The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) have raised concerns of discrimination against the Indigenous Victorian community during COVID-19 related legislation and policing.

According to a report by Crime Statistics Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria made up 4.7 per cent of fines, despite being only 0.8 per cent of Victoria’s population.

“There is no place for racial discrimination, especially during a pandemic. The ongoing over-policing of our people during the pandemic is further manifestation of systemic racism, and it needs to stop now,” said Co-Chair of NATSILS and CEO of VALS, Nerita Waight.

“Governments should be actively diverting and reducing the number of Aboriginal people entering the justice system and ensure everyone has social and economic support to get through this pandemic.”

Waight also shared VALS’ concerns regarding the proposed legislative amendments under the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020 (Vic).

The amendments would see preventative detention introduced as a COVID-19 response, and focuses on the potential of individuals to be non-compliant as opposed to actual non-compliance.

VALS’ noted this relies upon the subjective suspicion of authorised officers. However, there is no guidance as to how a ‘reasonable belief’ of future non-compliance is formed. There are no protections within the legislation in regard to review, internal or external oversight, nor is there any guidance regarding detention time-periods.

“It is frustrating and terrifying because this is something [the Victorian Government has] drafted and thought about. It’s something that has been put forward without an evidence-base, they have even decided not to put in safeguards or protections, and it is very concerning,” said Waight.

“When we are talking about something that relies upon … a subjective judgement then the concern really is about how unconscious bias plays into that. Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a society where there is systemic racism against Aboriginal people.”

“In our view, any deprivation of liberty even during a public health emergency must not be arbitrary.”

Waight said there needs to be investment in clear public health messaging and support for the public to comply with directions, instead of investment in administrative detention.

“It seems that the government is approaching this [differently to] other public health issues,” she said.

“Take for example public drunkenness—they are now proposing to decriminalise that and make it a public health response. Yet we are taking this out of the public health space and into the justice space. It just isn’t logical.”

Waight said the death of George Floyd and global Black Lives Matter protests helped open non-Indigenous Australians’ eyes to discrimination across the country.

“Now [non-Indigenous Australians] are getting an idea of how Aboriginal communities are discriminated against and persecuted by virtue of the colour of our skin … That is great that there is that ‘wokeness’, [but] what needs to happen is that that is translated to Parliament so that we can get the change we need,” she said.

“We haven’t seen governments really pick up the calls that society have made to put an end to systemic discrimination against our people.”

By Rachael Knowles