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Indigenous injustice: endless caution leads to permanent inaction

The long and dismal history of black deaths in custody – 434 over the past three decades – is a product of the inaction on Indigenous incarceration. Yet there is nothing new about setting a target to reduce the problem.


Reconciliation Australia called in 2016 for governments to act on the incarceration rates by setting a target in the Closing the Gap agenda, the agreed process to improve education and health.

This was not a radical call. One of the co-chairs at Reconciliation Australia, Tom Calma – who has taken leave while working on an Indigenous voice to Parliament — proposed incarceration targets in 2006. While Labor embraced the idea, the Coalition did not.

It took COAG until December 2018 to outline a “refresh” on Closing the Gap that sought to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration by 11 to 19 per cent among young people and 5 per cent among adults. The draft targets have been drafts ever since.

The Closing the Gap agenda has had mixed results. Australia is on track to meet the target of enrolling 95 per cent of four-year-olds in early childhood education, as well as to halve the gap in year 12 attainment. We are not on track to meet targets on school attendance, employment, child mortality and more.

On Indigenous incarceration, however, Australia does not even have an agreed goal. Leaders cannot point to any ambition, let alone progress. Who can be surprised at the raw anger at the Black Lives Matter protests?

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew DysonCredit:

Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt will meet his state counterparts next month and there is talk of an agreement on final targets. Wyatt has been very cautious in public this week not to suggest a plan for anything more than the drafts.

Wyatt has good reason to be cautious. It was telling this week when nobody in the Coalition party room meeting on Tuesday mentioned the protests or their cause. Anyone who spoke up on Indigenous welfare might have been shouted down by those frustrated with the demonstrations.

This means the old political outcome could easily be the new one. Does Morrison have any ambition to end the inaction? Will the party room listen to Liberal MPs like Andrew Bragg and Julian Leeser, two of those who support an Indigenous voice?

Morrison speaks of the problem in terms so vague it sounds as if there is hardly a problem at all, a point Sean Kelly made in these pages on Monday.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

And Morrison’s argument that “there was no slavery in Australia” is so at odds with history, given the evidence of blackbirding and indentured service, that it could hamper any attempt he makes to extend a hand to First Australians.

The political dynamics are troubling. Morrison taps into a real frustration in parts of the community about the Black Lives Matter protests – the anger at the double standard when 20,000 or more gather on the street while others obey the pandemic restrictions.

Is he wrong? If the point of a protest is to achieve change, those who march could easily fail. How will someone who has lost work feel if the protests lead to more coronavirus cases and longer restrictions? Who can be sure Australians will open their hearts to this cause, or close their ears?


This is not an argument for treating protests like any other mass gathering, because a protest is an expression of freedom of speech. Even so, the fact a protest is legal does not make it wise or effective.

This matters because protests are never enough in the best of times, let alone a pandemic. About 40,000 marched for Indigenous rights on Australia Day in Sydney in 1988. Bob Hawke promised a treaty five months later but the reform was dropped within a few years.

Those who want Morrison to act on Indigenous justice can show him the moral case for doing so, but they need a political case, too.

One lesson is that states and territories can hide behind federal inaction. Morrison is not the only leader at COAG or in national cabinet. The police, prosecutors and jail wardens all report to state premiers and territory chief ministers. Any demand on Morrison should be placed on state leaders as well.


A second lesson is that the voices for change within the Coalition party room are easily drowned out but are likely to be essential to any outcome. While Labor and the Greens are sympathetic to the protests, few changes last if they are only supported by one side of politics.

The third lesson is that endless caution leads to permanent inaction. Wyatt treads so softly as Indigenous Affairs Minister it is hard to be sure he is taking any steps at all. Someone needs to wake leaders out of their torpor.

Protests alone cannot do this. In fact, they might hurt. This has been a political failure and needs a political solution.

David Crowe is Chief Political Correspondent.

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