• "We must be better than that": Pat Dodson. (AAP)Source: AAP
The 'Father of Reconciliation' delivers a scathing speech over the persistent rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody in the lead up to the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report.
Source:
AAP
13 Apr 2016 - 6:15 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2016 - 6:44 PM

Incoming Labor senator and Yaruwu man, Professor Pat Dodson believes a recalled parliament should deal with the high incarceration rate of Indigenous Australians instead of trade union corruption.

The Indigenous leader, who is tipped to replace Joe Bullock in the upper house after announcing his exit last month over a personal conflict with the party's stance on gay marriage, criticised the Turnbull government's decision to bring MPs back to Canberra next week over industrial relations legislation.

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"It should be being recalled ... to deal with these appalling custody rates of the first peoples of this country and to set their minds to how best to find better ways to reduce them," Mr Dodson told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission's report into Deaths in Custody. 

In the 25 years since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody tabled its report, Indigenous incarceration rates have doubled.

About 750 people have died behind bars since then, with one-in-five being Indigenous. And alarmingly, the rate at which Indigenous people are imprisoned has more than doubled over the past twenty-five years.

At the time of the Royal Commission some 14 percent of those in custody were Indigenous.

Today it is around 27 percent - this is despite the Commission's recommendation that prison be a measure of last resort.

Prof Dodson said the figures showed legislators had not learnt from the past, and that legislation played a key role in determining the increase or decrease of incarceration rates.

"Mandatory sentencing, imprisonment for fine defaults, paperless arrest laws, tough bail and parole conditions and punitive sentencing regimes certainly have not helped," he said.

"Neither do funding cuts to frontline legal aid services and inadequate resourcing for much needed diversionary programs and re-entry programs to break the cycle of recidivism."

"For our communities, the storyline is all too familiar: The minor offence, the innocuous behavior, the unnecessary detention, the failure to uphold the duty of care, the lack of respect for human dignity, the lonely death, the grief, loss and pain of the family."

"We must be better than that."

Patient over Senate entrance

Senator Bullock has held off his official resignation until this week, delaying Prof Dodson's formal sign-off in the West Australian parliament.

Prof Dodson - also known as the father of reconciliation - does not appear to harbour hard feelings, saying these types of transitions take some time.

"I suppose when you get to my age you're not necessarily trying to (run) the hundred yard sprint in 10 seconds," he told the National Press Club.

Senator Bullock tabled his resignation on Wednesday, the incoming senator understands, and the processes to move the Indigenous leader into the red chamber were underway.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten revealed Prof Dodson as his captain's pick for the Senate last month, confident he would provide wisdom and guidance.

It could also provide some hope of relations across the political divide, with former prime minister Tony Abbott one of the first to call and congratulate Prof Dodson on his nomination.

The West Australian, known for his strong principles, promised to make his position on indigenous affairs "well heard" on the floor of the Labor caucus.

"Old dogs are hard to teach new tricks," he quipped.

Labor has tough policies on voting against the party platform but Prof Dodson said no one had tried to gag him yet.

He is also convinced the Labor Senate team will not let his possible absence next week be a disadvantage by securing a pairing with the coalition for votes.

AAP understands the government would be willing to grant a pair for the casual vacancy.

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