of a privatised prison van. His first name cannot be revealed for cultural reasons.

The report of Coroner Alistair Hope was published on 12 June this year. It concluded that Ward died of heatstroke, and that the WA Department of Corrective Services, the prison transport company GSL (now G4S) and the two drivers were jointly to blame. The coroner said Ward's treatment was inhumane, and a breach of international laws to which Australia is a signatory.

In a statement issued after the Coroner's report, Edmund Rice Institute director David Freeman said the report confirmed fears that this is 'one of the worst human rights tragedies in Australian living memory'.

Aside from the ex-gratia payment, the Institute also urged a complete rethink of the community’s engagement with Aboriginal persons. David Freeman outlined ten points of concern in a statement issued after the coroner's findings. These include a factor that is rarely alluded to, which is that Aboriginal Australians frequently suffer in silence, and therefore much of the suffering goes unnoticed.

'Our society’s de facto expectation [is] that if we don’t hear a peep from Aboriginal people — even when we make it impossible for them to communicate with us — there is no cause for concern.'

He suggested that Aboriginal prisoners deserve a greater duty of care, given the well-known 17-year longevity gap. Mr Ward was only 46 years old, but was regarded as an 'elder' — 46 is effectively 63 years old in non-Aboriginal terms.

David Freeman contacted Eureka Street recently to tell us that there has been little action since the handing down of the Coroner's report on 12 June. Most recently, the WA Department of Corrective Services has talked of terminating the contract of the security firm, when the Department itself was found to share the blame.

Another way forward is evident in a recent speech delivered by Governor-General Quentin Bryce at the Second National Indigenous Courts Conference in Rockhampton. It would seem to address David Freeman's call for a rethink of community engagement with Aboriginal persons. There are various Indigenous Courts in different states, including the Aboriginal Community Court in WA and the Murri Court in Queensland.

The Governor-General spoke of her visit to the Murri Court in Rockhampton, not long after it was established in 2003:

'I sensed the extraordinary power of a court calibrated to Indigenous belonging; the Elders' endeavours in keeping people out of jail, creating bridges of trust, building and supporting communities ...

'I had a deep and abiding respect for the Law; its capacity to enshrine and protect human dignity, to uphold our highest ideals of equality and justice. Yet here in the Murri court I found something different. Beyond the sacredness of Law, a rich and compassionate wisdom shining through the faces of the Elders.'

It is certainly too late for Mr Ward. But in her own quiet way, the Governor-General is uttering what has become the ubiquitous 'yes we can' cry of this moment in history, and it could mean Indigenous Australians enjoy an access to justice that compares with the rest of the population.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: death in custody, Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, Freeman, Quentin Bryce, indigenous health, close the gap



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Existing comments

Mr Ward suffered and the full force of the law should ensure that no-one should be treated in this way.
However to specifically relate this as a racial issue is absurd. It seems to me that the biggest problem the aboriginal community has is the 'aboriginal índustry' - the community of bureacrats, welfare organisations and others who benefit in some way by the actions designed to assist our aboriginal citizens. Over the years this group has achieved almost nothing other than their own self satisfaction.

Perhaps Eureka Street might direct some of its editorial comments towards removing these parasites and seek a system that really does provide answers other than the tokenism of the likes of 'sorry days', non-existant 'lost generations' or attempts, such as this, at generating guilt.

Peritech | 21 August 2009  

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