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PM urged to drive indigenous issues in '17

AAP logoAAP 31/12/2016 Max Blenkin

A former Labor indigenous affairs minister wants Malcolm Turnbull to take personal charge of unfinished business from the Aboriginal deaths in custody royal commission ahead of the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1967 referendum.

"We should all be angry - all that public money, all those commitments, all those promises, and yet all the consequence of tens of thousands of wasted, damaged lives as a result of the failure to implement the royal commission recommendations," Robert Tickner said in recalling his days in the Keating government.

The Turnbull government has commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission to examine persistently high indigenous incarceration rates.

But Mr Tickner says another report is needed to tell us why Aboriginal people were over-represented in custody.

"I use this occasion to call on our prime minister to support a national audit on implementation of royal commission recommendations and then to personally drive a reform agenda at COAG," he said at the release of the cabinet papers for 1992 and 1993.

The royal commission was launched in 1987 to investigate 99 cases where indigenous people died in prison or police custody. The final report was released in 1991, making 339 recommendations.

Mr Tickner said with limited exceptions those recommendations were as relevant today as 25 years ago, but most had not been implemented.

Meanwhile numbers of Aborigines in custody had gone "though the roof".

As of June 2015, 27 per cent of all prisoners were indigenous, as were a staggering 54 per cent of juvenile detainees aged 10-17.

Mr Tickner said there was a huge national challenge to tackle Aboriginal disadvantage and there was a huge overlap with underlying issues recognised by the royal commission as contributing to the disproportionate imprisonment rate.

That includes health, housing, substance abuse, violence in communities, unemployment and education.

These were fixable social problems but there would be no change unless it was given priority and that needed to be driven by the prime minister, Mr Tickner said.

The 50th anniversary of the May 1967 referendum, which allowed the Commonwealth to make laws for the benefit of Aboriginal people, should be used to announce major policy commitments.

"If you want to really drive change, no Aboriginal affairs minister, whether it's Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela or me or the current one, no-one can change the rules," he said.

"It's got to be driven as a national leadership issue, as a national priority by our prime minister. "

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