Leetona Dungay, mother of David Dungay Jnr, leads the Black Lives Matter Protest 6th June 2020. (NITV)

What will it take to eradicate deaths in custody?

National Justice Project Founder George Newhouse’s latest opinion piece for Living Black.

Australia is not one country. It’s two.

We are split along racial lines as surely as South Africa was during the era of apartheid.

It may sound like hyperbole but it is a fact.

In 2018, an Australia-first report card on levels of institutional racism in Queensland’s health system found that ten of the state’s 16 Health and Hospital Services (HHS) scored ‘very high’ levels of institutional racism, and the remaining six, a ‘high’ level of institutional racism.

In over 20 years of working as a human rights lawyer it is my observation that the Queensland experience is common to most, if not all, states and territories.

The racial divide that I see means that most white people lead lives of privilege whilst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are shunted aside, told that they do not really matter, and they face prejudice at every turn. 

The focus recently has (rightly) been on Black deaths in custody. But what of the role that prejudice in the health system plays in Indigenous deaths.

The connection between George Floyd and David Dungay Jr highlights the similarities between state violence in the USA and in Australia but does not reveal the role that racial bias in health care plays in Indigenous deaths and injuries. 

Most Australians are unaware that David Dungay Jr died in a prison hospital.

NSW is the only Australian state or territory that has a hospital inside a jail.

In Naomi Williams Inquest the NSW Deputy State Coroner made a range of recommendations to address prejudice and bias in health care. They echo equally across all of Australia and include:

1.    Strengthening the Aboriginal Health Liaison Worker programme and making it operate 24/7

2.    Adopting Targets for the employment of Aboriginal health care professionals

3.    Auditing Implicit Bias/Racism and recording statistics

4.    Identifying and using assessment tools to measure implicit bias

5.    Establishing targets for proportional representation of Aboriginal people on local health boards and Advisory committees

6.    Ongoing and meaningful consultation with key Aboriginal health groups

7.    Investigating strategies to develop culturally appropriate care

The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recognised health as a key factor in custodial safety but more importantly they recognised that “Many non-Aboriginal health professionals at all levels are poorly informed about Aboriginal people, their cultural differences, their specific socio-economic circumstances and their history within Australian society” and that negative stereotyping of Aboriginal People is not uncommon in health care.

Systemic prejudice and discrimination exist across all of Australian society. That it exists in our health care system is not just shocking, but also leads to the ongoing death, misery and suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We are all born equal with a fundamental right to equality in health care. That right must be respected.

Until we acknowledge that discrimination and prejudice contribute to the gap in the health outcomes across our nation and we start to address those evils, we cannot stop our campaign to demand health justice.

George Newhouse is the CEO of the National Justice Project, a not-for-profit legal service and civil rights organisation dedicated to tackling systemic injustice, discrimination and racism. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at Macquarie University. To follow George on Twitter go to @GeorgeNewhouse

To hear more about these issues tune into Living Black: Aboriginal Lives Matter on NITV (Ch.34) Wednesday 15th July at 8.30pm.

The program will be available On Demand after the broadcast.

Photo: Leetona Dungay, mother of David Dungay Jnr, leads the Black Lives Matter Protest 6th June 2020. (SOURCE: NITV)