Australian co-operative helps Aboriginal people fight discrimination

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent one of the most profoundly disadvantaged groups in Australian society. Now a co-operative is trying to address this by improving the...

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent one of the most profoundly disadvantaged groups in Australian society. Now a co-operative is trying to address this by improving the access of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to high quality and culturally appropriate legal aid services.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) Co-operative was set up 41 years ago under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services program. The co-operative, which is funded by the Australian government, was established in 1973 to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enjoy their legal rights.

VALS is receiving a three-year grant from the attorney general’s department until June 2015 to provide legal services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; in 2012-2013 they provided advice, information and casework assistance to a record 12,000 people.

Australia’s 400,000 indigenous people represent 2% of the nation’s population. They migrated from Asia over 30,000 years ago, but forced assimilation has led them to join rural and urban communities. The 1970s saw the rise of a civil rights movement asking for land and property rights and in 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed. In the 1990s, legislation returned greater of autonomy, increased wages and welfare benefits for aboriginal people.

The rights of Aboriginal people are protected by law, namely the Equal Opportunity Act of 2010, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act of 2001 and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2006. But even with legislation in place, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be one of the most profoundly disadvantaged groups in Australian society.

They experience higher rates of adverse contact with the justice system and are incarcerated at higher rates than other Australians. In Victoria, the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders increased by 15% last year, even though it has decreased in other states.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, in collaboration with VALS and Victoria Police, has been working on a pilot scheme called Report Racism to encourage Aboriginal people to report incidents racism and discrimination.

In his speech at the launch of the project, chief executive of VALS, Wayne Muir, highlighted that the survey conducted by the commission had revealed how sometimes people were afraid to speak against racism for fear of redistribution and retaliation. “People believe nothing will come of it. People don’t know where to go or who to talk to.”

As such, VALS has taken a leading role in reporting racism and prejudice-based crime. Once a report is made, the commission follows up with the person making the complaint. The pilot project also enabled VALS to collect information about racism itself, how and where it occurs and what can be done to develop solutions. VALS acts as a first point of contact and runs a freephone service to provide legal advice and representation for the Koori community. The commission and Victoria Police then use the information to act in more systemic ways against racism.

VALS has a dual approach to tackling racism. They not only provide legal advice, assistance and representation in areas of criminal, civil and family law, but also provide community legal education to increase the communities’ knowledge of their rights as well as their obligations. This helps increase awareness of the issues confronting Aboriginal people and communities within the legal and justice system. There is a longstanding protocol with Victoria Police that whenever an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is taken into custody, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service is notified.

Also speaking at the launch of the report, Commissioner Kate Jenkins said: “Our research tells us that members of the Aboriginal community too often experience racism, and we also know that this goes unreported.

“Report Racism gives people the opportunity to do something about this, as well as giving people who may see it happen but aren‘t sure who to tell an opportunity to do something.”

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