I am a Waanyi and Kalkadoon man who was born and raised in Queensland, Australia. I’ve been working now as a barrister for ten years. My recent work in the human rights area deals with really large human rights class actions representing the interests of sometimes thousands of Australia’s First Nations people.
My first class action related to a death in custody on an Indigenous man in Palm Island in 2004 and subsequent events. Ultimately, we were successful: the judge found that the police had been racially discriminatory in a range of actions, and in 2015 we received $35 million compensation for 447 members of the Palm Island community.
My second big case, which we finished last year (2019) was a $190 million settlement for stolen wages. All across Australia states had legislation that controlled First Nations people, usually from the 1800s up until about 1980. Legislation that restricted their movement, restricted their ability to access education, stripped away all their assets, including any property they owned, and sent them out to work. And when they were out working, instead of being paid their wages, their wages were actually paid to the state. The state kept those wages and that was the basis of the action and settlement in Queensland. For claimants, group members who are part of that process, there’s a lot of vindication from the way they – and sometimes deceased parents or grandparents – have been treated.
Now I’m working on about six similar cases in other states. Western Australia (WA) is another stolen wages case. For about a hundred years or so First Nations People working in WA, usually on stations or sent to white homes to work as domestics or in the pearling industry, weren’t allowed to be paid their wages directly. Then in the Northern Territory (NT) I am working on a stolen generations class action. Aboriginal children were removed across all of Australia but in the NT, they’ve never had a compensation scheme, so thousands of children who were removed and put in homes all over the country lost the connection to their families and have never been compensated for it.
This work has really shown me is that a lot of First Nations disadvantage in this country is a direct result of government legislation. Poverty, lack of education, lack of economic participation, that’s a direct result of legislation which existed in all Australian states and territories and that has also had an impact on overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Disadvantage is further cemented by legislation like Close the Gap, the Commonwealth Government’s main policy focus for Indigenous people over the last ten years. When you understand how it works practically, it’s not about creating equality, it’s further inhibiting the progress of First Nations people. For example, the educational side focuses on parity, but it’s only parity to Year 12, there’s no focus on parity through university. Indigenous students tend to be pushed into doing Certificate Ones, Twos and Threes and then they have to go on to TAFE or go into a lower-level job. So that pathway to university is inhibited. It’s very similar to the historic legislation which I am dealing with, which inhibited Indigenous peoples’ opportunities to progress beyond disadvantage. Close the Gap is just another example of that.
I think that governments in this country are very paternalistic and feel they have a better understanding of what Indigenous people require. It’s inherent racism: one group of people think they are superior and know better what another group needs than the group themselves.
I did the DTP course back in 2004 at UNSW. It was a really remarkable period in my life. I was also involved in the Oxfam Youth Parliament, 350 young people from all around the world, brought together in Sydney to discuss global issues. It was really the first time I heard about issues like sustainability.
At the end of the Youth Parliament, I did the DTP course with other young Indigenous advocates from Australia and globally. We had some great presenters who took us through critical human rights legislation and how you can make an impact. I was a law student and I learned all these tools… fifteen years later, that’s the sort of lawyer that I’ve become. That came at a really critical time. To be able to participate in DTP at such an early stage was a really valuable experience. It was one of the catalysts that motivated me to start on this path.
In many ways I think we are at the start of human rights class actions, there’s a big body of law to develop over the next two decades and I’ll just continue working on these class actions in the coming years. I’m also hoping to encourage a lot more Indigenous people to come to the Bar. We need more Indigenous lawyers and we need more Indigenous judges, a more culturally diverse bench is critical.
There’s a history in Australia that a huge amount of the population simply chooses to ignore or doesn’t take the time to understand. The work I am doing now is really about how First Nations people have been treated in Australia for a long period of time. And for those that have suffered that treatment, I’m trying to bring about some resolution for them.
In 2008, Joshua Creamer won Griffith University’s Rubin Hurricane Carter Award for Social Justice in recognition of his activism on racism in Australia. After his DTP experience, Joshua recommended his mother, Sandra Creamer, participate in a DTP course – her story was featured by the Guardian Australia in November, 2020. Joshua has also been a trainer on later DTP Indigenous peoples programs.