Last week The Point headed to the Pilbara to remember John Pat, the teenager whose death in 1983 sparked the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
After the recent deaths of five people since the beginning of March, the 30th anniversary of the commission report added extra pain and urgency to nation-wide protest marches last weekend.
Roseanne Pat, his cousin, said John’s story had always been part of her life.
“It's something that scarred you for life, it's always inside of you like a scar, you know,” she said. “I want everybody to know what happened here and let everybody know.”
John Pat died after being taken to the police lockup with a head injury after a brawl at the Victoria Hotel, which has since been restored as a cultural centre. There is also a memorial to him in the town.
“We want to be heard and I would like my aunty's voice to be heard because it's been so, so long. I want her to rest at peace, it's a disgrace and it's not right and it's still happening today and our voices need to be heard about this because she died with a broken heart.”
The epiosde covered the protest demonstrations held across the country on Saturday that drew attention to the continuing Aboriginal deaths in custody. Host John Paul Janke interviewed WA Labor Senator Pat Dodson, one of the original commissioners.
“I'm appalled at the lack of federal leadership … this is a matter for the police, the chief police officer, people in responsible custodial services, to come together with the peak organisations or the legal services and sit down and say well, what is happening here?” Senator Dodson said.
“Apply some urgency to those factors, they are 30 years old, the recommendations. There is still a minimal amount of training going on for police officers about Aboriginal people, culture and their social circumstances.
Asked what was stopping significant federal action, Senator Dodson said: “Leadership, it’s as simple as that. There’s no passion. Aboriginal people don’t matter. The Black Lives Matter cause … [is] really the end result of desperation and frustration with the policing system, with a state system, that is non-responsive and it seems these lives just don't count.
“That's what frustrates me because we can do better and there are some decent people in the police forces, and certainly in the judiciary and many people making, in our communities, making a lot of effort and they're let down at the national level through the lack of leadership here.”
In a strong interview, Minister Wyatt was challenged on the repeated failures of state, federal and territory governments to deal with the recommendations of the royal commission report.
“Why,” asked Janke, “are our people still dying in custody?”
Wyatt: “That’s a question that we should ask every government since 1991 because in the first five years I was involved with the West Australian Aboriginal Justice Council in which we worked to implement the recommendations within Western Australia. And then over that period of time, subsequent governments have continued practices within their jurisdictions that are supposed to be based on what was in the royal commission report.
“I heard Senator Dodd Dodd talk about leadership, but leadership comes in many forms and when we were working through the Closing The Gap strategy … we negotiated for two targets — targets 10 and 11, which go to adult incarceration rates and the target of reducing it by 15 per cent and then juvenile incarceration rates, reducing it by 30.
“But there was also a measure on out-of-home care, because we've got to go to the front element of the journeys our people take before they end up in that pathway to incarceration. Now, what is apparent and when I read through all the recommendations, and re-read them, is there has been slippages, because governments have changed leadership in each of those areas.”
Janke asked: “COVID-19 shows us we can all work together …after 30 years, can't we work together on stopping our mob dying in custody?”
“We are, we want to reduce the incarceration rates. We have to go to the underlying issues that impact the significant chronic health conditions that our people have and a lot of the deaths in custody, if we are truthful, go to those events that have caused the loss of life. We're not seeing the replication to the extent that we did in the days when John Pat passed away. I remember very vividly all of the details around that because I was there. National Cabinet is only a new thing, so what we will be using is the mechanisms under National Cabinet to progress much of the activity on this issue hat is your message to them at the moment?”
Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar joined The Point to discuss the anniversary of the commission report.
“It appears that we have not moved slightly forward even, because we continue to experience far more deaths post the royal commission,” Ms Oscar said.
“We need [to] ask ourselves, as a nation, why is it that we continue to incarcerate First Nations people at these high rates. But also, to be able to look at the situations that are giving rise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including youth, coming into contact with police.
“I think it's absolutely lazy of us as a nation, that we continue to resort to punitive-type responses where I am sure we are capable of thinking far more creatively, innovatively, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the table, to co-design, co-decide the solutions.”
THE LAKE TORRENS DRILLING PROJECT
In late 2020, the South Australian government gave approval for the drilling of minerals on Lake Torrens in the state’s north, putting at risk sites sacred to four tribal groups. South Australian correspondent Douglas Smith explored the controversy.
“Nobody would even dare to go to the Vatican and sink a rig drilling through the centre of the Vatican. Nobody would even think of that. Why would they want to do that to Kuyani people,” says Barngarla traditional owner Uncle Harry Dare.
“They're breaking our storylines, our songlines … I believe the only way we're going to go forward is if we stand together as one - let's give away our little petty differences about, ‘I'm Barngarla, you're Kokatha, you're Kuyani, you're Adnyamathanha," whatever, this is bigger than us. This is something that we have to fight for together - united we stand.”
The Barngarla and Kokatha people are seeking Supreme Court review of the drilling approval.
The Point visited the lake and found drilling equipment and workers. A worker told Smith that drilling would start “probably in the next day”.
Traditional owner Tony Clark, who visited Lake Torrens with Smith, said: “I think about these things and what I think — it's a travesty of justice. It is a betrayal of our human rights. It's just another part of the genocidal tendencies that the government seems to be hell-bent on.”
JAMIE LOWE, NATIVE TITLE COUNCIL CEO
Discussing the Lake Torrens and other sacred site issues, Jamie Lowe was interviewed live and said: “I think there's the recommendation that the site doesn't get touched, by the minister's own Aboriginal advisory committee, which was declined by the minister … and they continued to go ahead and drill the site. So there's also provisions under the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act for the traditional owners to go through that and so I would encourage them to do that.
“But I understand the matters are actually going through the courts at the moment.”
Mr Lowe supported the need for national standards on protecting sacred sites amid a series of national controversies.
“We have been working with peak agencies across the country on working on a national standard … it is not unprecedented. It happens with the Environmental Act where the Commonwealth has an actual standard on environmental protection. States and territories actually need to adhere to that Act. So we're asking for something similar to that.”
The Point showcased Melbourne Storm player Josh Addo-Carr at the Parrtjima Festival In Light in the Northern Territory, where artist installations bring the red centre to fresh life.
“Under the night sky, the most massive sky in the central desert, you've got this ancient landscape around you, and yet you're hearing the voices — and you will this year - [hear] our next generation voices,” said curator Rhoda Roberts.
“I think the most important thing about Parrtjima and the installations is that the artists that present their work, they're still telling stories of country.”
Addo-Carr said: “I'm very grateful to be welcomed here and they give me goose bumps when I jumped off the plane to be honest, I felt that connection, it has been wonderful.”
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