Inquiry into Indigenous youth suicide across the Pilbara

The Education and Health Standing Committee of the West Australian parliament says it will investigate the high rate of suicide in the state’s remote areas.


A parliamentary inquiry will look at young Indigenous lives in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions and why suicide rates seem to be soaring.

A suicide-prevention researcher with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights, Gerry Georgatos, says it is not nearly enough.

He says a royal commission is the only way to approach what he calls “the most pressing issue on the Australian landscape.”

“A royal commission will take a year to two years. A royal commission will interview hundreds and hundreds of families, hundreds of community leaders, go to the heart of all the issues and not just the tip of the iceberg.* And we need the recommendations that will come out of that to be resourced and enabled. We need the public record, in the public interest, put on the table, so it can be drawn from. We don’t need small-time, limited, parliamentary committees.”

Education and Health Standing Committee chairman Dr Graham Jacobs says he agrees the number of suicides is unacceptable.

But he suggests a royal commission is not the answer.

“It was the Minister for Land, and the Leader of the National Party, who said, in the last two or three years, there have been 18 inquiries — some of them federal, some of them state, some of them coroner’s inquiries, but there have been 18. So I don’t think we need a protracted royal commission into the state of some of the remote communities. We know the state, we know their situation, we know their record in health, which is a very bad record and we should be ashamed about. But … we know all that, but what are we actually going to do? It’s really important that we’ve got organisations that have done reports and recommendations before, and we might call upon them as well to say, ‘Okay, this is the recommendation. Where are we at? And where have we got?’ Because whatever we’ve got doesn’t seem to be working.”

The catalyst for the inquiry was the death of a 10-year-old girl in the community of Looma, in the Kimberley, in early March.

Paediatrician Dr James Fitzpatrick describes Looma as one of his favourite places to visit.

But he says he feels the girl’s circumstances — she was believed to be living in Looma with extended family – were not unique.

“In the Kimberley, informal foster care is quite a common scenario. Often, it’s the best solution in a complex situation. Honestly, far too many children up in the Kimberley are in that scenario. The parents of this young girl had an absolute responsibility to love and nurture her and to keep her safe. They failed in that. There are all sorts of reasons why they failed. The responsibility starts there, and then it extends outward to other family members, who, I am quite sure, have carried the burden of growing this little girl up. The next line of responsibility, I believe, is in the helping services – people like psychologists, teachers, doctors and the like who work in these communities. And I believe, in this young girl’s case, at all levels, she was failed by those around her.”

Dr Fitzpatrick says people living in such areas face many challenges.

“There’s an absolute failure in many communities for people to be the best that they can be, and for adults, especially, to stop their protracted adolescence and to get on with being a grown-up and contributing participant in the community. Services in these areas are stretched. It costs at least twice as much to deliver a school or health or child-protection service in remote areas as it does in the city. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of a difficult and complex situation, and, certainly, in Looma, there are challenges. However, there’s a sense of belonging and a sense of strength that people, truly, they gain from the land and from living in that place.”

The committee says it hopes to deliver some findings by the end of the year.

For Gerry Georgatos, change cannot come soon enough.

“Just recently, I was in a community where we buried three children in five days. That should have galvanised the nation. That should have picked up the nation’s attention. The youngest was a 15-year-old. It appals me that it takes the tragic loss of a 10-year-old child because it’s unimaginable for Australian households that such a young person, at that age, would even ideate, contemplate, taking their life. Look, for me, it’s not unimaginable. For me, who’s been in the space, we’ve had eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds taking their lives. Whatever we do, it needs to be widespread and in-depth. We cannot short-change the most pressing issue on our landscape, the issue of our time.”