‘This is an absolute scandal’: Government accused of failing to address crisis of Indigenous deaths in custody

Indigenous senators have accused the federal government of failing to address the crisis of Indigenous deaths in custody, warning another royal commission is looming if action is not taken.

On Friday, Senate estimates heard the government does not keep consolidated data on the number of deaths in custody, with this information collated from available records and monitoring the media.

Labor senators Patrick Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy expressed frustration in the hearing over the federal government’s response to the statistics.

“Aboriginal people are frustrated to the back teeth about the number of deaths that are occurring and it appears as if nothing is happening and no one’s concerned,” Senator Dodson said. 

Labor Senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy addressing Liberal Senator Amanda Stoker.


This April will mark 30 years since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down 339 recommendations.

More than 450 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since that report was released.

In a tense exchange, Senator Dodson told the estimates hearing the government had failed to effectively implement the recommendations of the inquiry.

“Why have we got nearly 500 deaths since the royal commission if these recommendations have been so effective in the implementation by the states and by the Commonwealth?” he said. 

The hearing came just one day after it was revealed that Barkindji man Anzac Sullivan had died in custody – the fourth Indigenous person to die in Australian custody in three weeks.

Liberal senator Amanda Stoker responded by defending the federal government’s commitment to addressing Senator Dodson’s concerns.

“I understand that the outrage and the upset is real because the lives of every person through our justice system are important, no matter what the colour of their skin is,” she said. 

“They are living human beings, they are Australians and they matter.”

Senator Stoker had earlier cited that 91 per cent of the royal commission’s recommendations had been fully implemented. 

However, Senator Dodson said experts disputed the extent and effectiveness of this response.

He also questioned officials from the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) about the government’s monitoring of Indigenous deaths in custody. 

NIAA officials said it relied on data from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) and media reports to collate a record of the deaths.

They added that the AIC worked under the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs department. 

“We are aware of the figures,” said Debbie Mitchell of the NIAA.

Blair Exell, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the NIAA, said that meetings of federal and state ministers had been held in relation to addressing the issue.

“It’s not something we are sitting by idly on,” Mr Exell said. “There are meetings going on.”

Under an overhaul of the Closing the Gap agreement last year, the federal government has set new targets for reducing the rate of Indigenous incarnation by 2031.

Senator Stoker said a coordinated response between the Commonwealth, States and Territories is needed to respond to the underlying issues leading to incarceration.

“We need to understand that while our coordination role is important, it is not something about which it’s constructive to point the finger,” she said. “It’s something of which we all need to work together.”

Senator Dodson said another royal commission will be needed if the government doesn’t accelerate its efforts. 

“You are going to have another royal commission on your hands if you don’t advertise the stuff you’re doing and accelerate your efforts to do something about those issues,” he said. 

He urged Senator Stoker to “use her influence” to do more to address the crisis.

“Use your influence. Because this is a scandal. An absolute scandal,” he said.

Senator McCarthy later accused the federal government of shirking its responsibility.

“Everyone keeps passing the buck … no one is taking responsibility for this massive problem that we have in our country of First Nations people dying unnecessarily, ” she told reporters. 

“There’s an urgency now. There always has been, but it’s even more so now.”

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