Former prime minister contradicts the evidence of systemic discrimination, claiming higher crime rates account for disproportionate incarceration.
Tony Abbott has incorrectly claimed there is “no evidence” the justice system discriminates against Indigenous Australians, attributing disproportionate rates of incarceration of Indigenous people to a “higher offending rate”.
The former prime minister and special envoy for Indigenous affairs made the comments to the Sun Herald on Sunday, in contradiction of evidence of systemic discrimination, as Australia’s political leaders grapple with mass rallies for racial equality amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Abbott was made a companion of the Order of Australia earlier this month for his “eminent service … to the Indigenous community” among other things.
The Black Lives Matter movement and protests against the killing of George Floyd in the US have reverberated across the Australian political sphere with renewed focus on the 437 recorded Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission and the historical treatment of Indigenous people.
On Friday Scott Morrison walked back his incorrect observation that there had been no slavery in Australia, apologising for any offence caused and arguing Australia should avoid a fresh bout of “history wars”.
On Sunday, Abbott said Australians “have our own atoning to do” but “our history nevertheless has been different and I would say better than that of the US”.
“Obviously the Indigenous incarceration rate is much higher than the general incarceration rate,” he is quoted as saying.
“That shouldn’t be so unless there’s evidence that courts are more likely to imprison Indigenous offenders than non-Indigenous offenders, and there is none.”
According to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this month, 4.7% of all Indigenous men are in jail compared with just 0.3% of all non-Indigenous men.
Contrary to Abbott’s claim, there is evidence the justice system contributes to higher incarceration rates, including a Guardian Australia analysis of New South Wales crime statistics showing police are more likely to prosecute cannabis offences against Indigenous alleged offenders.
There are widespread reports of over-policing of public order offences in Indigenous communities, overrepresentation in charges for use of offensive language and imprisonment for failure to pay fines.
The former chief justice of Western Australia, Wayne Martin, has argued Indigenous incarceration is a function both of the fact Indigenous people are “overrepresented amongst those who commit a crime” and “systemic discrimination” such as being more likely to be questioned by police, arrested, refused bail and sentenced to prison.
Abbott reportedly said, “the higher Indigenous incarceration rate is a function of the higher Indigenous offending rate”.
“It is absolutely tragic. But we know that when it comes to domestic violence and a lot else, this is much worse in Indigenous communities than most parts of the country.”
On Friday, Morrison said Indigenous disadvantage was caused in part by social issues in remote communities including abuse, sexual violence, alcoholism and drug abuse.
“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s true,” he told reporters in Canberra. “You want to have an honest discussion about what’s happening in communities, you can’t ignore those facts either and it’s chronic.”
After widespread rallies in Australia last weekend, against medical advice to avoid mass gatherings, political leaders have urged activists to find another way to make their case, given the risk of spreading Covid-19.
On Sunday, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, told ABC’s Insiders that there was still only one known case of a person later confirmed to have Covid-19 attending one of the Black Lives Matter rallies, in Melbourne.
Hunt stressed “the importance of maintaining the distancing rules” to “protect lives”.
“It is fundamental that people are able to express themselves about an absolutely noble cause of racial equality, but there are appropriate ways at this moment to do it and that’s the distinction,” he said.
Hunt confirmed that despite falling infant mortality, Australia had not closed the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“The nation is not whole until we have achieved genuine parity,” he said.
Hunt announced an allocation of $35m from the medical research future fund to be spent on 42 Indigenous health projects including to prevent avoidable blindness, deafness, to eradicate rheumatic heart fever, and measures to improve mental health.
“These are all things which go to Indigenous health, which go to educational attainment and community development and therefore they take away over time – not as quickly as we would want … some of the fundamental inequalities that lead to violence and incarceration.”
Labor’s health spokesman, Chris Bowen, welcomed the funding for Indigenous health but said Abbott was “utterly wrong” on the issue of incarceration.
“A young Indigenous man is more likely to go to prison than to university,” he told reporters in Sydney. “If Tony Abbott thinks this is all about individual behaviour, it’s a terrible, terrible error.”