New Defence Minister Peter Dutton has done the right thing by overriding the recommendations of the Defence hierarchy who wanted to strip thousands of Australian soldiers of their medals for bravery.

Those soldiers served Australia honourably in a war zone, with unproved allegations by some Afghan civilians being given as a prime reason for punishing our troops.

The knee-jerk reaction by Defence was met by outrage from soldiers’ families and by much of the Australian public, rightly so. Thankfully, Dutton stepped in.

When these as yet unproved allegations were made against Australian soldiers by Afghan civilians, certain sectors of the media and government went into overdrive as they played the roles of judge, jury and executioner for untested, alleged crimes in a war zone.

Their narrative was justice must be served without fear or favour, and Australia’s soldiers must be punished — even though there had been no cross-examination of the accusers’ claims by the accused soldiers’ defence teams. The accusers ignored the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”.

Indigenous Australians know only too well how that feels and the catastrophic effects and tragic events that inevitably follow.

But why is this relevant to Indigenous Australia? Is it because Indigenous Australians have served Australia faithfully, bravely and honourably in war since before Federation even though they were, in effect, non-citizens until 1967?

No. The National Indigenous Times wonders why there is not the same outrage from government and sectors of the media when one Indigenous death in custody after another occurs.

Indeed, it has been 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody  and the problem has become worse — not better.

There has been no real decisive action by the government. The National Indigenous Australians Agency, which is responsible for coordinating Indigenous Affairs, is not willing or able to deal with this problem, nor will it take responsibility.

This is despite its $3.2 billion budget for the financial year 2020-21.

In the past, the NIAA has given NIT the hardline stance that “the Australian Government has implemented 91 per cent of the recommendations for which it had responsibility”.

Unfortunately, it’s that final 9 per cent that hasn’t been implemented that is causing most of the damage and consequently has been put in the “too hard” basket. Hence, the continuing tsunami of deaths in custody.

It is the Federal Government and the NIAA which should be leading the way on this matter and holding State and Territory counterparts accountable for their lack of action.

After all, the Australian Government is criticising other countries for their human rights records as a supposedly concerned member of the United Nations and signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Luckily for the Australian Government, the declaration is non-binding, which is probably why it signed it. The result being it can continually and wilfully breach the declaration knowing there will be no punishment from the UN.

Instead, there are the usual crocodile tears from the Government about how terrible the situation is without any real willingness to confront the issue.

The anguished cries of relatives whose loved ones have died in custody are ignored. There is little regard for holding perpetrators responsible.

Can you imagine what would happen if State and Territory police ministers stripped all police of their medals for bravery and community service because of the epidemic of deaths in custody? There would be an uproar that would reverberate all the way to Canberra and beyond.

That is simply not going to happen because the system itself is inherently racist.

The word of an Afghan villager carries more weight in this country than the word of an Indigenous person who has witnessed an Indigenous death in custody or is related to an Indigenous person who has died in custody.

For all those deaths in custody there has not been a single conviction of a police officer. This is a frightening and damning statistic when you consider at least 474 Indigenous people have died while in the custody of police since the 1991 Royal Commission.

This is an epidemic of death and suffering with no remedy in sight because neither the NIAA nor the relevant State, Territory and Federal ministers have the courage to confront it and address it fully.

It’s time for a royal commission to address this issue again. And there must be truth-telling about why Indigenous people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world are arrested, locked up and dying while in custody at record-breaking rates.

Or is it time to admit the words of Afghan villagers have more weight than the collective voices of Australia’s First Nations people and their many non-Indigenous supporters?

It’s time to fight through the smoke and mirrors of Indigenous progress and act to ensure deaths in custody becomes a chapter in a history book instead of the lived reality of thousands of Indigenous people across Australia.

By Clinton Wolf


Clinton Wolf is Managing Director of the National Indigenous Times.