Anger, revulsion and heartbreaking futility – those are the feelings that one is left with after reading the Coroner’s record of investigation into the death of Miss Dhu. She was failed by virtually every person who was responsible for keeping her safe. Watching the CCTV footage of her final hours is all the more harrowing because Miss Dhu was unfailingly polite to those who treated her with callous indifference.
I cried when I read that Miss Dhu was a bright student who had trained to become a receptionist. She once played netball, had learnt Aboriginal dances, and was described by her family as very affectionate. Most 22-year old Australians aspire to rewarding jobs, travel and building a community of friends. Miss Dhu, however, was in police custody because she was poor. As she could not pay fines that amounted to $3,622.34, Miss Dhu was compelled to serve four days’ imprisonment. During that time, she was subjected to treatment that was described by the Coroner as ‘unprofessional and inhumane’. Less than 48 hours after she was taken into police custody, Miss Dhu passed from this world without so much as holding the hand of a cherished relative, or being told that she was loved.
Over a quarter of a century ago, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provided us with an opportunity to bring an end to the tragedy that fell upon 99 Indigenous people. They were people who left behind families, friends and dreams that would never be realised. For the most part, however, the Commission’s recommendations have only gathered dust. Politicians who want to stay in power must be able to read the electorate. Their policies and inane slogans are responsive to the desires and fears of their constituents. If Australians cared about Miss Dhu and her story, then our politicians would be compelled to take action. And therein lies the most fundamental question of all – When will Australians place value on the lives of Aboriginal people?
Nicole Watson is a member of the Mununjali and Birri Gubba peoples. She is employed as a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Sydney.