Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney says the deaths of 527 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people taken into custody since the 1991 royal commission is a national tragedy.
Burney recently addressed the issue in a speech in the House of Commons, during a debate on the Referendum Machinery Bill, outlining how the Voice to Parliament referendum will be conducted.
Her remarks come after Labor Senator Pat Dodson intervened strongly on the issue, calling for the federal government to take a leading role in advancing recommendations for death in custody.
He nominated the creation of a National Commission on Indigenous Justice, a federal agency to oversee state investigations into the state and provide tailored health care for Indigenous people in prisons as measures where immediate action could be taken.
In her speech, Burney said the images of 37-year-old Indigenous woman Veronica Nelson, alone and in pain, pleading for help from a cell in Victoria’s largest women’s prison in early 2014, were poignant.
A coroner recently concluded that Nelson died an avoidable and agonizing death in prison.
“Veronica made 49 requests for help, and all of them were ignored by authorities,” Burney said.
“Too many of our people are being robbed of their future by a justice system that has failed them.
“I am working with Attorney General and Senator Dodson to implement the government’s $99 million First Nations Justice Commission. This means working with local communities to prevent First Nations people from entering the justice system. As Senator Dodson said to me this morning, the best way to prevent deaths in custody is to make sure our people don’t end up in jail. And that is why reinvestment in justice is so important.”