HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [6.22 pm]: I rise to make some overarching observations about the State Coroner’s report “Inquest into the deaths of: Thirteen Children and Young Persons in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia” that was handed down last week. For those people who have not read it, it is pretty harrowing reading and some fairly comprehensive recommendations have come out of that report. Tragically, the coroner found that 12 of these 13 deaths were a result of suicide, with the finding in relation to the thirteenth death left open. The rate of suicide in Aboriginal communities, as we know, is horrendous. I believe it is an indictment on successive governments, both state and federal, that we have never got this right. What we all should be doing is demanding once and for all that we start heeding the recommendations that keep coming through from these inquiries. We have to do something about it. Although we have report after report, I am particularly concerned to make sure that these deaths are not normalised. I do not want people thinking that it is in the too-hard basket and that it is just part of what happens to this nation’s First People. I remind members that suicide is always 100 per cent preventable. We in this Parliament have a really important role to play in making sure that we instil a sense of urgency to address this issue. There is no doubt—it is apparent in the report—that many complexities have led to these devastating consequences. We also know that much work needs to be done to identify ways of potentially moving forward and we need to start investing in prioritising actions so that we can start to seriously address the underlying causes of youth suicide in these communities.
As I have said, reports into Aboriginal youth suicide are tragically an all too regular occurrence in this country. I note the 2016 WA Education and Health Standing Committee parliamentary inquiry report, “Learnings from the message stick: The report of the Inquiry into Aboriginal youth suicide in remote areas”. I read the report when it came out. It references no fewer than 40 reports into Aboriginal suicide since 2001. The result of these reports has been in the order of 700 recommendations, which at best have been very inconsistently implemented.
Although on the one hand I am decrying the need for yet another report, I acknowledge that this particular coroner’s report is indeed powerful. It considers both the broader context, including the long-term impacts of colonisation, as well as documenting the individual circumstances leading up to the deaths of these children and young people. In the report, the coroner states —
The tragic individual events were shaped by the crushing effects of intergenerational trauma and poverty upon entire communities. That community-wide trauma, generated multiple and prolonged exposures to individual traumatic events for these children and young persons.
By reading the individual accounts of each of these young people’s lives, we are given a pretty harrowing insight into what these children face on a day-to-day basis. Almost all these children had grown up in homes in which there were high levels of alcohol use. Many of them witnessed chronic and severe domestic violence and were often moved from home to home under informal family arrangements. A number of these young people, including four of the children, had themselves used alcohol and other drugs from a young age. In seven of the cases, there was significant alcohol use in the lead-up to the deaths. I remind members that we are talking about children here. A number of these children and young people had siblings or relatives who to their knowledge had previously died by suicide. I am going to be talking more about that in the future. Many of these young people had explicitly expressed suicidal ideation, and already had multiple contact with health services for preventable health conditions, although only one had had contact with a mental health service. Tragically, in hindsight—isn’t hindsight always helpful?—many of the risk factors for each of these young people were absolutely evident, but our existing services, our supports and the capacity of community members nevertheless was not sufficient to prevent their untimely deaths.
I will say in some ways, as terrible as they are, some of the contributing factors to youth suicide, such as the impacts of domestic violence, alcohol and other drug use, and fractured families, are issues that on some level we have experience in attempting to address, because they are universal across all cultures. However, the additional impacts of the loss of culture and identity and dealing with the daily effects of racism, disempowerment and intergenerational trauma are much harder for many of us, as non-Aboriginal Australians, to grasp because these things are generally outside of our lived experience. Because of this, our interventions to date have not been properly informed by this understanding. The learnings from the message stick inquiry found that out of the sporadic implementation of recommendations to date to prevent suicide, government had been particularly slow to fully recognise the historical and cultural factors that are the key contributors to Aboriginal youth suicide. Recognising these factors necessarily requires a fundamental shift in the way governments do business. The coroner really stressed this, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that the importance of genuinely working with Aboriginal people is a part of the solution. We are going to have to learn how to do this. We are going to have to get better at doing this. The process by which solutions are devised and implemented is fundamentally important.
It is pointless coming in and trying to just implement these solutions on top of communities without actually having regard to their expertise and what it is they know they need within their communities.
We must also consider what we might inadvertently be doing that actively erodes the progress towards achieving greater wellbeing for Aboriginal people in these communities. One of the things that immediately comes to mind is the appalling and fragmented way that we manage both state and federal funding for the implementation of programs. Again, that is for another day.
Australian Labor Party Senator Patrick Dodson made some very important points. I think he is well placed to do so as a Yawuru native title holder. In his response to the State Coroner’s report, he said —
Current public sector arrangements that promote service delivery by non-indigenous NGO’s with no regard for the liyan —
That means one’s cultural and spiritual wellbeing —
of their clients essentially remain assimilationist, utilitarian and risk averse.
I think he is right. This feedback has come back time and again and we really need to start thinking about it. It is difficult for governments to grapple with procurement policies, but if we are ever going to make a dent in this area, we will have to completely rethink our approach. We need to start walking the talk. For instance, one of the coroner’s recommendations was to trial voluntary cashless welfare cards. This is at odds with the federal government’s approach of mandating cashless cards in communities. The coroner recognised that although the cashless card is considered by some to be a useful tool, imposing coercive measures such as this is overall completely counter to the move towards healing and self-determination.
We know that Aboriginal youth suicide is an enduring crisis in this state. The lives and deaths of these young people, and the people who have died before them, will continue to have a profound effect on families and communities. Whatever we have been doing, it is clearly not working. We need collective political will and we need to get better at working hand in hand with Aboriginal people. We need to better understand and be informed by the ongoing effects of colonisation. We also need to take action that addresses the underlying causes and transcends political cycles.