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Parliament warned of "institutional racism" within SA Govt

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South Australian Aboriginal people still experience “institutional and systemic racism” in their dealings with the Government, the state’s top Aboriginal advisor has warned in a historic speech to parliament.

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Aboriginal Engagement Commissioner Dr Roger Thomas said First Nations people were also subjected to “ongoing exclusions and inequalities”, despite “genuine efforts” of consecutive Governments to address Aboriginal disadvantage.

The Kokatha and Mirning man, who was appointed Commissioner in 2018, said last Thursday that he was the “first Aboriginal person to present an Aboriginal voice on the floor of this (House of Assembly) chamber” in its 163-year history.

“On this very special day, I have created my footprint into the Parliament of South Australia,” he said.

“I believe that the footprint that I have created in this chamber today will not fade but will be the footprint for future generations of Aboriginal people to follow and to walk on.”

Thomas is the primary point of contact between the state’s Aboriginal communities and the Government and reports directly to Premier Steven Marshall in his role as Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

Lack of progress suggests that these issues are intractable. Let me tell you that they are not

He has spent the past two years consulting with Traditional Owners across the state to find out how they want the Government to bridge the gap between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal South Australians.

“Aboriginal South Australians continue to experience institutional and systemic racism—this is something we must attack and reject—including in their dealings with the South Australian Government, which is of significant concern to members of this parliament,” Thomas said.

“The impact of this racism is complex.

“Lack of progress suggests that these issues are intractable. Let me tell you that they are not.”

In a report presented to Parliament, Thomas wrote that Aboriginal South Australians continued to be “over-policed”, with latest data showing First Nations people are 13.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal South Australians also represent over half of the total number of young people in youth detention on any given day.

“Over-incarceration is arguably the most prominent example of generational and systemic discrimination against Aboriginal Australians,” he wrote.

“Many Aboriginal people come into contact with the justice system at a young age and remain in its grip.

“This evidence supports views expressed by the Aboriginal community that racism is embedded in our justice and legal systems.”

Thomas wrote that Aboriginal children were also 12 times more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children, despite Aboriginal people representing only 2.4 per cent of the state’s population.

Other examples of “systemic racism” highlighted by Thomas included “unacceptable” rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody, “culturally inappropriate care” in the state’s health system that deterred members of the community from seeking assistance, and concerning rates of homelessness.

He also expressed concerns about State Government funding cuts to tertiary education provider Tauondi Aboriginal College in Port Adelaide in July this year.

“Whilst Tauondi is now transforming its business within the current parameters into a fee-for-service (FFS) model, it is extremely disappointing that the college has had its state funding cut, resulting in the loss of up to ten loyal and committed staff,” Thomas wrote.

“Any cut to Tauondi Aboriginal College funding is a very serious concern to all Aboriginal people in South Australia.”

In South Australia this year, only two of the seven Closing the Gap targets were on track: participation in early childhood and Year 12 or equivalent education.

Marshall said that the State Government was committed to implementing a new national agreement on Closing the Gap, released in July.

“The Agreement acknowledges that too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced entrenched disadvantage, political exclusion, intergenerational trauma and ongoing institutional racism,” he said.

“The identification and elimination of racism is an important aspect of transforming government organisations, which is amongst the priorities of the National Agreement.”

Meanwhile, work is underway to reform the state’s Aboriginal Advisory Council, including giving Aboriginal people the power to elect members to the peak body for the first time.

The changes, which are set to come into force late next year, include reshaping the Aboriginal Advisory Council to create a body that is part-elected by Aboriginal South Australians and part-appointed by the Government.

The Aboriginal Advisory Council is the State Government’s peak advisory body on Indigenous affairs and is the only group that meets twice yearly with Cabinet.

While Native Title boards are comprised of elected members, most government agencies or councils that advise on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs are comprised only of appointed representatives.

In his report, Thomas wrote that the reformed body, once implemented, would be a “significant step in the Aboriginal community’s road to self-determination” that would “contribute directly to government decision-making in areas that affect the lives and wellbeing of Aboriginal South Australians”.

But he wrote he was “disappointed” that his office did not receive funding in the State Budget to implement the reforms, despite being asked to do so by Marshall as part of the Government’s “Aboriginal Affairs Action Plan”.

“While I welcome assurances that some funding will be provided through Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation until 30 June 2021, I do not believe it is appropriate that the establishment of a genuinely representative Aboriginal voice to Parliament be funded from an already reduced budget for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation,” Thomas wrote.

“Despite the revised funding allocation, my office will continue its work to establish an Aboriginal Representative Body in the latter half of 2021.”

A state government spokesperson told InDaily that the COVID-19 pandemic had delayed consultation with Aboriginal communities about the new model.

“But as we move to its establishment, the Government will ensure adequate resources are provided to enable regular engagement with the Parliament as well as government ministers and agencies,” the spokesperson said.

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