Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Government promises interim payment while hundreds protest deaths in custody

Attorney general Christian Porter told media on March 17 that an interim payment of $200,000 to the family of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward should be "finalised" by the end of the month (leaving unclear whether this meant "paid" or "approved").

Mr Ward died a horrible death in the back of a prison van in January 2008 while being transported over four hours in a non-air conditioned van on a 42 degree Celcius day for a traffic violation. Last year, the state coroner found that the state government department, the private contractor GSL (now G4S) and the two prison van drivers were all responsible for his death.

Porter’s announcement came shortly before a March 17 protest by hundreds of people in front of parliament house and ten days after an impassioned public call for an interim payment by Mr Ward’s widow. She and her family have had to rely on charity and the support of friends since her husband’s death more than two years ago.

This promise by Porter to make an interim ex-gratia payment is important because it is the first, albeit minor, concession made by the government to the campaign for justice for Mr Ward.

The three key demands of the campaign led by the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee (DICWC) are for compensation, termination of the prisoner transport contract with G4S and for charges to be laid ``against those responsible’’ for Mr Ward’s death. Despite more than two years having passed, the government is yet to deliver on any of these.


Shadow attorney general John Quigley has publicly campaigned for an overall ex-gratia compensation payment in excess of $3.2 million dollars. This was the amount paid by the state government to Andrew Mallard after he was wrongly jailed for 12 years over a murder he didn’t commit.

DICWC chair Marc Newhouse told Green Left Weekly that the Committee has not been campaigning for a particular figure but that the amount should be significant. He said that $3.2 million is "not enough" to cover the loss experienced by Mr Ward’s family and his community. "Failure to do so constitutes systemic racism," he said.

Newhouse said that the government is likely planning a payment only to Mr Ward’s widow but that the extended family and his community have also suffered a terrible loss and that, in an Aboriginal cultural context, the family and community should be compensated as well.

Aboriginal Legal Service representative John Bedford outlined to the rally the series of correspondence from the ALS to the government calling since July 2009 for an ex-gratia payment and since January for an interim payment. He said the government had failed respond.

Porter has said the ALS is responsible for the delay in making an interim payment alleging that they did not put in a timely application. However, he beat a hasty retreat into the parliament building when Bedford was speaking instead of answering calls to respond to Bedford’s catalogue of state government refusal to answer correspondence.

The government has already received $150,000 penalty fee from G4S under the terms of the contract, for Mr Ward’s death. Newhouse told Green Left that this amount was "outrageous".

"How can you put a monetary figure [in a contract] on someone’s life," he said. "But $150,000 is inadequate, especially in these circumstances."

"A far more suitable way to deal with a death in custody would be to terminate a contract, particularly as in this case when the coroner has found that the guards and the company are responsible for the death."

Contract termination
The state government has previously told campaigners that the government cannot terminate the prisoner transport contract with G4S without suffering a significant financial penalty because there has not been a "material breach" of the contract. A material breach would occur if there were more than one incident in a year each involving one or more deaths in custody.

However, the rally heard that there is another avenue via which the contract could be terminated. The legislation governing this area has a provision that allows the minister to approve a recommendation from the commissioner of corrective services that a contract be terminated on the basis that it is ``in the public interest’’. Action under this clause would cost the government no money and would require three days notice.

Greens parliamentarian Giz Watson, who addressed the rally, will ask the minister in parliament on March 23 what his response would be if the commissioner puts such a recommendation.

Campaigners at the rally reiterated the call for charges to be laid against those responsible for Mr Ward’s death, including but not limited to the two prison van drivers. Newhouse told Green Left that "no legal stone should be left unturned" in the attempt to bring all those responsible (including the department and G4S) to justice.

The lack of action by the government also raises the question of the government’s response to the coroner’s findings last year. Newhouse told Green Left "you’ll see that while they basically say they agree with most of the recommendations, there are no time frames except in a few cases."

Further, "a lot of [the government’s commitments] are subject to putting up a business case" and most importantly "there has been no reporting back to the public on what has and hasn’t been done".

"In our view, that is completely unacceptable."

The rally was made more poignant by the participation of family members of another Aboriginal man who died in the East Perth Watch House on March 14. His brother Paul Haywood told the rally "that’s his son there: he hasn’t got a father. I haven’t got a brother, my mother hasn’t got a son; and my sister-in-law, she’s lost her man".

Haywood said authorities hadn’t allowed his family to view the body since his brother’s death. His brother was diabetic and was sent to hospital twice on the weekend he died. "He should have been in hospital" he said.

Speakers also noted that another Aboriginal man had collapsed in the back of a prison van in 41 degree heat on March 12.

[By Alex Bainbridge. A version of this article appeared in Green Left Weekly #831.]