Australia’s first truth-telling commission has requested a two-year extension to deliver its final report, as it moves to focus on modern injustices perpetrated against Indigenous people.
To mark NAIDOC Week, Victoria’s Yoorrook Justice Commission on Monday released its interim report after meeting with 174 local elders across the state and another seven in Melbourne-based public hearings in recent months.
While too soon to make findings and recommendations on substantive issues, the inquiry has asked Victorian Governor Linda Dessau to extend the due date for its final report from mid-2024 to mid-2026 and sign off on additional resources.
“Establishing Australia’s first truth-telling commission is highly complex,” Chair Eleanor Bourke said.
“Yoorrook’s mandate spans more than two hundred years of historic and ongoing injustices. Time is needed to ensure the best process, right for community, so that we can create a more complete public record for all.”
The commission noted it was beset by COVID-19 lockdown delays in 2021, and Treaty Minister Gabrielle Williams and First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria co-chair Marcus Stewart have both recognised the “enormity” of its mandate.
When facing the inquiry in May, Ms Williams said it was open to the commission to recommend an extension to the state’s truth-telling process beyond 2024.
The other initial recommendation contained within the 103-page document is for the Victorian government to protect Indigenous data sovereignty through new legislation before the end of 2023.
The inquiry expressed concerns current royal commission laws may not allow First Nations people to choose how the information they share is protected, reducing the strength of Yoorrook’s assurances their knowledge and stories will remain safe in the future.
It wrote to Ms Williams about the issue in February and the government has indicated it is willing to consider legislative reforms, the report said.
Based on the insights gathered during the elders’ “yarning circles” and public hearings, Yoorrook identified 11 central themes, ranging from dispossession and dislocation to a colonial education system and public silencing and denial.
Among other themes identified were: stolen wages and economic marginalisation; families, kinship and stolen children; legal injustice and incarceration; and injuries to body and spirit.
Elders spoke of discrimination and segregation in the medical system, healthcare institutions continuing to act with racism towards Indigenous people, and changing Victoria’s school curriculum to include Aboriginal perspectives and history.
“The Aboriginal history side will be introduced as a compulsory subject, as is maths and English, and the truth of this country and Victoria,” Uncle Alan Marden told the commission.
Others outlined how dispossession of land, resources and wealth has been reinforced and repeated through government-imposed barriers, and described methods used by police to target Aboriginal communities with surveillance and violence as well as criminalise their youth.
“To quote my cousin: ‘Governments, you made me the criminal I am’,” said Nirai Bulluk elder Uncle Larry Walsh.
The report revealed the commission’s next phase will focus on two priority areas: the state-sanctioned removal of Indigenous children from their families and ongoing injustices to First Nations people in the criminal justice system.
Despite acknowledging both issues have been subject to past inquiries and recommendations, Yoorrook noted Indigenous Australians are still dying in custody and their kids continue to be removed in record numbers.
“The continuing systemic failure to stop these forms of harm demands that the commission prioritise these issues with urgency,” it said.