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Thorpe's call to federal government to act on deaths in custody reforms backed by crossbench

Dechlan Brennan -

Parliamentary crossbenchers have united behind Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe to call on the federal government to address long called for reforms concerning Indigenous deaths in custody and the removal of First Nations children.

On Close the Gap Day, an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister, Minister Linda Burney and Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, urged the government to address the "outstanding" recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the 1997 Bringing Them Home report.

"Successive governments have failed to implement the majority of recommendations from these reports, several decades after they have been handed down," Senator Thorpe, a Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman from Victoria, wrote.

"The lack of a coordinated approach and urgent implementation of these recommendations has led to the continuing worsening of conditions for First Peoples, and many lives lost.

"This goes against our international human rights obligations, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as basic ethical and moral standards as a nation."

The Labor government has maintained state governments should address the outstanding recommendations of these reports, even as the PM said last month all governments needed to do things differently in the wake of a scathing Productivity Commission report into Closing the Gap.

The letter called for new powers, as well as funding, for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Human Rights Commissioner, to help oversee the recommendations - many of which have not been fully implemented more than 30 years since they were first established.

It also called for the recently announced National Commissioner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children to help oversee the implementation of all the recommendations from the Bringing them Home report.

The letter is co-signed by MPs Andrew Wilkie, Kylea Tink, Zali Steggall, Monique Ryan, Kate Chaney, Zoe Daniel, Helen Haines, Sophie Scamps and Allegra Spender and senators David Pocock, Jacqui Lambie, and Tammy Tyrrell.

Senator Thorpe highlighted a series of "horrific reports", including the death of children in prison, revelations of children being removed in the immediate aftermath of childbirth, and continual revelations of systemic racism in the police.

"Decades after these important reports have been handed down, our people continue to die, and our children continue to be taken in record numbers," she said.

"We need justice, the Albanese government must show national leadership on these key reform areas now. We cannot let another government get away with no action."

The Bringing Them Home report made 54 recommendations including compensation for forced removals and mental health training on the effects of forced removal.

The deaths in custody royal commission made more than 300 recommendations including better monitoring of Indigenous deaths and imprisonment as a last resort. The last point has been routinely violated and ignored across the country.

The Queensland opposition have argued for the removal of imprisonment as a last resort for children, and states across Australia continue to see a significant number of children being kept behind bars on remand without them having yet been found guilty.

Last year saw 16-year-old Indigenous teenager Cleveland Dodd take his own life in the notorious Unit 18 at the adult, maximum security Casuarina Prison in Perth.

He was on remand.

Data released earlier this month showed rates of Indigenous suicide, incarceration and children in out-of-home care tracking backwards, and a lack of improvement in the incarceration levels of First Nations children.

The federal government last year released a 'real-time' monitoring dashboard for all deaths in custody, however Thorpe's letter criticised a "lack of monitoring" of all the recommendations left to implement, calling on the government to keep better records.

"Monitoring and oversight of progress on these critical reforms is a necessary step towards positive change for First Peoples on a larger scale," she said.

"This is a tangible and achievable step the government should take in this term. It is supported by the current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner and we hope the government will support such a basic measure without delay."

Indigenous Tasmanian Senator, Jacqui Lambie said in the 33 years since the Royal Commission, there had been hundreds of First Nations people who have died whilst in custody.

2024 has already seen four Indigenous and 11 non-Indigenous deaths in custody, and there have been at least 562 Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission.

"Like many reports and Royal Commissions, successive governments ignore the recommendations," she said.

"This Government has said time and again they are committed to improving the lives of Aboriginal people, I don't understand why they haven't done it already."

Independent MP Kylea Tink said: "We have a major problem with human rights in this country and it is frequently marginalised groups hardest hit by the lack of a human rights framework."

"It is not acceptable that this parliament, this government, has the answers but isn't acting," Ms Tink said.

"We as politicians should prioritise the reform required, and that starts with progressing the recommendations of the Royal Commission and the Bringing Them Home Report."

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