“ In 2020 after a decade of a comprehensive closing the gap framework through COAG, the evidence is incontrovertible, the bureaucracy cannot close the gap in disadvantage.
Thirty years ago, the royal commission predicted this.
The resolution of the “Aboriginal problem” was beyond the capacity of non-Aboriginal policy makers and bureaucrats.
The report was very blunt: “It is about time they left the stage to those who collectively know the problems at national and local levels; they know the solutions because they live with the problems.”
This is something Prime Minister Scott Morrison knows already. This is precisely what he did during the pandemic, he left it to the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector to shut down their own communities and they had already mobilised late January. And it worked.
That so many Australians who “turned up” in solidarity in cities and towns across Australia this weekend accords with the research commissioned by the From the Heart project from CT Group that found Australians want Indigenous Australians to get a fair go.
Seventy one per cent agree that Indigenous Australians are best placed to decide matters that affect them.
Saturday was no mere protest, my friends, in the words of the Uluru Statement, it was a movement of the Australian people for a better future. And the Australian people are ready for real change. ”
Professor Megan Davis is the Balnaves Chair of Constitutional Law, Indigenous Law Centre, UNSW Law.
There is no denying the nationwide protests on Saturday, leveraging off Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the US, reflect a growing sentiment in Australia about Indigenous affairs.
There is something in the zeitgeist when tens of thousands of Australians descend on the streets to march for Aboriginal justice while the nation is transitioning out of lockdown.
One of the perennial challenges of protest is how to translate it into substantive and durable change. I remember marching as a young person through the streets of Brisbane protesting against Aboriginal deaths in custody and calling for the implementation of the royal commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s recommendations.
It has been almost 30 years since the royal commission and my nieces and nephews were marching on Saturday through the same streets of Brisbane. Yet we know what needs to be done.
The royal commission was set up in October 1987 following national outrage about the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody. It investigated 99 deaths that occurred between January 1, 1980 and May 31, 1989, in prisons, police stations or juvenile detention institutions.
A key finding was that the deaths in custody investigated were not the product of deliberate violence or brutality of police or prison officers but that there was a lack of regard for the duty of care that is owed to people in custody by police officers and prison officers.
The commission made many recommendations but one of its primary reforms centred on the structural powerlessness that renders Indigenous voices silent in a liberal democracy.
The commission singled out the importance of Indigenous participation in decision-making to transform Aboriginal affairs and the right to self-determination. It found that the government had the power to transform the picture of Aboriginal affairs, “not so much by ‘doing’ things – more by letting go of the controls; letting Aboriginal people make the decisions which government now pretends they do make”. At the heart of the findings was that Indigenous peoples should have a say in the decisions that are made about them.
Sound familiar? It should. The Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017 said the same thing. In 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued to the Australian people as an invitation to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
The statement was the culmination of regional constitutional dialogues conducted over 2016 and 2017 under the supervision of the Referendum Council established by Malcolm Turnbull.
The Uluru Statement decided upon a consensus reform agenda aimed at fixing the same structural problems the royal commission highlighted 30 years ago.
Thirty years on the Uluru Statement singles out the same crisis in public policy, incarceration, youth detention and child removals. The systemic injustice operates along a continuum:
“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
Of over-representation and child removals, the Uluru Statement says, “These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem.” Crime may be a state government matter, but the structural solution is constitutional.
The royal commission said at the time of its work that “it is difficult for non-Aboriginal people to comprehend just how absolute the domination of Aboriginal people has been”.
This is precisely what the Referendum Council heard in the dialogues in 2017 about the Commonwealth Indigenous Advancement Strategy, that the bureaucracy dominates in communities and the control is stifling.