Response to 2019 Premier’s Statement.

Below is an excerpt transcript and video from my first speech of 2019, with a focus on the welfare of Aboriginal Western Australian’s and in particular, responding to the Coroner’s Inquest into the 13 Deaths of Children and Young Persons in the Kimberley.


LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY — Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Z.R.F. KIRKUP: … I stand here today as part of that theme of what is happening to Aboriginal Western Australians, noting it is the eleventh anniversary of the national apology to Aboriginal people by former Prime Minister Rudd in the House of Representatives. In 1977, the Western Australian Parliament was the first Parliament to apologise for the treatment of Aboriginals; 11 years ago the commonwealth Parliament did so. Although it was an important, historic and watershed moment, I question whether it improved the lives of Aboriginal people. I remember the commentary at the time. Everyone was pointing out the importance of the national apology and how they hoped that some real tangible action would result from it. However, in every report that I have seen, everything that I have read, every framework, every blueprint, and every observer report from bureaucrats in Canberra, I cannot see a tangible and real improvement. I think the gap in the mortality rate is still sitting well above a decade for both male and female non-Aboriginal versus Aboriginal. There are some real issues there.

I was disappointed that although the Premier mentioned in his statement the need to focus on Aboriginal wellbeing—he has put it on a social media tile, which I think is a little too cramped text-wise—he has not provided any cogent plan, policy or legislation on what he intends to do now. I expect and look forward to seeing more on what the Premier intends to do in that space because I think, especially in relation to the most recent State Coroner’s inquest, which I will get to in a moment, it is really important that governments, regardless of their politics, focus on trying to improve the lives and outcomes for Aboriginal Western Australians.

Over the weekend I had an opportunity to go through the State Coroner’s “Inquest into the deaths of: Thirteen Children and Young Persons in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia”. I have read a lot of criminal-related material, books and the like, and I have to say that this report is by far the most disturbing report I have read in recent times. I encourage all members to read as much of it as they can. It is quite heavy reading, both emotionally and in length. It is 400-odd pages. I would like to commend State Coroner Fogliani for her work.

Before I get into the inquest, I need to put on the record my appreciation for the WA Police Force; in particular, the Kimberley district police. I cannot imagine the psychological toll on officers who are despatched to cut down a teenager hanging from a tree. This week I will write to the Commissioner of Police to forward my thanks and to recognise in particular the superintendent of the Kimberley district and to recognise their and WA Police’s effort in this report. I would like to thank St John Ambulance as well because it obviously plays a very important role in any health issue. But of course when we are dealing with a suicide or death it can have a very significant impact, so I would like to thank them for their work in supporting us.

I would like to also recognise Paige Taylor from The Australian, Kate Hedley from WAtoday, and Jane Marwick and Tim Clarke from The West Australian for keeping this conversation going since the release of this report. It is really important that regardless of what happens, there is no political debate about this, that we continue to have constructive and meaningful conversations about how to improve the lives of Aboriginal Australians, and we continue to shine a light on this very difficult area for all of us.

In the 11 minutes I have remaining I want to go through an important summary of the inquest and offer my thoughts. I want to mention in this place every single person who was reported in the inquest because I think it is important. I will very quickly go through the 13 reported deaths, 12 of which were from suicide and one from misadventure or suicide. Aside from all the issues that this Parliament deals with, it is important that we fully understand the gravity of what has occurred up there:

  • Case 1 involved a female, born in 1991 and who died at age 13. She hanged herself in her bedroom in Kalumburu. She was from a family that had been exposed to domestic violence and alcohol abuse. These are references from the State Coroner.

  • Case 2 involved a male born in 1999, who died aged 17. He hanged himself on an oval in Broome. He was diagnosed early with failure to thrive, speech delay, poor health, substantiated neglect, exposure to alcohol abuse and possibly sexual abuse. He had alcohol and methamphetamine in his blood at the time of his death.

  • Case 3 concerned a male born in 1991 and who died at age 24. He was a father. He hanged himself from a tree in a backyard in Broome. He had numerous health issues when he was born— failure to thrive, anaemia—and was exposed to alcohol-related violence in the home. At the time of his suicide, alcohol and cannabis were present in his blood.

  • Case 4 concerned a female born in 2006 and who died aged 10. She hanged herself from an item in a backyard in Looma. She had health issues, anaemia, and was exposed to alcohol abuse and domestic violence. She was seven when her half-sister committed suicide.

  • Case 5 concerned a female born in 2000, who died aged 12. She hanged herself from a tree in a park in Wyndham. She had health issues, collapsing episodes and was exposed to alcohol abuse and domestic violence. She was aged approximately 12 or maybe younger when she first started to experiment with cannabis and alcohol.

  • Case 6 concerned a male, born 1997 and died aged 16. He hanged himself from a tree from a backyard in the Mud Springs Community near Kununurra. He was from a severely dysfunctional family, exposed to alcohol and family violence. According to the State Coroner he was raped by multiple male perpetrators at the age of 15 around Christmas in 2012. When he told his parents about the rape, he reported that they were too drunk to understand what had occurred to him. He was surrounded by suicide. That case, who is also the subject of case 9 in the coroner’s report, committed suicide before he did. He registered a blood alcohol content and had traces of methamphetamine in his blood at the time of his death.

  • Case 7 involved a male, born in 2000 and died aged 13. There is an open finding in his case. The coroner suggests that it might have been suicide or misadventure. He died in Kununurra. He was from a family with domestic violence and alcohol abuse. He was diagnosed with failure to thrive, with doctors noting physical abuse and neglect.

  • Case 8 concerned a male born in 1997 and who died aged 17. He hanged himself from a fixture at the rear of his home in Kununurra. He first left his mother’s care when he was five months old. He was left in a pram by his mother in the park. Police had to attend to that and find informal care arrangements. He was diagnosed with gross failure to thrive, surrounded by alcohol abuse in his home. He was admitted to hospital aged 14 and aged 16 with severely high blood alcohol content. He died by suicide with alcohol and cannabis in his blood.

  • Case 9 involved a male born in 1993 who died aged 23. He hanged himself from a fixture in the front of his home in the Mud Springs Community near Kununurra. Again, we see a trend here. He was exposed to significant family violence in the home. Five members of his broad family group had died in a five-year period. His health was not ideal. He had a bone infection at age 12. He died with a high blood alcohol content.

  • Case 10 involved a male born in 1994, who died aged 18. He hanged himself from a tree on the Violet Valley Station near Warmun. In contrast, he came from what was reported to be a relatively stable family. There was no history of mental illness in the lead-up to his death. He was then found with alcohol and cannabis in his blood.

  • Case 11 concerned a male born in 2001, who died aged 12 years old. He hanged himself from a structure at the rear of his home in Halls Creek. He was exposed to family violence and there was no toxicology rendered.

  • Case 12 involved a male born in 1994. He was aged six when he first threatened to commit suicide. There was significant violence within his family. Case 12 was an individual whose situation stuck with me. The circumstances surrounding his death were that his family was moving from Wungu to Halls Creek. They were moving because the rains were coming and they had run out of supplies, so they needed to go to Halls Creek. Along the way, the car with his family got stuck. They tried to find some tools to recover the car from being bogged and they started fighting. He and his partner walked away after a bit of back and forth. They started to fight and his wife started to walk ahead of him. He walked off after her and they got about a kilometre away from where the car was bogged. He jumped up a tree, then jumped off and hanged himself. The last thing his partner heard him say was that he loved her. She tried to lift him up and he came to the ground. She had to run a kilometre back to his family for assistance. In the meantime, he lay face up in a creek bed. Worse still, because of the distance, his body needed to be transported back to Wungu but the police told his family that they unfortunately would not be able to get out to the community because of the severe storms that were coming. They asked the family to keep his body in the house and turn on the air conditioning to keep it as preserved as possible. He died in Wungu aged 20 years old.

  • Case 13 concerned a male who died aged 21 years old. He hanged himself from a tree branch in bushland near his home in Halls Creek. There had been abuse of alcohol from an early age and his mother was unable to care for him. There was substantiated neglect and failure to thrive. In 2003, his mother died. In 2006, his brother committed suicide. In 2007, his father died. He was moved to his grandmother’s care. She had to look after six kids. She struggled. There was a blood alcohol content when he committed suicide.

This summary has not done justice to the State Coroner, who invested significant time and resources into reporting the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these 13 young people and children. The coroner raised the significant issues of intergenerational trauma and the desperate socioeconomic disadvantages that occurred, including the range of services that needs to be provided. This is not whatsoever a question of resourcing.

Governments, irrespective of party, have put significant amounts of money into trying to help and extend services for people out there. In 2016 under the previous government, more money was spent than I think in nearly every other state in the provision of services to Aboriginal people in Western Australia. The reality is that after 40 reports and 700 recommendations on Aboriginal suicide over the last 14 years, these problems are still occurring in these communities.

It was absolutely heartbreaking to read this report.

Regardless of any other issues that we might debate or have disagreements on in this place, people are hurting and dying to this day. People are killing themselves in their teenage years. Particularly in the Kimberley region, this is an epidemic. It is a crisis and we need to make sure that we do everything we can to resolve it. Questions need to be asked about parental responsibility. Questions need to be asked about whether these children should be moved into circumstances where they are no longer exposed to this violence and abuse. As much as we might try, there is no point trying to keep these children there if they end up hanging themselves. We have a real situation here— a real social need.

If this were occurring in any other place in metropolitan Perth, I think the area would be put in lockdown. Police and nurses would be going door to door. It would almost be declared a state of emergency if it were happening in metropolitan Perth.

I think we need to do everything we can. It is meaningless to continue to talk about things like changing the date of Australia Day while these types of social issues are ongoing. We talk about things like changing the date of Australia Day because I suspect they are much easier things to confront than the real issues that are occurring in Western Australia. It is very important to me that we come together as a Parliament to do everything we can to step up and support all government services to make sure these people, in a community-led and meaningful, engaged way, can do everything they can to help pull themselves out of their circumstances and that we invest in them. I think it is vitally important. I think talking about Australia Day being on 26 January is meaningless when a 15-year-old was raped by a group of men and ended up killing himself.

I know that all members in this place intend to do the right thing. I ask for us all to come together and do what we can. I do not have an instant solution but I would like to do everything we can to work with the government regardless of the political party because I think, if we do not work to confront these issues, there is no point in me being elected. The seat is worth nothing if we do not try to do more to protect the most vulnerable in our community.