Subject: ALRC Inquiry into Indigenous incarceration

Labor Senator Pat Dodson joins 7.30 to discuss the new inquiry into Indigenous imprisonment.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: In Australia, more than a quarter of the prison population is Indigenous even though they are only 3 per cent of the population overall.

And despite a royal commission into Indigenous deaths in custody 25 years ago that looked at the causes of high rates of incarceration, the problem has only become even worse since.

The number of Indigenous Australians in prison has doubled, in fact.

The Federal Government has today announced an inquiry into the situation, describing it as a national tragedy.

Senator Pat Dodson was one of the commissioners on that original royal commission. He joined me from Broome.

Senator Dodson, thank you very much for your time. This issue has been on the radar for a long time.

Why do you think the statistics have significantly worsened, rather than improved, in recent decades?

PAT DODSON, LABOR SENATOR, BROOME: Look, I think there's probably a number of reasons. I think the memory of the royal commission 25 years ago has probably faded in the cultures of law enforcement agencies, custodial agencies and certainly in the public sector bureaucracies.

I think also that there's been changes in the social policy which probably haven't helped to bridge the gap on people's poverty and their participation in the society more generally.

LEIGH SALES: What do you think are some of those changes in social policy that have perhaps not helped?

PAT DODSON: I think we're certainly lacking in policies around education and health. The growth of mental health illnesses is not well understood.

We also know that there are legal changes that have happened, mandatory sentencing, reduction to the discretion of judges.

There's a whole lot of paperless arrest factors, the whole question of bail and people being remanded.

So there's a whole system that's forgotten I think the central message of the royal commission about a duty of care and the responsibilities that you should accord to those when you take them into custody.

LEIGH SALES: So do you think this inquiry is likely to end up ultimately making the same sort of recommendations as the royal commission, or has time and some of those new social factors you mentioned meant that the recommendations might be substantially different?

PAT DODSON: Well, as I read the press release, it's very narrow in terms of the criminal law.

It isn't looking, at least at this stage it doesn't seem to be looking at the social, the broader social issues, which is a bit of a shortfall in the process because they're the ones that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has control over in the main in terms of health and housing, education, support for legal services and other sorts of wrap-around services that are essential.

Criminal justice is, as we recognise, a matter for states and territories and there are particular things about that, that need to be addressed.

But there is a whole revolution that needs to take place in the social policy area, and I'm just not sure the Government's got its eye on the ball.

LEIGH SALES: When you have a look, though, you're now a Labor MP, since the royal commission 25 years ago, for 11 of those years Labor has been in power, so for about half the time, so presumably both parties share an equal responsibility for not only to make progress in this area, but the fact that we're actually going backwards.

PAT DODSON: Well, I accept that. I accept that is the case and that's often a problem and parliaments get caught up with all sorts of other priorities.

Unless there are Indigenous voices raising these matters and there have been many from the law council and other places raising their voices for a long time.

But if you don't get the response politically, then it's very difficult to see the changes and probably Labor is as guilty as the current government in terms of what's happened.

But at least now the current government has been made aware through Don Dale and through other reports and issues that have been around, that the time has come for us to take serious stock of this.

Domestic violence is one of those factors. It has to be dealt with, same as the juvenile out of home detention question, incarceration, sentencing regimes, etc and the lack of real therapeutic programs when it comes to incarceration.

We're still locked into punitive regimes. So there's a need to revise a whole range of things and review them.

This is one step in, I would hope, an ongoing dialogue and discussion that the minister is going to undertake with the states and territories.

LEIGH SALES: You were one of the original commissioners 25 years ago. I was just wondering, how do you not get overtaken by despair when you see the figures trending in the direction that they are.

How do you maintain the energy to keep pushing and trying to get attention and trying to get action?

PAT DODSON: Well, I think fundamentally you believe in your people, you believe in the Aboriginal people and that's the saddening thing, is the stereotyping and the stigmatising of Aboriginal people, is something that I don't have.

I see the richness and the goodness in Aboriginal people and their contribution, not only historically rich cultural origins and traditions but also there are people who struggle and battle and who try to make ends meet, who are on shoestring budgets, whose services are being cut back and yet they soldier on.

So it's the Indigenous people keep me focused on what needs to be done and there are good people in the judiciary and other places who again, have raised their voices.

It's the people that give politicians powers to make laws and if we maintain law and order campaigns then we will end up with laws that are going to put many people in jail.

LEIGH SALES: And I know you've only been in the Parliament for, you know, five minutes, but how are you finding it so far and do you have any sense of optimism that perhaps with you being in there, you might be able to get some action on these things?

PAT DODSON: Look, I think there is some possibilities. I think that the minister, despite some of the things that I might disagree with him upon, I think he's searching around for some direction.

I am happy to work with him and I've told him that. We will collaborate as closely as we can to try to get the best results.

Now he has, obviously, his challenges and I will have mine, but the end of the day, if we work in a collaborative way and if the leadership, the political leadership, particularly in COAG, if that leadership can be brought to bear and focus on these issues, we might get some traction.

LEIGH SALES: Senator Dodson, thank you very much for your insights tonight.

PAT DODSON: Thank you.



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