Lingering racism undermines Aboriginal Deaths in Custody findings

Indigenous justice advocate and NT Australian of the Year 2022 Leanne Liddle has unleashed harsh criticism about the lack of progress since findings from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were handed down in 1991.

Ms Liddle’s criticisms are the subject of the 2022 Elliott Johnston AO QC Oration, an annual   tribute to the late esteemed activist and lawyer presented by Flinders University and Johnston Withers Lawyers, delivered at Flinders University Victoria Square on Thursday September 1.

Ms Liddle makes her statement from a powerful vantage point – as Director of the Aboriginal Justice Unit in the Northern Territory Department of Justice, being a Flinders University Law graduate, having worked as a bureaucrat informing government and legal policy issues, and as the first female Aboriginal SA Police officer to graduate from the Fort Largs Academy in 1988.

Having worked with and observed the justice system at close range from multiple angles, Ms Liddle says the most awful postscript to the Royal Commission (for which Elliott Johnston was Commissioner) is the fact that since 1991, more than 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody.

“The two most critical recommendations of the Royal Commission – of arrest and imprisonment as a last resort for Aboriginal people – were not spoken about in any training or deliverable or arrest in my decade plus time in SAPOL. How does one ignore such an important and integral human right with an ad hoc dismissal when we knew what was at stake?”

She also notes that every major anniversary of the publication of the Royal Commission’s Final Report has recorded dramatic increases in the numbers and rates of Aboriginal men, women and young people in detention, many of them on remand.

“This is the result of sordid party-political competitions to be ‘tough on crime’, and the overall increase in imprisonment rates despite the commission’s most fundamental finding that ‘prison should be a last resort’,” says Ms Liddle.

“I saw huge investments and substantial efforts placed into mitigating risks for government. Yes, there was new police cells that had removed hanging points. Yes, there were cultural awareness sessions for new police. But I knew that this was all just veneer – because I also knew that little had changed for Aboriginal people.”

While attending several policy room discussions about implementing the Royal Commission findings, she noted that not one Aboriginal person from any community was engaged in this process. “They were just not around the tables. We were invisible,” she says.

Leanne Liddle. Photo: NT News.

Ms Liddle believes too much money was spent on infrastructure used by all staff and prisoners, and not enough on Aboriginal empowerment and self-determination. Despite the report’s stress on institutional racism, government responses have been limited to largely cosmetic reforms of police and prison procedures and policies designed to reduce alcohol abuse.

“Along with alcohol, poor mental health, removal as a child, unemployment and many other factors, a fundamental underlying issue was disempowerment and systemic racism,” says Ms Liddle.

It is most appropriate that Ms Liddle is delivering this year’s Elliott Johnston Memorial Lecture, as Mr Johnston was instrumental in developing Ms Liddle’s landmark racial discrimination case against SAPOL, and he helped establish the Flinders Law School where Ms Liddle later studied.

Mr Johnston (known as the Red Silk) was also founder of Johnston Withers Lawyers and respected as a fearless campaigner for working-class people, champion of the human rights movement and passionate advocate for Indigenous Australians. In 1972, he was appointed founding chair of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, was a judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia (1983–1988), and the second and final Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1989–91).

This year’s Elliott Johnston AO QC oration coincides with Flinders University celebrating 30 years of its world-class legal degree, underlining its reputation as a game-changing and innovative teaching institution that continues to flourish thanks to three decades of achievements and milestones.

When Flinders Law was introduced in 1992, it was never intended to be another ‘stuffy’ law school, placing its focus on practical learning and social justice, and encouraging students to pursue critical and theoretical perspectives. Similarly, Flinders Law took a step away from the traditional law school approach, appointing staff from both academic and professional backgrounds to provide expertise in both areas.

Since the inaugural class graduated in April 1996, Flinders Law has remained progressive, introducing cutting-edge formal legal innovation training, design thinking and skills in building simple software applications by introducing the Law in a Digital Age topic.

The leadership and guidance of the brightest legal minds – from Foundation Dean Professor Becky Bailey-Harris to current Dean of Law Professor Tania Leiman – has ensured that Flinders Law remains one of the leading law degrees, able to inspire and support students to achieve academically, and put what they learn into practice to make a difference.

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