Indigenous advocate overcomes hostility

·3-min read

After decades spent fighting for Indigenous justice in Western Australia, Dennis Eggington wrestled with whether to accept a Queen's Birthday honour.

A Noongar man and the chief executive of the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA since 1996, Mr Eggington describes himself as determined to help transform the country into "a modern nation-state that is free of colonial impost".

It hasn't always made him popular, as drawers full of death threats and bullets with his name scratched into them attest.

"Working at the coalface, it's a tough place to be," he told AAP.

"You've got lots of hurt, broken, angry people, and then you've got a colonial settler society on the other side that's hell-bent on maintaining the status quo.

"You can't win anywhere, you're always getting criticised.

"Having someone who actually saw through that and saw something decent in me was what made me accept the award."

Appointed a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia for his significant service to WA's Indigenous community, Mr Eggington has fought tirelessly for justice reform in a state with the nation's highest Aboriginal incarceration rate.

WA's Labor government in 2020 largely abolished the imprisonment of fine defaulters after lobbying from groups including the ALS.

The legislative change was sparked by the death in custody of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, who was locked up in 2014 for $3622 in unpaid fines. Ms Dhu's first name is not used for cultural reasons.

A custody notification service was also implemented following the inquest into the young woman's death.

Yet Aboriginal people have continued to die in custody and Mr Eggington said the legal service's workload was only growing, with little meaningful progress achieved in improving relations between police and Indigenous communities.

"The evidence is that things are getting a lot worse than better," he said.

'There will come a time where the ALS is not going to be able to do all of what it needs to do to manage this current situation.

"The whole area of legal assistance to disadvantaged people in society ... they are getting a really raw deal."

After 26 years at the helm, Mr Eggington said he will likely step down as the ALS chief executive next year but he intends to remain involved in some capacity.

The 67-year-old said the highlight of his career had been witnessing the strength, resilience and humanity of Aboriginal people amid ongoing discrimination.

But he warned that genuine change would remain out of reach without greater recognition of Australia's bloody past and a move towards Indigenous nation-building.

"We have a right to be self-governing as First Nations people," he said.

"That's an inherent right. While that's denied us, we're going to get the same of everything."

NSW Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council chair Yvonne Weldon was also recognised with an AM for her significant service to the state's Indigenous community.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting