Justice, sport and improving work life for ATSI public servants

Union delegates are the life blood of activism and the protection of our rights and entitlements in the public sector. Nine times out of ten these passionate individuals are also the life blood of our communities - dedicating tireless hours to community groups, sporting associations and local causes. 

In 2014 one of our Organisers 'dobbed in' a fairly remarkable delegate that was excelling in his role with the Aboriginal Justice Program at the Department of the Attorney General. In addition to his day-job within the public service, Matt Abrahamson was also dedicating his time to promoting, playing with and coaching WA's champion indigenous cricket team;  championing the concerns, passions and rights of indigenous pubic servants as a member of the ACTU Indigenous Leaders Program; and protecting the rights and entitlements of his coworkers as a union delegate within the Department. Two years on Matt has continued to go from strength to strength both as a cricketer, activist and unionist.

This year alone Matt has founded the CPSU/CSA Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Committee and been elected CPSU/CSA Vice President. With a track record like this, we thought it timely to revisit his 2014 successes and ask Matt what his plans are for the future.

Howzat! for indigenous cricket.

Originally published in The Journal J2: 2014.

“Our job is to develop different strategies and projects that reduce the contact Aboriginal people have with Western Australia’s justice system. As an Aboriginal person and knowing about the issues that Aboriginal people face, we come up with ways to address those issues.”

This is the view of Matt Abrahamson, a senior project officer involved in the Aboriginal Justice Program at the Department of the Attorney General.

“We look at ways of reducing Aboriginal over representation in the system.”

Matt has been in the role, based at Westralia Square in the Perth CBD, for five years. He started his public sector career as a trainee in the Indigenous Training Program at the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the then Ministry of Justice in May 2000, before being seconded to the Aborginal Justice Agreement in DoTAG in 2008. Matt said it was a satisfying role and “there were lots of big issues to deal with”

Matt’s other passion is cricket, being an accomplished batsman and in more recent times the coach of the WA Indigenous team. He started playing as a 10-year-old and progressed through the ranks to be an opening batsman for Gosnells in the WACA A Grade competition, the highest amateur level you can play before knocking on the door for WA selection. In 2004-05 he was selected in the WA Indigenous team that contests the Imparja Cup in Alice Springs every February where he won the Player of the Tournament award and was named in the Honour Squad (best team from the event). 

His best score in that competition was 88 runs off 39 balls against Tasmania.

“I continued as a player in the WA Indigenous team for six years including three years as a captain, including 2010 where we won the Imparja Cup for WA.”

Matt then progressed to being an assistant coach for a couple of years and has been the senior coach for the last three seasons. Earlier this year the team won the national competition again.

“It’s been rewarding to work with a whole group of players from different geographical areas and backgrounds, we bring them together as one team and represent WA and our people.”

Nowadays Matt spends his own on-field time playing for Southern River in a suburban competition, where there is a lot less demand on his personal time. Matt has also been part of the ACTU Indigenous Leaders Program that increases engagement of indigenous activists in the union movement.

New challenges and strengthed resolve.

We caught up with Matt about the impact of budget cuts and hiring freezes on his Department and those who rely on its services, cricket and his hopes for the CPSU/CSA ATSI Committee.

It has been a challenging couple of years for the public sector in WA, what impact have the budget cuts and the hiring freezes had over the past 18 months on the Aboriginal people that rely on our justice services?

We have seen the effects of budget cuts and hiring freezes manifest in different ways in recent times. As agencies try to live within their means, reviews often result in particular occupational groups being attacked. These attacks cut across a number of different areas which, can ultimately lead to contact with the justice system. I have heard of cuts to attendance officers in schools who focus on engaging ATSI students, cuts to family support workers who support ATSI families and other cases where government services have changed their focus in order to deliver services on a reduced budget. The impact of these cuts goes against what we as a society stand for in terms of providing services for all our citizens.

Where do you see the most hope for improvement?

Unfortunately, it seems inevitable something bad must happen before governments respond. The cases of Mr Ward and Ms Dhu highlight but two lives lost which were preventable. Responses to flaws in the system are highlighted only because people lose their lives, not because it is good practice to review matters in the name of continuous improvement. Public services exist to provide services to the people and the area in which I believe can lead to improvement is to fund and resource our public services. We are a contracting public service catering to an increasing population. Our family and friends all access public services – whether it be our children’s dental at school; registering a birth, death or marriage; getting a driver’s licence – the list goes on. We know people affected by the attacks to our public service and we need to have the conversations with people so they understand how they are affected and what they can do to fix it.

Change of pace, how is the cricket going?

Since the last article, the WA Aboriginal Mens team won back-to-back National championships at the Imparja Cup. After restricting New South Wales to 7/95 and scoring the winning run off the second-last ball of the match in 2014, WA once again got over the line in a nail biter. After scoring 5/94 off 20 overs, Queensland looked to be coasting to victory at 0/46, but WA put the clamps on and took the match into the final over, where Queensland required 10 runs for victory. An amazing turnaround saw WA claim back-to-back titles, and their third overall, by four runs. In 2016, WA fell short of qualifying for the final on net run rate. The WA Aboriginal Women's team has had good success, with three players selected to represent Australia in its inaugural tour to India.

What role do you think sport plays in strengthening our communities and reducing demand on justice services?

Sport plays an important role in many aspects of life. Team sports promote teamwork, communication and discipline to be successful. Respect comes through good, healthy competition with opponents and the enforcement of the rules of the game by umpires and referees. The combination of these elements, plus many others such as application and dedication allow people to exercise a choice in how they choose to live. I was fortunate enough to be invited by staff at the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre where a number of players from our Men's team ran a six week cricket program with a number of young people, which showcased the natural skills and excellent hand-eye coordination enjoyed by young Aboriginal people. Hopefully, bringing the game of cricket to those young people provides them an opportunity away from activities which led them to coming into contact with the justice system.

Do you think grassroots sport is well supported by Government? How could it be improved?

Governments at all three levels continue to support grassroots sports. Peak bodies also invest heavily into game development. Cricket Australia commissioned the Australian National University to report into Aboriginal peoples’ under-representation in the game of cricket, of which recommendations have suggested some sweeping changes to the game’s governance. The main barrier I see to sport at any level is the cost. Families with multiple children face significant costs in keeping children engaged in sport by the time footwear, clothing, fees and equipment. Whilst programs exist to offset some of these costs, ongoing expenses become overwhelming. Increasingly, cricket has become more active in engaging people at the grassroots level in alternative formats of the game, where the need for personal equipment is minimal. I also see a significant shift into a more social, rather than competitive and structured form of the game, which goes some way to reducing the costs associated with being involved in the game of cricket.

What are your hopes for the ATSI group?

The ATSI Group is an important part of our Union. With ATSI members located right across Western Australia servicing some of the most vulnerable people in our community, they are excellent people to see first-hand the effects of cuts to public services. The ATSI Group aims to capture this and empower our ATSI membership to become active in advocating for well-funded and well-resourced public services the people of Western Australia deserve. At a micro-level, we hope to grow the ATSI group by encouraging potential members to join the Union and provide opportunities to skill members to become Delegates and active in other areas of the Union, such as our Council and the CPSU-SPSF ATSI Group, which feeds into the ACTU ATSI Group. It is also important for the ATSI Group to advise and inform the Union on matters that affect ATSI peoples.

CPSU/CSA Members may join the CPSU/CSA ATSI Group on Facebook for updates about committee meetings, upcoming events and opportunities: