In terms of racism, nothing should surprise me in Western Australia, Australia’s backwater, but every once and a while I am surprised. The Western Australian Government has betrayed the tragic memory of the 22-year-old Yamatji woman who died in a police watch house cell in South Hedland. There is no doubt that racism dished a heavy hand in the death of Ms Dhu.
Today the State Government announced a so-called hotline number to support detainees in police custody. But what many expected and hoped for was the establishment of the tried and tested Custody Notification Service (CNS). The CNS, a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, was implemented in NSW and the ACT in 1998. It has led to zero deaths in police custody ever since. The CNS is independently operated by the NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service. The independence factor is an imperative because it reduces the risks associated with structural and institutional racism. The independence of the service is a vital protective factor, a check and balance also in the interests of the police and custodial officers.
Members of the Western Australian police and of its police union had encouraged me in the campaign for the CNS.
The CNS is made up of lawyers who are trained in suicidal ideation and de-escalation techniques and who stoutly ensure the legal, health and welfare rights of detainees. In NSW and the ACT police must contact the CNS prior to any statement from a detainee, prior to questioning, prior to a charge sheet. The caveat to ensure this is the Powers and Responsibilities Act enabled as legislation by the NSW Government in 2005 which makes any testimony gathered from an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander detainee inadmissible in court if that testimony was gathered prior to police making contact with the CNS and prior to the CNS advocate’s right in making contact with the detainee.
The CNS has not only reduced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in police custody but in its 17 years so far led to zero deaths in custody.
Western Australia, the mother of all jailers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, should have followed the NSW and ACT lead but what did they do? They cheated everyone, including their police officers and have scammed in a reductionist offering.
They reckon a Corrective Services 1800 number will make the difference. They reckon this 1800 number and 19 liaison officers will reduce self-harm incidences and reduce suicidal ideation. They claim that “families, friends and advocates can use the number to seek advice and support from an Aboriginal person or staff member who has gone through cultural awareness training.” If this scheme is working so well the Government should explain the suicides and unnatural deaths in their prisons.
The Government today announced, “Those in police custody can now access the scheme.”
The joint media statement by Police Minister Liza Harvey and Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis continued, “Callers can discuss matters in confidence and request a visit from the Aboriginal Visitors Scheme (AVS) staff member for either themselves or a member of the family they have concerns about.”
The AVS is a psychosocial support at best but has also been significantly reduced over the years. Many prisons are without AVS officers. But what good is an AVS officer to a detainee in police custody? When you’re being charged, hauled before the criminal justice system, you need legal support and you need your health and welfare rights. Only the CNS advocates have that agency, the AVS officers do not.
Ministers Harvey and Francis continued, “WA police officers will help the interaction between the person in custody and the AVS staff.” Ministers Harvey and Francis and their boss, Premier Colin Barnett have betrayed the family of Ms Dhu, betrayed Della Roe, the mother, Carol Roe, the grandmother, betrayed Ms Dhu’s uncle, Shaun Harris and his relentless campaign in that what occurred to Ms Dhu should never happen to another Aboriginal person.
The late Ms Mandijarra’s coronial inquest begins next week in Broome, where in November 2012 the 44 year-old died in a police watch house. The Mandijarra family lawyers were going to call for the CNS to be implemented. In mid-March the Ms Dhu coronial inquest resumes so that the police officers who so deplorably maltreated Ms Dhu in the last days of her life can give their account. We have heard the accounts of the medical staff who Ms Dhu was presented to for health assessments at Hedland Health campus. The institutional racism stunk putrid, but not as putrid as that of this rotten Government.
The establishment of the CNS was the easy can do that the Government could have scored kudos for but this Government decided to knock it back and short change everyone. This Government knocked back the in your face evidence of 17 years of the CNS in NSW and the ACT. The annual cost of the CNS is half a million dollars, about the cost of a coronial inquiry. It is such a no-brainer that the Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, saved the CNS in NSW and the ACT by picking up the tab that the NSW Government claimed it could no longer afford. Scullion provided $1.8 million to the NSW Government to keep the CNS funded till mid-2019. He urged the Western Australian Government to implement it.
At its most recent party conference, the State Labor Party stamped its seal of approval on the establishment of a CNS and promised to deliver it if elected. This Government needs to go. This Government places little value on Aboriginal lives.
In NSW and the ACT, over the last 17 years, CNS advocates have attended nearly a quarter million detainee presentations and the record is zero deaths in police watch houses. If the Western Australian Government will not take this on board then what will it listen to? The ministerial working party that came up with the hogwash of this AVS hotline number expanded to police custody will more than likely betray us again on the remaining two tasks; the hope that this State ends the detaining and jailing of fine defaulters – what should be a civil matter, not criminal – and for alternatives to low level offending. If they could not get the no-brainer right then what will they get right?
I am angry. I was contacted by distraught family members of Ms Dhu on August 4 2014. I listened to their heartache. Ms Dhu should have been assisted by police instead of being detained. The issues and the structural and institutional racism appeared so visible that I saw the capacity for change. At my expense I flew to Canberra to lobby the Federal Government for the CNS and for an end to Western Australia’s racist, classist and draconian jailing of fine defaulters.
Western Australia may no longer be steeped in the disgusting racial segregation of yesteryear but its racism mires us knee deep. Western Australia continues as the nation’s backwater, as Australia’s Alabama.
Previous articles in the long campaign for the Custody Notification Service: