“ The trend will inevitably continue unless there is decisive intervention now” and it considered measures costing $570 million across five years to address “the underlying causes, including lack of employment opportunity, a low level of economic development, inadequate education, welfare dependency, appalling health and cultural deprivation”.
Too many face a bleak future as a result of poor living conditions, locational disadvantage and discrimination, substance abuse and lack of opportunity for constructive activity as major causes of Aboriginal young people’s conflict with the law and justice systems”.
From the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, delivered in 1991 after four years of work, was described in a March 1992 cabinet briefing as “the most searching analysis of Aboriginal society ever undertaken and one of the most significant social documents of contemporary Australia”.
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The commission inquired into 99 deaths, the circumstances that gave rise to them and their underlying causes, and came back with 339 recommendations, two-thirds about changes needed across the criminal justice system.
The urgency was underscored by the 25 deaths since the report was concluded, and a 25 per cent increase in indigenous imprisonment rates over four years.
The centrepiece was an expansion of the federal Community Development Employment Projects scheme, which “provides not only employment but a basis for communities’ economic and social development. Its emphasis on self- management and self-reliance provides hope and boosts morale for communities that have little or no access to the labour market”.
The government’s comprehensive response to the commission was to be tailored to youth, with more than 40 per cent of all indigenous Australians aged under 15, and 50 per cent younger than 20.
“Too many face a bleak future as a result of poor living conditions, locational disadvantage and discrimination,” cabinet was told, with the commission identifying “substance abuse and lack of opportunity for constructive activity as major causes of Aboriginal young people’s conflict with the law and justice systems”.
Indigenous affairs minister Robert Tickner — also then minister assisting the prime minister for Aboriginal reconciliation — and Brian Howe, assistant social justice minister, also sought funding for land acquisition.
This was the hardest element of the package to sell and was eventually ruled out in the $400m deal that was struck — although Mr Tickner says now that it was not the key element and came to fruition in a different way with the passage the following year of the Native Title Act.
The Departments of Finance and Treasury objected to the proposal.
Australia’s longest-serving indigenous affairs minister has called for Malcolm Turnbull to seize control of a moribund relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, describing the state of indigenous disadvantage as “truly a national embarrassment of successive governments”.
Robert Tickner, who held the portfolio for six years in the Hawke and Keating governments and was instrumental in both the 1992 response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the 1993 native title legislation following the High Court’s Mabo ruling, said the matter was “not a job for an indigenous affairs minister”.
Instead it must be tackled, he said, by “a prime minister who can command the authority of the
nation and his own agencies to engender a whole-of- government response”.
Mr Tickner called on the Prime Minister to establish an immediate audit of any progress on the royal commission’s 339 recommendations, which he said “overwhelmingly … have not been implemented, either by the national government or by successive state and territory governments; worse still, governments of all political persuasions (have) covered up that failure”.
He said Mr Turnbull should use the 50th anniversary of the referendum which gave the Commonwealth power in indigenous affairs, on May 27, to “capture the moment … to announce major policy commitments to address these issues”.
“I desperately hope he seizes the moment on this … but he needs to do so in a way that enjoys strong support from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as well as the opposition, as the
referendum did almost 50 years ago,” he said, in remarks unveiling select cabinet papers from the 1992-93 Keating government.
“Keating did it on Mabo, someone’s got to do it now,” he said, describing indigenous affairs policy as “ineffectual, half-hearted and (without) the full resources of the Commonwealth behind it, which was envisaged by the ’67 referendum”.
He called for bipartisan support, saying he believed Mr Turnbull was “a good and decent person who wants to do the right thing in Aboriginal affairs — but good intentions are not enough without the necessary leadership to generate real change” and said the issue was “above party politics, and one where Mr Turnbull and (Bill) Shorten could stand together”.
A key shift, he said had to be moving away from “the old paternalistic way” of dealing with indigenous people and organisations, with the royal commission noting in 1991 that “unless those underlying issues were addressed there would be no change; it’s about the marginalisation of Aboriginal people which contributed to that incarceration”.
He said Mr Keating had “showed great political courage to deliver a just outcome for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people after 204 years of the legal system denying their rights with that pernicious doctrine of terra nullius”. The former prime minister’s “diligence and dedication” over the 18 months following the High Court’s 1992 Mabo ruling establishing native title in the face of “the non-stop, torrid and at times vitriolic public attacks” had defined a critical time in Australian history, he said.
“It’s fair to say the reconciliation process has helped shape modern Australia,” Mr Tickner said. “Most important, Keating was the one who put meat on the bones of the reconciliation process through the Mabo response.”
He said the Keating government had welcomed the High Court’s decision because it “removed a great barrier to reconciliation,” but that it knew from the outset “the huge challenge that lay ahead, with state and territory governments having traditional responsibility for and management of (the) issues, and an Australian community which did not yet understand the implications of the high court decision”.
Six months on from Mabo, he said, Mr Keating’s famous Redfern Park speech acknowledging responsibility for the dispossession of indigenous Australians “set the bar very high for the government to respond in a principled way to the judgment, and to meet the expectations of the reconciliation process”.
The cabinet papers reveal details of the complexity introduced with the Wik claim in June 1993, with the cabinet by then having considered nine distinct approaches to legislation. “We considered but rejected options relating to extinguishment of native title (it would lead to deep domestic divisions and strong international condemnation) and entrenchment (amending the constitution to put land under native title beyond the control of parliament raises very major issues,” they reveal.
In the end the decision was made to “feel the way forward” but Mr Tickner said many younger Australians now “would have no real appreciation of the vitriol, intolerance and scaremongering that was perpetuated in the debate”, some of which “makes Donald trump’s election campaign look like the free-flowing milk of human kindness”.
He said that during the cabinet process it “very often … got very lonely for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Minister, as some of my other colleagues were fierce advocates either for the interests represented in their portfolios or in some cases for a state Labor government. I frequently clashed both with those ministers and public servants who held similar views. They were wrong on both history and principles”.
He said Mr Keating had “cemented his place in history” by seeking to reach “a negotiated outcome with Aboriginal leadership” rather than pushing for a deal with the states that failed to meet Aboriginal aspirations.
“This was the first time since 1788 when the Aboriginal people of the land were in face-to-face, genuine negotiation with a leader of a state or territory government,” he said, singling out then-
ATSIC chair Lowitja O’Donoghue for being “magnificent as a leader” who “set a cracking pace for the younger members of the negotiating team”.
The result, he said, was an outcome “that both respected the high court decision and gave important additional rights and interests, while making sure that the rights of non-indigenous Australians were protected”, before finally being “painstakingly negotiated through the senate” as the Native Title Act on December 21, 1993.
However it came at considerable personal cost, he said, including being sent a dead rat in the mail, having his electorate office partly destroyed in an arson attack and receiving repeated death threats.
He also revealed a tightly guarded secret: during the tumult of negotiations in early 1993 he was for the first time “reunited with my birth mother on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and began a journey as transformative for me as the public journey was as Australia travelled the Mabo response”.
He described John Howard’s 1998 amendments to the native title act, in response to the Wik
decision and which put restrictions on claims, as “regrettable”, saying he was “sorry for John because I think he did some other important things, like gun control, but I don’t think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs was where he left a mark politically, and I’m sad about that”.