Vital Aboriginal Service Saved As State And Federal Liberals Go To War Over Cost

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The service is credited with preventing deaths in custody, but the fight over who should pay for it has seen the Minister for Indigenous Affairs lash out at his NSW colleagues. Max Chalmers reports.

A vital service provided to Aboriginal people if they are taken into police custody has had its funding extended for three years after the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs stepped in to help secure its future following a period of funding turmoil.

Minister Nigel Scullion announced on Monday that the NSW/ACT based Custody Notification Service (CNS) would have its funding extended until mid-2019, shoring up the scheme credited with helping prevent Aboriginal deaths in police custody.

In NSW police are required by law to contact a lawyer any time an Aboriginal person is taken into custody. The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), which administers the system, takes the call and offers the person advice. Significantly, on top of legal assistance, they also make inquiries about the person’s health and welfare.

The scheme was a key recommendation of the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, but mandatory notification systems have not been implemented around the country. NSW has not seen a single Aboriginal death in police custody since the service was introduced, and stands-out from others by offering a 24-hour call line. The service costs as little as $500,000 per year, and solicitors employed by the ALS work throughout the night without penalty rates.

Despite that, funding for the program has generally only been secured by short-term grants, with State and Commonwealth governments bickering over who should pick up the tab. The most recent funding extension – offered at the last minute by Attorney-General George Brandis after a campaign raised 50,000 signatures supporting the scheme – was for just six months. The service has previously been forced to raise money from ALS members to continue operating.

In a release issued on Monday, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion – who has publicly praised notification schemes – lashed out at his Liberal colleagues in the NSW State Government.

“I have been trying to get the NSW Government to fulfil its responsibilities in relation to this matter,” Scullion said.

“I am disappointed the NSW Attorney-General, Gabrielle Upton, has refused to even share the cost of the CNS. Given the NSW Government is responsible for the criminal justice system and welfare and safety of any person taken into custody in that state, it staggers me the NSW Attorney-General can ignore her government’s statutory obligation to provide this service.

“Even though the CNS has been funded by the Australian Government for seven years, it is not acceptable for the NSW Government to wipe its hands of its responsibility.

Upton recently drew criticism from family members fighting for justice on behalf of three Aboriginal children murdered in the NSW town of Bowraville in the early 1990s, a case that has led to calls for legal reform to help initiate a retrial of the man accused of the killings. The State Attorney-General was labelled ‘disrespectful’ after cancelling a long-planned meeting with the families via text message.

In a brief statement provided to New Matilda on behalf of Upton, the Attorney-General described the CNS as “an essential safeguard for indigenous [sic]people in custody.”

“Given the Commonwealth is responsible for Indigenous Affairs under the Constitution, they have always funded the CNS,” she said.

Federal and state Liberals may be at war over who should provide the meagre funding the service needs to go on, but the NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service hit a more positive tone today, greeting the news that secure funding had finally been achieved.

“We happily accept the Australian Government’s offer of triennial funding for the CNS, and we say thank you,” ALS NSW/ACT Chair Hewitt Whyman said in a press release.

“As the CNS has also been selected for an Australian Human Rights Award, it would seem our very successful program assisting vulnerable Aboriginal people in custody is finally getting the top-level recognition it deserves.”

“And Aboriginal families who are at the coal-face can remain assured that a person’s legal, health and welfare concerns in custody will be addressed to the best of our abilities via the CNS, continuing the recommendation of the Royal Commission.”

Gary Oliver, the CEO of the NSW/ACT ALS, pointed to the death of 22-year-old Yamitji woman Ms Dhu in Western Australia, and said families still feared for the safety of loved ones taken into custody.

An ongoing Coronial Inquiry has heard Ms Dhu’s complaints about her deteriorating health were not taken seriously by police who had detained her on the basis of unpaid fines. After three days and multiple trips to hospital she died as a result of pneumonia and septic shock.

Scullion said it ‘beggared belief’ that the NSW Government wouldn’t fund the CNS.

Previously funded through the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, the scheme will now be supported via the Commonwealth’s Indigenous Affairs portfolio.

In response to questions, Scullion noted the NSW Government is required by law to provide the CNS, and argued they should therefore hold responsibility for funding it.

“If the NSW Government refuses to fund the service, I will look at options to deduct $1.8 million from other funding we provide to the NSW Government,” he said.

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Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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