A commissioner from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody says he never thought in his “wildest dreams” that the issue would be considered a “national crisis” 30 years on.

It’s 30 years to the day since the Royal Commission handed down its report on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, delivering 339 recommendations – around a third of which are yet to be fully implemented, according to a 2018 report.

Labor Senator Pat Dodson was one of five commissioners appointed in 1987 after it was realised the number of deaths that required investigation was far higher than originally thought.

Despite a key recommendation that imprisonment should only occur as a last resort, the rate of imprisonment for Indigenous Australians has almost doubled in the intervening 30 years.

Senator Dodson says he believed at the time that the issue would be resolved.

Image: Callan Murray

“Not in my wildest dreams. I was very positive that the combination of the ATSIC Commission – our national voice to the parliament and regional representatives interfacing with state and Commonwealth agencies – would be able to address many of those underlying issues: health, housing, education and employment.

 Senator Dodson says leadership from the Prime Minister is needed.

“This is a case for national cabinet, this is a case for the Prime Minister and his minister to stand up and bring states together with legal services and put it to them that they need to come back in a month or so with a clear analysis and audit on the qualitative way in which the recommendations have been implemented, and to analyse these 474 deaths.”

“This is a continuing indictment on us as a nation and on our institutional structures that are being brought into disrepute through ignorance, neglect or racism, so how do we fix it up?”

The 2018 Deloitte review of the implementation of the recommendations, which is often cited, found: 78 per cent of recommendations have been fully or mostly implemented, 16 per cent had been partially implemented, and 6 per cent were not implemented.

But Greens senator Lidia Thorpe believes the review is unreliable, and said very few, if any of those recommendations have been effectively implemented.

“The government will tell you that they’ve implemented 90 per cent, but that’s based on a dodgy review done by Deloitte’s, it was done via a desktop review rather than going out to families and communities and talking to the people that have been most affected.”

The Gunnai-Gunditjmara senator says little good has come from the Royal Commission given our people are still dying at the hands of the system.

“It’s just been injustice after injustice. This government and many before it, haven’t taken on the recommendations from that Royal Commission. 30-years later and what’s changed? We’re increasing in the number of Aboriginal people dying at the hands of the system.”

“The government needs to take on all of those recommendations, fully implement them and ensure that they talk to the families about each recommendation to ensure they are being genuinely implemented, rather than tick-a-box.”