ONGOING STRUGGLE: Long-time social justice solicitor John McKenzie, of Pretty Beach, says there are parallels between the deaths of David Dungay in Australia and George Floyd in the US, and he understands the urgency to march for change.
ONGOING STRUGGLE: Long-time social justice solicitor John McKenzie, of Pretty Beach, says there are parallels between the deaths of David Dungay in Australia and George Floyd in the US, and he understands the urgency to march for change.

Lauded lawyer praises protesters’ courage

ONE of seven new Queen's Birthday honours recipients on the Central Coast, long-time social justice solicitor John McKenzie "completely understands" the urgency felt by the indigenous community to conduct Black Lives Matter marches despite the threat of COVID-19.

John, who was principal solicitor at the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, received his AM for significant service to the law, the legal profession, and to social justice for the indigenous community.

Tracing his career, it is clear that while the push for fairness and equality for indigenous Australians may have different slogans, catalysed by the death of George Floyd in America, it is not new, imported or age-related.

"It is a testament to the depth of their feeling that they chose to march because 'enough is enough' of their people dying and/or being killed in police or prison custody," John said, particularly recognising the additional vulnerability of indigenous people to coronavirus.

"The traction generated by the reporting of the recent death (of George Floyd) in the US and the resultant protests across that country was a perfect opportunity to engage more widespread knowledge of the ongoing tragic incarceration here.

"It is notable that the death of David Dungay in Long Bay Gaol in 2015 attracted little media or government attention in Australia when it occurred, despite the obvious similarity in the events leading up to the two deaths, especially the last words spoken by both deceased."

The 26-year-old Kempsey man said "I can't breathe" 12 times before he died while being restrained by five prison guards.

However, the NSW deputy coroner found none of the guards should face action because their conduct was "limited by systemic deficiencies in training" and "misunderstanding" rather than malicious intent.

The coroner's recommendations did include changes to Corrective Services training and availability of an Aboriginal welfare officer to assist in de-escalating situations.

Rolling Back the Years

John has called Pretty Beach home for the past 34 years.

For over 40 years he has held senior positions in Legal Aid NSW, was chief legal officer for the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) from 2006-2014, and has been NSW Legal Services Commissioner since 2015.

He said he felt very proud to become a Member of the Order of Australia but was quick to share the honour with others.

"Front of mind are all the wonderful people with whom I have worked and who so generously pointed me in the right direction," he said.

Ironically, John's honour came at the same time former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, 62, who slashed funding to the Aboriginal Legal Service in 2014, received the top honour of Companion of the Order of Australia for his contributions to Australia's indigenous community and border control.

The ALS which started in Redfern in 1970 as the first Aboriginal legal service, and the first free legal assistance service in the country, remains the primary legal assistance for indigenous Australians.

The 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) to which John was principal solicitor found, in part, that coronial inquests' failure to uncover the underlying causes of these deaths and to recommend remedial action had contributed to more deaths occurring.

There have been at least 434 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the RCIADIC, and while death rates have fallen, rates of incarceration have doubled.

In the Australian Indigenous Law Review 2008, John and his colleagues called on governments to introduce uniform national coronial laws and mandatory reporting of findings.

They noted that there was no system to ensure coronial recommendations relating to Aboriginal deaths in custody were "readily accessible to those who could draw from them in helping to prevent indigenous death".

This included indigenous communities, health workers, coroners, and government and private agencies with a responsibility for, or interest in, indigenous wellbeing.

With the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), facing massive Federal Government cuts by the Abbott Government in 2014, John told University of Sydney student newspaper Honi Soit, "Currently they give us $17 million. If they doubled that funding, we could start to do a good job".

With 2300 of the 10,200 prisoners in NSW jails at that time being Aboriginal, cuts included axing of a program targeting recidivism, despite statistics showing more than two-thirds of Aboriginal prisoners would return to jail within three years of their release.

Asked what kept him fighting this uphill battle, John told Honi Soit "… I think, for me, it boils down to the fact that I believe Aboriginal people deserve the very best legal representations in the most difficult circumstances."


Central Coast honours

Other Central Coast citizens in the latest Queen's Birthday honours are:

• Terrigal's Michael Hickey for his service to veterans and their families through Legacy, and to the community.

• Longstanding NSW Labor representative John Della Bosca for significant service to public health, particularly in the disability and drug support, and to the Parliament of NSW.

• Terrigal's Emeritus Professor William Purcell for significant service to tertiary education, to business and Australia-Japan relations.

• Erina's Harold Sharp for his service to the community and to charitable initiatives, including through Rotary.

• Douglas Roser, from Forresters Beach, for service to the community and to engineering.

• San Remo's Wendy Naylor for service to veterans and their families.

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