November 2010

10 November 2010 – sorry a bit late – just catching up.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) from across Australia and the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT (APO(NT)) have called on the Commonwealth Government, the Opposition, the Greens and Independents to work together to prevent the NT Intervention from becoming both a lost opportunity and a significant policy failure.

Following a meeting in Alice Springs on 28 October 2010, the ATILS and APO(NT) have released an issues paper highlighting the ongoing problems with the NT Intervention. The paper will be sent to the Government, Opposition, Greens and Independents to raise awareness of these important issues.

‘The NT Intervention needs a major overhaul if it is going to work to improve the lives of Aboriginal people’, said Norman George, Chairman of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

‘It is unacceptable that such a massive undertaking as the NT Intervention is continuing without an evidence base and is not being properly evaluated or monitored.’

The issues paper also highlights the problems caused by the racially discriminatory nature of the NT Intervention.

‘The racial discrimination that is at the heart of the Intervention is not only offensive to Aboriginal people, but is a big part of why the Intervention is likely to fail’, said Mr George. ‘Policy should be based on evidence, not race. It should be developed with the people it effects, not imposed upon them. Until government commits to working seriously with Aboriginal people we will see the same failures over and over again.’

The ATSILS and APO(NT) called on all members of parliament to re-examine the NT Intervention and take action on 12 proposed recommendations, including:

Replacing the current income management system with a voluntary system of trigger-based and case-by-case income management.

  • Empowering and resourcing prescribed communities to drive solutions to alcohol misuse that are appropriate to the needs of individual communities.
  • Delivering a non-discriminatory approach to law enforcement.
  • Immediately cancelling the compulsory five-year leases acquired over Aboriginal land
  • Taking a new approach to customary law, consistent with Recommendation 72 of the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ Report, to see it as a vehicle to empower elders to take responsibility for offending that occurs in their communities.
  • Commissioning independent research which considers qualitative and quantitative data in relation to each of the NTER measures, and to make this research freely available to the public.

The Uniting Church in Australia revises its constitution

The Uniting Church is the first church in Australia to constitutionally acknowledge Aboriginal and Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.

Uniting Church President Rev. Alistair Macrae says the change to the preamble signifies the natural and rightful extension of the covenantal relationship that the Uniting Church has with the Indigenous people of the church, and by extension of this land.

 “As a church we entered into an agreement with our Indigenous brothers and sisters to foster more just, inclusive and equal relationships in the Church that recognise the place of First Peoples,” Rev Macrae said.

 “We have worked closely with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) in developing the preamble and we are proud that, as a church, we have chosen to take this important step,” he said.

 “It gives us a bigger and deeper understanding of who we are as an Australian church. First and second peoples belong equally together in this great land. Hopefully this new acknowledgment might provide a strong basis to work for greater understanding, reconciliation and justice.”

 The Chairperson for the UAICC Rev. Ken Sumner said, “For members of the Congress, this acknowledgement places the foundation of our relationship in truth. It also, perhaps for the first time, makes Aboriginal and Islander people feel included in this church. For the first time, our covenantal relationship is founded on truth and not the lingering denial of our historical past. This is our story. The way the Congress has experienced our relationship is now enshrined in the introduction to the law of the church of which we are all a part.”

 The preamble to the Uniting Church constitution was passed by the 12th Assembly in 2009 and subsequently passed by the Synods and Presbyteries (the Church’s state-based and regional councils) throughout 2010, as is required for constitutional change.

 Revisions to the text have been developed after extensive consultation throughout the church and in particular with the UAICC and Indigenous Uniting Church members.

 The Uniting Church in Australia revised preamble


The Uniting Church in Australia was formed on 22 June, 1977 by the union of the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia after the approval of “The Basis of Union” by the Councils and Courts of those three churches, guided by the belief that they had been called by God into this union.

The Church in accordance with the Basis of Union accepts that the responsibility for government in the Church belongs to the people of God by virtue of the gifts and tasks which God has laid upon them and so organises its life that locally, regionally and nationally, government is entrusted to representatives, men and women, bearing gifts and graces, with which God has endowed them for the building up of God’s Church and that therefore the Church shall be governed by a series of inter-related councils, each of which has its tasks and responsibilities in relation to the Church and the world.

The Church in accordance with the Basis of Union acknowledges that the demand of the Gospel, the response of the Church to the Gospel and the discipline which it requires are partly expressed in the formulation by the Church of its law, the aim of which is to confess God’s will for the life of Christ’s Church.

As the Church believes God guided it into union so it believes that God is calling it to continually seek a renewal of its life as a community of First Peoples and of Second Peoples from many land, and as part of that to


1. When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.

2. Through this land God had nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country, the Aboriginal and Islander peoples, who continue to understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians (meaning ‘sovereign’ in the languages of the First Peoples) of these lands and waters since time immemorial.

3 The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

4. Some members of the uniting churches approached the First Peoples with good intentions, standing with them in the name of justice; considering their well being, culture and language as the churches proclaimed the reconciling purpose of the Triune God found in the good news about Jesus Christ.

5. Many in the uniting churches, however, shared the values and relationships of the emerging colonial society including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples. They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land.

6. The uniting churches were largely silent as the dominant culture of Australia constructed and propagated a distorted version of history that denied this land was occupied, utilised, cultivated and harvested by these First Peoples who also had complex systems of trade and inter-relationships. As a result of this denial, relationships were broken and the very integrity of the Gospel proclaimed by the churches was diminished.

7. From the beginning of colonisation the First Peoples challenged their dispossession and the denial of their proper place in this land. In time this was taken up in the community, in the courts, in the parliaments, in the way history was recorded and told, and in the Uniting Church in Australia.

8. In 1985 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the Uniting Church in Australia formed the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

9. In 1988 the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress invited the other members of the Church to join in a solemn act of covenanting before God.

10. After much struggle and debate, in 1994 the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia discovered God’s call, accepted this invitation and entered into an ever deepening covenantal relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. This was so that all may see a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

AND THUS the Church celebrates this Covenantal relationship as a foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.

1. amend the Constitution by adding the following definitions to Clause 3

Covenantal relationship is the relationship which exists between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Assembly, which began in the invitation of 1988 and response of 1994, in which both groups commit themselves to developing more just, inclusive and equal relationships in the Church that recognise the place of First Peoples, the difficult history of this nation since invasion, and the particular responsibility of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress for ministry with and among Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

First Peoples are the Aboriginal and Islander peoples of Australia who are the indigenous peoples of this land. These peoples are a diverse group with many languages and communal identities.

Second Peoples are all those peoples who have come after the First Peoples and who are beneficiaries in some way of the invasion and dispossession of the lands of the First Peoples. Among Second Peoples within the Church are many whose racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, experiences and expression of Christian faith are not those originating in Western forms of thought and theological expression.

Dear friends,

We are pleased to announce that registrations are now open for the Christ and Culture Conference in March 2011.

The third NATSIEC Christ and Culture Conference will focus on contextualising and re-reading scripture from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective. The starting point of this conference is to recognise that the Bible grew out of ancient cultures and myths that represented the attempt by Hebrew people to speak of the One God they knew. This conference will be an opportunity for us to develop a ‘mother tongue’ theology; one that speaks to the God that we know – the God in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and contexts. This conference will be workshop based and be practical and engaging and will provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a rich opportunity to explore their own understanding and interpretation of the Bible and theology ably facilitated by our guest speaker and facilitator Dr. Anthony G. Reddie.

Anthony G. Reddie is the Research Fellow Black Theology for The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education. Dr. Reddie is the leading scholar in the practice of Black theology in grassroots communities of faithful practice. He is a specialist in using educational methodology and grassroots work on conscientization and formation in order to create a more praxis driven and practical approach to Black theology that impacts on communities of faith (particularly churches) in order to empower ordinary people. Dr. Reddie has published several books and numerous essays and articles, in addition to more popular material that is often eschewed by conventional theological scholars.  Dr. Reddie is also a Methodist Local Preacher.

We are excited that Dr. Reddie will join us for the next Christ and Culture conference. We are looking forward to working with him to explore how his work and perspective can hold up a mirror to the Australian Indigenous situation and reflect back on our context, new insights and concerns that will affirm and develop the mission of the church in the Australian context.

The 2011 Christ and Culture conference will continue the tradition of providing a practical and participative experience with participants learning from each other and sharing their experiences of their lives and ministries.

Please note that after much thought we have decided that this conference will be for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples only. There are benefits when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can come together and have the opportunity to listen and learn from each other, as has been the case at our previous conferences. It is also important however that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the opportunity to come together and discuss issues of importance to them in their own context amongst themselves. Given the nature of this conference and the workshops we are planning we consider that it will be most beneficial if this is one of those occasions. For that reason we will only accept registrations from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For non-Indigenous supporters and past participants we hope you will understand and will help disseminate news of this conference amongst your Indigenous colleagues and friends.

We know that there is widespread interest in Anthony G. Reddie’s work so we are in the process of organizing events in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and possibly Canberra. These will be open to all and we are confident that they will also provide a thought provoking and challenging experience.  We will send out further details when they are to hand.

In the meantime, registration forms and information about the conference are available at

Graeme Mundine

The Hon. Alastair Nicholson delivered an excellent speech last week on the issue of a lack of a Bill of Rights in Australia as well as the NT Intervention. It is quite a long speech so I have put a pdf on the website at

One statement from the speech, amongst many excellent points, stands out to me:

“I think that as time passes it becomes clear that the intervention was an exercise in social engineering to destroy Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal attachment to their traditional lands and to force Aboriginal people into suburban agglomerations and adopt a white life style”. (Alastair Nicholson).

The announcement by the Prime Minister that the Government will work towards recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution was welcomed by the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission (NATSIEC) as a positive action to address a long overdue omission.

Executive Secretary of NATSIEC, Mr Graeme Mundine, has however raised concerns that Constitutional recognition will not mean anything unless the rights of Aboriginal people are protected and respected in all policy decisions and implementation.

“Despite the Apology and Australia’s late support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, not to mention our obligations under International human rights instruments, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are suffering daily because of racially discriminatory polices and practices,” Mr Mundine said.

 “The impact of the Intervention continues to be detrimental to the wellbeing of whole communities. The Government has made various promises including to fully reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act but has failed to ensure that Aboriginal people are protected from racial discrimination. Constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Peoples will not in itself address these kinds of discrimination”.
On December 31st the flawed “reinstatement” of the RDA comes into effect. However, NATSIEC does not believe that the Government has made the case to exclude aspects of the NTER from the protection of the RDA by calling them “special measures”.   

NATSIEC calls on the Government to urgently address the discriminatory aspects of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination) Act 2010 and ensure that the RDA is fully reinstated.  


In particular we urge the Government to:

  • Introduce amendments to reinstate the RDA in full;
  • Ensure that any welfare reform is non-discriminatory and does not impinge on the rights of any recipients;
  • Review the NTER measures to ensure that they fully comply with the RDA and our obligations under human rights standards such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The following is a recent speech by Graeme Innes the Australian Race Discrimination Officer. In it he makes some excellent and much needed comments about deaths in custody, the NT Intervention and the urgent need to reinstate FULLY the Racial Discrimination Act.

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes

Guest speaker

Annual General Meeting of Death in Custody Watch Committee (WA) Inc

27 Moore Street, East Perth.


Good evening. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional and true owners of the land on which we meet the Nyoongar people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. 

Acknowledging elders past takes on a particular meaning when you are discussing deaths in custody.  I also acknowledge the families who have lost mothers, cousins, sisters, children in custody.  These families suffer forever.  The Ward family, the Mulrungi family.  How many deaths should I actually name?  The fifty, one hundred, one thousand deaths that have occurred since the Royal Commission made its recommendations?

Finally I acknowledge the excellent and dedicated work of Aboriginal Legal Services who have consistently stressed the need for improvement in this area.                    

Like the Northern Territory Intervention and the decision making that has gone before it , the position of many Indigenous people, families, communities has worsened at the same time as governments named them as beneficiaries.  I acknowledge and welcome the steps that the Australian Government has taken to partially reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA). 

When the Howard Government suspended the RDA they suspended their own legislation – Commonwealth legislation.  More importantly, they suspended your legislation.  The RDA is about your protections.  You will never, you can never, it is not possible to improve the quality of living or human lives by suspending human rights protections.       

I make another call for the Australian Government to fully reinstate the RDA in the Northern Territory.  I call the Australian Government to explain what this reinstatement would mean in practical terms for affected communities.  And I call on the Australian Government to name an END date for the Intervention. 

If government would like advice about where to start, I’ve had some sound advice from communities in the Northern Territory.  Begin by pulling down the blue signs that sit across the 73 prescribed communities.  The tall blue signs that identify prescribed communities and that shame many of the men, the women, the families, the communities that live behind them. 

The value in the Intervention is that it is a cautionary principle for governments – don’t impose, don’t intervene and don’t inflict.  Instead, engage, consult, negotiate and support communities to define and create their own futures.

Addressing Indigenous over-representation in the criminal justice system in a lasting manner will require a fundamental change to the existing relationship between mainstream Australia and Indigenous communities. It will require that the control over Indigenous people’s lives be removed from the public institutions of our mainstream society, and that the unequal basis of the relationship be remedied by addressing the profound economic, social and cultural disadvantage experienced by Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, it required return of control of Aboriginal lives and communities to Aboriginal hands.

Among the findings in the Royal Commission was the critical importance of self determination.  More positively, we have had some success in developing a better understanding of the meaning of self determination through the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Self determined peoples that are connected to culture and to country sustain healthy and proud communities.      

Colonization, racial inequality, racism, and cultural chauvinism have a long shelf life.  And this is a reality that we have to come to terms with in relation to decision making and public policy development.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established in 1987.  A consideration in the terms of reference for the Royal Commission was to consider the underlying causes of incarceration.  Unfortunately, the reality then is not far from the current reality.  Among the core findings of the Commission is that the Aboriginal population was grossly overrepresented in prison.  And that too many Aboriginal people die in custody too often.  In over twenty years, how has this picture changed? 

Another year passes and there are multiple deaths in custody and multiple suicides in custody.  And another year, and another year and so on.

Indigenous adults are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous counterparts, a 48 percent increase on when the Deaths in Custody report was released.

In Western Australia, there has been an 18 percent increase in the prison population over the last year due, among other reasons, to more parole denials and cancellations and an increase of 118 days in the average sentencing length.

If we are going to be serious about eliminating preventable deaths in custody, reducing the Indigenous youth suicide rate, and closing the gap in life expectancy – then we need to be serious about changing the system that generates disadvantage, inequality and poverty.  It is the same system that results in disproportionate Aboriginal incarceration rates and over-representation in our corrections systems.

Mandatory sentencing laws in Western Australia seriously compound these problems and raise questions regarding how we meet our obligations on the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Where is the comprehensive plan to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custodyI refer you to 2009 Social Justice Commission Report that recommends the adoption of a justice reinvestment strategy and the allocation of more resources to the social and economic factors underpinning indigenous incarceration rates.

Many of you are probably familiar with this strategy.

Justice reinvestment has a rigorous methodology with four steps. The first step is analysis and mapping of where the offenders are coming from and calculating how much is being spent in these areas on imprisonment. This leads to demographic and socio-economic information on how much is being spent on imprisonment in certain communities.

A holistic analysis of the criminal justice system is a key feature of the justice reinvestment methodology. Consideration is given to policing, judicial systems, probation and parole, prevention programs, community supervision and diversion options as well as the geographic mapping.

Step 2 involves developing options to generate savings and improve local communities. We must then look at ways to save imprisonment costs so funds can be re-spent in the community. This involves looking at why there is such a high rate of imprisonment and particularly, return to custody.

The options will be different for each community, based on the offender profile and the needs of the community. This step also involves community consultation and engagement around the causes and solutions to crime.

Step 3 involves quantifying savings and reinvesting in high needs communities.

Based on the information gathered in the previous two steps, it is possible to project savings based on reductions in imprisonment spending. Savings can then be put towards the services and projects identified by communities.

And finally, measuring and evaluating the impact.

A justice reinvestment approach is evidence based and measures performance outcomes such as the amount of imprisonment money saved; reduction in imprisonment; reduction in recidivism; and indicators of community well being and capacity.

This is a strategy that has been tested and found to work in both the US and United Kingdom.

The West Australian Department of Corrective Services estimated that it costs $262 per day to keep a prisoner in custody, compared to $35 per day if the prisoner remains under community supervision. This amount rises to $622 per day to keep each young offender in detention, compared to $125 in the community. 

When you consider this in light of the 4700 people incarcerated in Western Australia, it costs the state 1.2 million dollars per day to maintain its prison population. Imagine what that kind of money could do if it was used for effective programs and services.

I support Deaths in Custody Watch WA, the Community Legal Centres and the many NGO’s that have repeatedly called for the full and effective implementation of each of the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission.   Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are still being arrested for minor offences – particularly public intoxication at the same time as there is little investment in culturally appropriate detox services.  Aboriginal communities in Adelaide have made consistent calls for precisely these services for over 20 years. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission has intervened in a number of deaths in custody cases, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes for systemic change to happen.

In 2006, the Coroner’s report adopted all 40 recommendations from the Commission’s submission to the Inquest into the death of Mulrunji.

The Commission’s submission to the Inquest on the death of Mr. Ward made a number of recommendations in improving some of the systemic failures with the police force, including:

  • ensuring that police operating manuals make refusal of bail a last resort.
  • Better training for officers working in Aboriginal communities.
  • reviewing current arrangements for the supply of food and beverages to persons in police custody
  • taking urgent steps to consider appropriate interim measures and modifications to address the level of safety and dignity of the current vehicle fleet.
  • reviewing policies relating to medical emergency procedures during escorts.

A question worth considering is when our state and territory police agencies last held dedicated training around de-escalation tactics, in particular when dealing with people from vulnerable or minority communities?

As recently as 2010, the CERD Committee recognised the government’s continued failure to implement the recommendation made under the Royal Commission.

In its concluding observations in August 2010 the United Nations Committee called for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said the following:

While welcoming the endorsement of National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework by all Australian Governments, the Committee reiterates its concern about the disproportionate incarceration rates and the persisting problems leading to deaths in custody of a considerable number of Indigenous Australians over the years. The Committee expresses concern in particular about the growing imprisonment rates of Indigenous women as well as the substandard conditions in many prisons (art. 5, 6).

The Commission’s Social Justice Report stated “the issues around Aboriginal women and incarceration remain largely invisible to policy makers and program designers”.  In 2010 there is still too little attention devoted to their specific situation and needs. This remains important, particularly because of the impact that imprisonment has on Indigenous families and communities -especially through separation from children.

The UN CERD Committee then went on to say:

The Committee recommends that the State party dedicate sufficient resources to address the social and economic factors underpinning Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system. It encourages the State party to adopt a justice reinvestment strategy, continuing and increasing the use of Indigenous courts and conciliation mechanisms, diversionary and prevention programs and restorative justice strategies. And that, in consultation with Indigenous communities, take immediate steps to review the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, identifying those which remain relevant with a view to their implementation.  The Committee also recommends that the State party implement the measures outlined in the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework. The Committee encourages the State party to ensure the provision of adequate health care to prisoners.

The Commission is committed to working more closely with government and NGO’s to ensure the effective implementation of the Committee’s Concluding Observations.  I urge you to also consider how you may be able to utilise these observations as a platform to progress your work.


So where to from here? How much longer are we prepared to ignore the existing situation, and why do we continue to not act on what we know and what we were told explicitly in 1987?

To fail to respond comprehensively and to let another 23 years pass without an improvement in the incarceration statistics or deaths in custody… that would be the greatest tragedy of all.  When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to be overrepresented in our prison system and the deaths continue, community networks are profoundly damaged.  When elders die in custody, they loose their lives and their communities lose their leaders.           

More human rights education is vital. People need to know what their rights and responsibilities. They need to be reminded that we all have the right to live with dignity, in safety and in safe spaces.

It is in rooms like these where we can be reminded of the urgency of these issues and the importance of leadership and clear action.  I thank you for your hard work, and for your time tonight.

SBS piece on Friday night’s news about the Jobs with Justice campaign and the Gurindji strike and protest.