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White heat: Blacks deaths

By Geoff Clark - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was one of hundreds of inquiries over the years that have investigated the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and reported on the things that affect us.

It took nearly four years. It cost millions of dollars.

To date, it has been the most progressive and comprehensive of such reports. It made far reaching recommendations about the future of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships in Australia. Tragically, ten years on, there has been little change.


Indigenous peoples make up 1 in 50 of the total population. In the custodial population we represent 1 in 5. The cost to the Australian taxpayer, is $255 million a year.

If non-Indigenous people were jailed at the same rate as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australia would see a national prison population of nearly a quarter of a million people. Imagine the outcry.

But it is not just adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are locked up. A recent report highlighted that our children are now being taken from their homes and put in institutional care at higher rates than before.

The Royal Commission was established by the Hawke Government in August 1987 in response to public alarm.

Indigenous deaths in custody were too common; public explanations appeared too evasive.

The public agitation was led by members of the Aboriginal community including the Committee to Defend Black Rights. Many were convinced of foul play.


The Royal Commission was conducted in an atmosphere of controversy, suspicion and hostility. It generated a lot of white heat. The heat of anger by black Australia of its treatment by white Australia.

The heat of anger of white Australia that the story was at last to be told and white Australia needed to respond to the criticisms and challenges.

The Royal Commission found that Indigenous people, did not, and do not, commit more crimes than non-Indigenous people. Racism and discrimination across all levels of the system go more to explaining the reason why so many more are arrested.

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This is an edited extract from a speech given to the Tenth Anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody at Melbourne Museum, April 17, 2001. Click here to read the full transcript.

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About the Author

Geoff Clark is a former Chair of ATSIC.

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