March 21 was the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which marks the anniversary of a horrific massacre in apartheid South Africa in 1960, in which 69 innocent civilians were killed whilst protesting in Sharpeville. It is a widely recognized day that seeks to shape a more equal world, free from discrimination.
In Australia however, March 21 is only known as Harmony Day. Some in the media have argued that this is because acknowledging “the elimination of racial discrimination” would actually mean accepting its presence in the first place.
When it comes to the Australian justice system, the prevalence of systemic racism is hard to ignore. Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Indigenous justice group Change the Record, is blunt in saying that the justice system openly discriminates against Indigenous people.
“Every year, Aboriginal people suffer racist or violent mistreatment and abuse by police,” Axleby, a Narungga woman, told The Diplomat. “They don’t report it for fear of reprisal. For those who do, complaints often take months, sometimes even over a year, to be investigated and resolved.”
The Top-End and Struggles With Justice
The Northern Territory (NT) exemplifies Axleby’s comments. A large, sprawling, and isolated expanse at the top of Australia, the NT contains just over 1 percent of the Australian population. Of its 230,000 inhabitants, the majority live in the port city of Darwin.
Whilst the Indigenous population in Australia sits at below 3 percent of the total, in the NT, members of the world’s oldest civilization make up just over 25 percent of residents. It is no coincidence that the NT is also home to some of the most gruesome parts of Australia’s bloody history.
Guardian Australia recently published “The Killing Times,” an interactive map documenting the deaths of Indigenous people at the hand of Australian settlers. Dotted throughout the Northern Territory are tales of murder. In 1924, 20 Indigenous people were murdered for unknown reasons in the Victoria River District. A survivor later told of how his people “were run down and shot like dogs.”
Four years later, at Coniston, a “reprisal” by colonizers left up to 200 Indigenous people dead. Many Warlpiri and Yanmatjiri Aboriginal people were hunted down and murdered by police expeditions.
These incidents aren’t isolated in Australia’s history, but form a pattern that continues to repeat today. In 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was deemed to be a landmark moment in the relationship between Indigenous Australians and the justice system, but since that time, over 500 Aboriginal people have died while in custody. No one has been found guilty or faced prison time over these deaths.
Axleby is devastated by this. “It is hard to feel justice,” she told The Diplomat, “when time and time again Aboriginal people are killed in custody, but no one is held accountable.”
One Indigenous person, who requested not to be named, noted that an inherent fear of the police has been ingrained into many in the Northern Territory.
“I don’t talk to the cops, it’s a very scary thing to do,” she told The Diplomat. “I avoid it all costs. Even my children are afraid of the police.”
She noted that police are often stationed at liquor stores, checking the IDs of Indigenous patrons and subjecting them to further questions, sometimes including their address. All of this results in an ingrained anxiety.
Cases like the recent trial of Zachary Rolfe, which ended with the police officer being acquitted for the murder of an Indigenous teenager, have emphasized to people like Cheryl Axleby the stark contrast in justice for police as opposed to Indigenous people.
When an Indigenous person dies, “too often findings are ‘inconclusive’ due to insufficient evidence.” But at the same time, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are the victims of police misconduct face huge barriers to justice.”
Another Indigenous activist told The Diplomat that “our people have always been criminalized because of the color of our skin.”
The reality of the systemic racism faced by Indigenous people in the justice system is highlighted by former Chief Justice of Western Australia, the Hon. Wayne Martin AC:
Aboriginal people are much more likely to be questioned by police than non-Aboriginal people. When questioned they are more likely to be arrested. If they are arrested, they are much more likely to be remanded in custody than given bail. Aboriginal people are much more likely to plead guilty than go to trial, and if they go to trial, they are much more likely to be convicted. If convicted, they are much more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people, and at the end of their term of imprisonment they are much less likely to get parole than non-Aboriginal people.
Is Change Happening?
In 2008, the Australian government released a framework, titled “Closing the Gap.” The report alluded to the large discrepancies in key factors such as life expectancy, incarceration rates, and health issues between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
This year, the Law Council to Australia released a statement clarifying that a lot of these aspirations had yet to be fulfilled.
“It is now more important than ever to grapple with what Closing the Gap will mean in practice,” said Law Council of Australia President Tass Liveris. “Because whether as accused people, offenders or victims, outcomes for First Nations peoples in the criminal justice context clearly continue to worsen.”
It is widely accepted that the forced removal of children from their families, under a government-mandated movement now known as “The Stolen Generation,” has resulted in long-lasting trauma, which has heavily contributed to Indigenous over-representation in the Australian prison system.
In the Northern Territory, home to the highest percentage of prisoners in the country, Aboriginal people make up 84 percent of the inmates, despite representing around a quarter of the total population in the state. One of the key recommendations from the RCIADIC was that the dramatic and unique trauma that was inflicted on the Indigenous population needed to be taken into account when sentencing.
Too often, this simply isn’t done. The Law Council of Australia has implored the federal government to work with First Nations groups directly to progress reforms such as Closing the Gap, noting that currently the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the justice system “is a national tragedy.”
Any progress has been notoriously slow, however, and is often mired in debates around merit.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart, a campaign led by many prominent Indigenous leaders, has called for a dedicated Aboriginal voice in Parliament. They say this will allow the first people on the land to have a direct, political say in the way Aboriginal people are supported in the various communities. Laws that directly and often only impact Aboriginal people would, for the first time, be reviewed and recommendations given by a dedicated Aboriginal representative. “We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country,” the statement said.
Such a reform, however, has been consistently opposed by most members of the current government.
Change the Record has called for more funding for Indigenous health care groups, especially for Indigenous women, who are 32 times more likely to than non-Indigenous women to be hospitalized as a result of domestic violence.
Change the Record’s report made 12 recommendations, including an Indigenous research group to look at systemic racism in health systems.
Other recommendations included an increase in the welfare rate, which was refused by the federal government, and more access to housing, with overcrowding becoming a serious issue throughout the country.
Sadly, most of these changes have not been implemented. And to many activists, the limited reforms that have been made do not have any lasting impact on the everyday safety of ordinary Indigenous people.
For Cheryl Axleby, real change needs to come from the top and be universal. “Governments need to start addressing the underlying drivers of inequality and injustice in our communities instead of just throwing money at police to respond,” she said.
When asked why there doesn’t seem to be much tangible change, she doesn’t mince her words: “There is still not the political will or leadership to end the injustice, discrimination, and disadvantage that hurts our people.”
Until this happens, discrimination and injustice will continue unabated for many of Australia’s original inhabitants.