Making Aboriginal deaths in custody “history”: On Royal Commissions

John Alizzi in conversation with Uncle Sam Watson
“What do you mean ‘storytelling’?”

He had just returned to Brisbane from another speaking engagement and another protest, this time in Sydney, this time for the 33rd anniversary of Eddie Murray’s death in custody. Uncle Sam Watson started this work over twenty years ago, in the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991). Murray’s death in 1981 was one of 99 investigated by the Commission; his family now want the case re-opened. “It’s been almost ten years since Cameron Doomadgee’s death in custody, too”, he noted, referring to “Palm Island” to help me get the reference.

My sights were set on a more abstract issue, though; I wanted to ask about the role of Royal Commissions in storytelling and in history (with an eye to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires and current Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commissions). So I opened with that question. The guarded reply: “What do you mean ‘storytelling’?”

A little thrown, I quickly answered: “I mean in a neutral sense – the chance for people to talk about their experiences, to have a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have”. And, just as quickly, his reply: “Of course, storytelling is a big part of Aboriginal culture. And the good thing about the Royal Commission is that people could tell their stories. But it failed.”

That stark conclusion is far from contested. A Senior Commissioner, Hal Wootten QC recently admitted the four year process produced a disappointing result. According to ABS figures, between 1992 and 2008 there were more than 250 Aboriginal deaths in custody. In the five years from 2008 to 2013, the numbers rose sharply.

The Royal Commission made a whopping 339 recommendations but lack of implementation has shocked many. This failure is all the more surprising given the less than ambitious nature of many of the recommendations. Of “The Findings of the Commission as to the Deaths”, the sole recommendations were that government should “negotiate” with the families about compensation (rather than taking them to court) and “give sympathetic support”.

“Politics has moved on”

From the early 90s, Uncle Sam Watson worked to put the many recommendations into practice through support services in Brisbane, including legal services. The failure foremost in his mind goes to the heart of the rule of law: “There were no charges, no prosecutions of those who murdered. There is one law for white Australia and another law for Aboriginal people.”

There was both exasperation and determination in his words, both stemming from a desire for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to be “history” in a very different sense than what they have been. As he put it, the government of the day determines each Royal Commission, the terms of reference, and responses to the recommendations. As for Aboriginal deaths in custody, “politics has moved on.”

It has. In fact, just a few days ago, the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) was notified that its program to help prisoners “get back on track” will not be funded by the federal government after 30 June 2014. That, despite the Royal Commission’s recommendations that Aboriginal Legal Services be funded (No 234) on the understanding that the service has a “wider role” than simply legal advice and representation (No 105).

Uncle Sam Watson didn’t want to focus on abstract lessons to draw from a closed chapter of Royal Commissions, because the story is far from over. He was still writing it, with fewer co-authors; speaking it, with no Commissioners or lawyers to hear (and with no pay checks for their “third BMWs” – an aside on the supposed motive for their temporary interests). He was continuing a conversation that others had left back in 1991, acutely aware his audience had thinned.

I was an anomaly – asking questions, listening to the answers. I quickly crossed a number of those questions off my list: “What might there be to gain, or to lose, in appointing non-legally trained commissioners?” “Do you think all matters of national concern or controversy are well-served by Royal Commissions?” This conversation would be about the people killed and their families. “One thing I’ve found is the profound impact on the families – a succession of deaths flow; this happened a very short time after Doomadgee died.”

Every answer came with equal parts discontent and resolve  – that he had spoken the words “Murray” and “Doomadgee” 1000 times, and would speak them 1000 more, or so long as he had a voice – to make the stories “history” in the right sense.

I did ask how subsequent film and literature have contributed to or enhanced the storytelling involved in the Royal Commission. Uncle Sam Watson is, after all, an acclaimed writer, film maker and playwright. His 1990 novel Kadaitcha Sung (Penguin) led to him winning the National Indigenous Writer of the Year Award, and he wrote and co-produced the short film Black Man Down, part of the award-winning collection Sand to Celluloid. Black Man Down is as succinct as its symbolism is devastating.

He also mentioned the Walkley award-winning book and documentary, Tall Man, about the contested events and aftermath of Domadgee’s death.

Again, no elaborate commentary on the abstract – this time the power of film or literature. The distinct message was this: read them, watch them. What is the role of literature, the role of film in amplifying the stories of the Royal Commission? Watch and see, and continue the conversation.

This article is part of our June Issue, focusing on Human Rights and History.