“If they had the will they could implement these things.”
Professor Calma, who is also the chancellor of the University of Canberra, has taken leave from Reconciliation Australia to help lead the working groups advising the Morrison government on an indigenous voice to Parliament.
He called for a target on indigenous incarceration as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in 2006 and again in a Reconciliation Australia report in 2016.
Professor Calma urged the Morrison government to act on a report on indigenous justice by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which he said was left in an “abyss” after being released in 2017.
“Nothing changes – that’s the real frustration,” he said.
“And what’s important to recognise is that targets are one thing but it’s the programs and policies that will address those targets. We also need the commitment to implement the strategies.”
Professor Calma said the Black Lives Matter protests had highlighted the cost of the delays.
“They were an expression of frustration, and not only the frustration of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but the multitude of nationalities who walked with us and said enough is enough,” he said.
Federal and state governments issued a draft target in December 2018 to reduce adult indigenous incarceration by at least 5 per cent by 2028 but have never put it into formal agreement or action. Another draft target was to reduce the rate of young First Australians in detention by 11 to 19 per cent.
Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt told Parliament on Wednesday that he was working with state ministers but he did not commit to any of the numbers set out in the drafts.
“We will continue to work with the jurisdictions because there is broad agreement to both targets,” he said, when asked by Labor social services spokeswoman Linda Burney when he would set justice targets in the Closing the Gap framework.
The new targets are expected to be announced next month after Mr Wyatt holds further meetings.
Labor promised in November 2015 to reinstate targets on indigenous incarceration and accused the Coalition at the time of abandoning the goals set out by the Rudd and Gillard governments.
Labor Senator Pat Dodson condemned the inaction on indigenous disadvantage and said the national cabinet had to put a top priority on the systemic reasons for the higher incarceration rates.
“Nice words, good intentions, but the lack of action and commitment has not seen a reduction in the deaths in custody – it’s seen an escalation,” he told the Senate.
“It diminishes us as a nation because we are incapable of dealing with it.
“Don’t pussyfoot around with the states and say it’s the states responsibility. Well, we know this. You’ve been incapable of finding ways of dealing with this.
“Now’s the time to stop the rot of First Nations dying in custody, being over-imprisoned and their children being put into out-of-home care.”
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.