By Commissioner and Deputy Chair of the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Adjunct Professor Sue-Anne Hunter.
The Yoorrook Justice Commission has a mandate to investigate all systemic injustice against First Peoples dating back to the beginning of colonisation. In September Yoorrook released its second interim report.
The report followed a 12-month inquiry into Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice systems.
The findings were stark.
Yoorrook found that First Peoples have and continue to face widespread systemic racism, harm and injustice across both systems. There is an unbroken line from past injustice to present day failures.
Yoorrook heard evidence time and time again of the failures across multiple systems that funnel Aboriginal children into the child protection system and then onto the criminal justice system. Despite numerous inquiries and political promises, these systems remain unjust and broken for Aboriginal people.
Commissioners were told deeply personal stories of police racism and brutality. We heard evidence of mistreatment in prisons including routine strip searching, failures to provide proper health care and the use of solitary confinement on children.
We were told about systemic racism in the child protection system, where Aboriginal families are judged through a white lens. Where the government is too slow to support families who need help and too fast to remove children and place them with non-Aboriginal carers, away from their family, community, culture and country.
Through the truth telling process the Victorian Government acknowledged their part in the injustices within both systems.
Seven government representatives including ministers, senior public servants and the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police formally apologised to First Peoples for past and ongoing harm carried out by the state against Aboriginal people.
In a letter to Yoorrook, former Premier Dan Andrews described the significant overrepresentation of First Peoples in the child protection and criminal justice systems as “a source of great shame” for the Victorian government.
After the first day of hearings the then Premier responded by way of the media stating, “we are taking too many First Nations kids away from their families”. He said he wanted to give “much greater Aboriginal control of the child protection system when it comes to their kids than we’ve ever done”.
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes gave evidence regarding the criminal justice system and told Yoorrook that “key factors attributable to the significant growth in the rate of Aboriginal people in…prison in Victoria…are largely due to policies and legislation”.
In other words, despite all of its promises to do the opposite, the main reason more Aboriginal people are being locked up in Victoria is because the Victorian Government has chosen to adopt laws and policies knowing that they will send, and have sent, more Aboriginal people to jail.
One notorious example is the harsh bail reforms that saw a 560 per cent increase over a decade in the number of First Peoples entering prisons unsentenced.
In his evidence, Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said his view on police oversight had moved and he recognised that the current system of police investigating the vast majority of police complaints was not trusted by the Aboriginal community. He agreed that the police oversight system would be strengthened if Victoria had independent investigation of police complaints.
These acknowledgements are now on the public record and provide important recognition. But apologies alone are not enough.
The real test comes in the actions the Victorian Government takes after apologising for systemic injustice against First Peoples.
The government made positive commitments during Yoorrook’s investigation, including on bail laws, public drunkenness decriminalisation and the minimum age of criminal responsibility, all of which disproportionately harm First Peoples. The former Premier also committed to overhaul Victoria’s child protection system, which he admitted was “not designed properly”.
Momentum is growing, building on decades of tireless advocacy by First Peoples, their organisations and allies. It is imperative that Premier Jacinta Allan and her government continue to build on this progress. Our people cannot afford anything less.
Yoorrook’s report provides a roadmap for reform to reshape the child protection and criminal justice systems and end the systemic injustice experienced by First Peoples at the hands of the state.
In all, Yoorrook made 46 recommendations including transformative changes and urgent reforms within both systems. Fixing systemic injustice doesn’t just improve the lives of First Peoples, it makes these systems better for everyone.
First and foremost, the report called on the Victorian Government to uphold its commitment to First Peoples’ self-determination in relation to the child protection and criminal justice systems.
Self-determination means handing over power, resources and control so that we can design, establish and run systems and services to support our families and communities to thrive. The evidence shows you get better outcomes when you put First Peoples in control of the issues that affect our lives.
For thousands of generations, First Peoples self-governed. We wielded economic and political power within our own systems of lore, culture, spirituality and ritual. European invasion and colonisation took this from us. It saw attempts to eradicate our people. But we resisted, we survived, and we never ceded our sovereignty.
Self-determination is about correcting this wrong. Without it, we are being given promises written in sand.
“Yoorrook” means “truth” in the Wamba Wamba language. First Peoples across Victoria have shared their truth about how Victoria’s child protection and criminal justice systems are failing them.
Our report is a plan to create a better future for First Peoples and all Victorians. Now is the time for action.