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Racism continues to plague the lives of Aboriginal people

Dr Hannah McGlade -

Australia is a racist country. It has a racist history which continues to impact on the lives of Aboriginal people.

Evidence of racism in Australia against Aboriginal people is extensive. As I wrote in 1997 analyzing a review of the Race Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), these words ring as true now as they did then.

With respect to Aboriginal people, the review highlighted that race discrimination was difficult to prove, and harder to establish than sex discrimination; very low damages are awarded for successful complaints of racial discrimination; and, the only clear act of racism against Aboriginal people identified by the Commission was the refusal of service in hotels.

In comparison complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), typically lodged by white Australian women, fared much better, with significantly more complaints being substantiated at hearing, and more significant awards of damages.

Nearly three decades on, with racism and racist views being displayed overtly to Aboriginal people, including from politicians, we must ask – how far have we really come in addressing racism, a serious violation of human rights?

The issue of racism against Aboriginal people took national stage recently over the treatment of ABC journalist Stan Grant who stood down in the face of shocking racial abuse directed towards him and his family.

This abuse had intensified during Grant's reporting of the King's Coronation where perspectives of Indigenous peoples on the Crown were aired.

Initially no one from ABC's management spoke publicly in his defense, although they had in the past done just that when it concerned a prominent white journalist who'd experienced harassment. Stan Grant told us to keep our sympathy for those in our community that don't have his privilege, and who are feeling alone and abandoned.

For the first time in my life, I've been on the receiving end of racist emails, in response to speaking out about the children at Banksia Hill Detention Centre; Aboriginal children who'd had guns pointed at their heads by police after they rioted in response to successive lockdowns, which have been declared unlawful by the Supreme Court. But I knew I could simply delete the racist messages and continue my human rights advocacy in relative safety. Not so for many in our community.

Which brings me to the family of murder victim Stacey Thorne, left reeling last week from the WA government's decision to award $1.6 million to Scott Austic, previously incarcerated for their beloved Stacey's murder. A campaign for his release, including by former governor Malcolm McCusker QC, preceded a Supreme Court decision that his conviction was unreliable, that he was framed by corrupt police.

The government also, on the same day, finally released two reports of 2013, and 2023, by the Corruption and Crime Commission into the police investigation, which rejected the claim of police misconduct.

The 2013 report that was kept from the public refuted the public claim by Austic supporters that evidence was kept from the first jury, evidence that could implicate a person other than Austic. This was not true.

Brenda and Hayley Thorne and family are deeply distressed and are holding onto hope that a $1 million reward the state has now issued for 64 unsolved murders, including Stacey's, will offer new leads.

The media's appalling treatment of Aboriginal women is well known and documented. This was evident following Austic's acquittal as journalists at the ABC trumpeted him as a hero, while neglecting Stacey's life and the lives of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. We were required to complain directly to the ABC but their complaints body included no Aboriginal people. Not surprisingly they also showed racial bias in their decision making.

For two years at least I've asked Our Watch to address through training racism in the media against Aboriginal women as victims of violence. Aboriginal women as victims of murder and other crimes and human rights abuse are all too often rendered invisible, minimised, marginalised, stereotyped, and abused. Our Watch apparently need yet more consultations.

Meanwhile at the Human Rights Commission, which suffered severe funding cuts under the previous conservative government, Aboriginal complainants can encounter significant wait times and there's still no clear indication that Aboriginal women's intersectional experiences of racism and discrimination will be effectively assessed and addressed.

The reality is that Aboriginal people, even children, are still experiencing racism and racist violence frequently, insidiously, persistently, dangerously.

In 2017 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Race Discrimination expressed concern about the rise of racism in Australia and the barriers to race discrimination complaints – making important recommendations including the reversal of the onus of proof in complaints, which never happened.

The state's failure to tackle racism effectively, as it is required to do, must be urgently addressed, including within the proposed systemic reforms of Voice, Treaty and Truth which gives an important opportunity for increased attention and responses to racism, which poses serious public health risks to Aboriginal peoples as well as denial of human rights.

Dr Hannah McGlade is a Kurin Minang human rights expert and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

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