First Nations Justice

Systemic racism and the over-incarceration of Indigenous people must be addressed

 8 September 2020

 Systemic racism and the over-incarceration of Indigenous people must be addressed.

NSWCCL’s upcoming online panel discussion, on 11 September 2020 at 6:30pm, featuring Judge Myers AM, Sarah Hopkins, Teela Reid and NSWCCL President Nicholas Cowdery AO QC is a call to action in relation to the implementation of the recommendations of the ALRC’s report “Pathways to Justice”, including a focus on the crucial need for a commitment to justice reinvestment and specialty courts (such as the Walama Court in NSW).

In 2018 the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) was asked to consider laws and legal frameworks that contribute to the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around 2% of the national population, but constitute 27% of the national prison population. The ALRC Report was released in March 2018 and includes 35 recommendations, most of which have simply not been addressed.

His Honour Judge Matthew Myers AM, Commissioner in charge of the ALRC Inquiry, said that while the problems leading to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in prisons are complex, they can be solved,

“Law reform is an important part of that solution. Reduced incarceration, and greater support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in contact with the criminal justice system, will  improve health, social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and lead to a safer society for all.”

Since 2011 Just Reinvest NSW has been working to support communities to explore and establish justice reinvestment initiatives, including in Bourke, NSW. The focus is to reduce imprisonment rates by directing resources into building strong and safe communities, rather than funding prisons.

Sarah Hopkins, Chair of Just Reinvest NSW, believes that what is required is a shift in the way we view prevention, intervention and justice:

“If we are real about this, what is needed is not just a shift in funding out of prisons and the criminal justice system into crime prevention and early intervention, but a more fundamental shift in power from government to communities, including power over resources. This is about community aspirations and resilience.”

Teela Reid, Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer and human rights activist, says that if NSW is serious about protecting civil liberties, then it is time to get very uncomfortable with the status quo.

“The truth is Australia is a colony built on racism, it is written into the laws and operates within its institutions.  Systemic racism requires systemic change. If you deny racism exists, then you are part of the problem. This land always was, always will be sovereign Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land, sky and sea.”

Ms Reid asks if we are all prepared to confront our own power and privilege to dismantle the systemic racism that continues to oppress. She states that the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Walama Court ‘are radical attempts to change systems in our search for truth and justice.’

In considering the journey of Australia’s First Nations peoples, NSWCCL President Nicholas Cowdery AO QC believes we need to understand the history of colonialism and dispossession that has led to the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In order to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders ‘in a movement of the Australian people for a better future’ as the Uluru Statement invites, then we also must acknowledge the resilience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Mr Cowdery commented:

”Australia’s First Nations peoples constitute the world’s oldest living culture - over 65,000 years. Colonisation took away their land, languages and many traditions and has left them almost without a voice to power. That process has created social disadvantage leading directly to over-representation in prisons around the country.

…This panel will discuss how we reached this disgraceful situation, why now is the time to recognise the resilience of First Nations peoples and to do something about it – and what can be done, drawing upon a huge body of knowledge already assembled.”

2020 has been a challenging year for many individuals and communities. For those who have experienced financial hardship, or are not in a position to pay for a registration, NSWCCL is offering free registration.

“We want to share this important panel discussion with as many of our members and supporters, and beyond, as we can,” says Mr Cowdery.


Registrations - https://www.nswccl.org.au/tickets_2020_nswccl_fundraiser
Free invitation - https://www.nswccl.org.au/invitation_nswccl_2020_panel_discussion

The NSWCCL First Nations Justice panelists:

  • Nicholas Cowdery AO, QC, President of the NSWCCL
  • Judge Myers AM, lead Commissioner of the ALRC’s inquiry into Incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
  • Sarah Hopkins, Co-Chair of Just Reinvest NSW and the Managing Solicitor of Justice Projects at the Aboriginal Legal Service ACT/NSW
  • Teela Reid, Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer and human rights activist

The webinar discussion will be held on Friday 11th September at 6:30pm and will be moderated by the 2019 winner of the NSWCCL Award for Excellence in Civil Liberties Journalism, Richard Ackland AM. The 2020 NSWCCL Awards for Excellence in Civil Liberties Journalism will also be announced.

Download this statement as a PDF.

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Statement: Black Lives Matter Protests

NSWCCL affirms our heartfelt support for the Black Lives Matter movement and its goals in seeking to eradicate systemic racism from our societies. We encourage all our members and those sympathetic to the cause of human rights and civil liberties to likewise support the BLM movement in any way reasonably possible.

NSWCCL has always acknowledged the pervasiveness of institutional racism in Australian society, ever present even 232 years after the brutal colonisation of this continent on racist terms. We strongly support all attempts to remedy this history of injustice and end the systemic disadvantage faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Foremost among the injustices committed against indigenous peoples are those perpetrated by the criminal justice system.

Discrimination and unreasonable violence at the hands of police is an ongoing concern, as the cases of David Dungay Jr and the incident in Surry Hills recently emphasised. There have been 434 indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission – including the recent death of Tanya Day, which the coroner found to be preventable – and its recommendations have never been fully implemented. To our knowledge, no one has ever been convicted in relation to those deaths. Indigenous peoples are over-policed and over-incarcerated, with adults 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous Australians and juveniles 26 times more likely to be incarcerated. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in December 2019 that while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up around 3 per cent of the total Australian population, they account for 29% of the total adult prisoner population in Australia. 

NSWCCL calls for the implementation of the 1991 Royal Commission recommendations and the recommendations in the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a start in the ongoing struggle to end these shameful outcomes.

In relation to the protests on June 6, 2020, NSWCCL supported the right of people to rally in accordance with the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal authorising the assembly. It seems the protests were orderly and respected the public health imperative while remaining truly powerful. Police and protestor seemed largely to demonstrate appropriate respect and restraint. However, the worrying incident at Central Station involving the pepper spraying on protestors may raise serious questions.

Community anger and distress over the last-minute moves by the government and the police to prohibit the protest rally would not be so strong had it not been for the unexplained inconsistency in official responses. For example, a recent protest in Sydney boasted of thousands of attendees in clear contravention of the Public Health Orders and the government and police reacted very differently. There was also widespread confusion over the inconsistency between the response of the South Australian Government and Police to protests in Adelaide, which was to exempt that protest from the effect of the COVID-19 regulations, and the response in NSW. 

We urge all parties to bring their attention to driving systemic changes to achieve much needed justice for Indigenous Australians and continue exercising the restraint called for in a liberal society governed by the rule of law.

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Walking together for a better future

In 2018, CCL endorsed the recommendations of the Final Report of the National Constitutional Convention, held at Uluru in 2017. CCL resolved to call on the Australian Government/Parliament to respect and act on the recommendations of the Report and to progress the Uluru Statement From The Heart recommendation for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament. The Convention also called for the establishment of a ‘Makaratta Commission’ to oversee the process of truthtelling and agreement making, referencing the notion, 'nothing about us, without us'. 

CCL also supports extra-constitutional recognition of the unique role played by First Nations communities in Australia. This would be a clear assertion of self-determination, with the potential to profoundly benefit First Nations Peoples.

In late 2019 we founded our First Nations Justice Action Group to plan and guide our work in this space.

CCL joins advocates and community leaders to talk First Nations Justice

Recently, CCL was invited to join a meeting at Australia Hall with advocates and First Nations community leaders to talk about paths forward for recognition of truth, for self-determination, and First Nations justice. Present were representatives from Reconciliation NSW, Change the RecordAustralians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land CouncilAboriginal Catholic Ministry and the Jewish Board of Deputies. Also attending were community members who are passionate about progress on justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

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