I LISTENED TO the radio broadcast of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Closing the Gap address in parliament on 12 February 2018 and, gritting my teeth, expected the worst. I was surprised to hear him mention, if only briefly, violence against Indigenous women as one of the challenges facing the strategy. I expected this matter of high priority to be ignored yet again. But times are changing.
In the last half century, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women have drawn attention to the family violence and other forms of violence, such as inter-clan disputes, in Indigenous communities, and established programs to ensure the safety of women and children. Indigenous women dominate in this history of advocacy and campaigning for policy reforms to address the need for safe communities. Yet, until recently, their work has gone almost unnoticed.
Only in 2017 has the leadership of Indigenous women been recognised, with the appointment of June Oscar AO to the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. In the twenty-five years of this special role in the Australian Human Rights Commission, she is the first woman. Many will remember the outstanding work by Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG as the first chair of the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which was disestablished by former Prime Minister John Howard. Her courage and steadfastness were exemplary. The chief executive of ATSIC for a period was Pat Turner, and together she and Lowitja dealt with complex policy and legislative challenges, such as the passage of the Native Title Act through parliament, as well as overseeing the distribution of a significant proportion of the budget allocated to Indigenous affairs. Also, this year, instead of one person chairing the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council there are two co-chairs, Andrea Mason and Chris Sarra. Not since Lowitja’s appointment has such a senior body had a woman at its head. Many other Indigenous women have served with distinction as honorary appointments to the various government advisory bodies, but they are usually pushed into the background by the trope of the male Indigenous leader that the political class finds so easy and attractive.
IN NOVEMBER 2017, the NAIDOC co-chairs Dr Anne Martin and Ben Mitchell announced the national theme for 2018: Because of her, we can! They stated that NAIDOC Week 2018 will celebrate the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made – and continue to make – to our communities, our families, our rich history and to our nation. Their statement continued:
As pillars of our society, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels.
As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art.
They continue to influence as doctors, lawyers, teachers, electricians, chefs, nurses, architects, rangers, emergency and defence personnel, writers, volunteers, chief executive officers, actors, singer songwriters, journalists, entrepreneurs, media personalities, board members, accountants, academics, sporting icons and Olympians, the list goes on.
They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters.
And it goes on at some length, and is captured in the slogan: Because of her, we can! It is critical to maintain hope, to aspire to this being universally true, but it is also important to recognise the horrors that many women continue to confront, and address them. We were given another slogan during the Closing the Gap ceremonies: Thriving not surviving. There is an air of Snapchat to this, of social media networking for friends and fun, while the depressing statistics worsen. Are governments measuring the violence against Indigenous women, their imprisonment, the abuse and removal of their children and, in some areas of Australia, their worsening poverty? Or are they ignoring the signs of social collapse in many places? It is difficult, sometimes, not to be cynical about the costly spin that accompanies the politics. But I need to say this: a slogan is not a sufficient response to the seriousness of this situation.
THE APPOINTMENT OF June Oscar and the first NAIDOC theme celebrating Indigenous women are, and should be, cause for some optimism. I am encouraged, but also frustrated that it has taken so long for the Indigenous world to finally adopt a pro-women approach to the annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life in this nation. It is clearly encouraging for the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women whose voices have rarely been heard, to judge from Twitter and Facebook responses, even while they bear the brunt of the disadvantages that are measured in the annual Closing the Gap misery-fest.
But is mere representation of women on committees sufficient in the context of rising rates of violence against Indigenous women and children, incarceration of women, and removal of children from their families? The policy-lite approach to these issues across Australia raises the potential for more failures – or such slow progress on, for instance, reducing child mortality rates – to cause a collapse of Indigenous confidence in governments and their role in Indigenous affairs.
It is important to remain vigilant. We are so very far from parity for Indigenous women, and the work ahead is challenging. We will face the arguments of those who will never concede that we are their equal – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. There remains great nervousness about allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to enter the corridors of power. The demands by Indigenous women for gender equity have been disputed by those who believe the hoary old excuse for male dominance: that women having rights is contrary to culture, despite evidence to refute this. Efforts to expose this fallacy, especially in relation to policy reforms to address alcohol-fueled violence, provide parenting programs and refuges for women and children, and proposals for registers and programs for violent offenders and men’s health and anger management programs, have made barely a dint in the perception among the political elites of the severity of life for Indigenous women and children.
I have been attempting to find a white-feminist defence of the demands of Aboriginal women for effective action to prevent the violence against them and their children – a defence with any of the common sense and cut-through power of Rosie Batty. Rosie Batty, that brave, heartbroken woman, was a beacon of hope for many of us throughout her tenure as Australian of the Year in 2015. After her son Luke was murdered by his father, she became a campaigner against violence. She lent her dignity to survivors of family violence throughout Australia and helped to transfer the shame of being a victim to its rightful place: the perpetrators. She spoke at events organised by women and anti-violence campaigners, at White Ribbon and Male Champions of Change events, and visited remote Aboriginal communities, each time speaking the common sense that gave her that distinctive ‘ordinary hero’ status.
There is the precise, persuasive reporting of former Governor-General Quentin Bryce AD CVO and her team in Not Now, Not Ever: Putting an End to Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland. Likewise, there are the legal reform arguments of the 2017 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, led by former Justice Marcia Neave AO as commissioner and Patricia Faulkner AO and Tony Nicholson as deputy commissioners, whose two hundred and twenty-seven recommendations embody world-leading reforms. And there are the sound recommendations of Northern Territory Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw, whose officers responded to seventy-five thousand cases of domestic violence from 2014 to 2016 and where, staggeringly, almost half of all orders were breached by offenders.
Then there were the anguished speeches in our parliaments by survivors of spousal abuse. In September 2017, Victorian Upper House MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins spoke about how her estranged husband had been convicted for possession of child pornography. In November 2016, Emma Husar delivered a speech that detailed her experience of domestic violence to the House of Representatives. As news.com.au reported: ‘The Western Sydney representative had the House in tears as she shared with her fellow politicians, and the rest of Australia, how as a child she was forced to watch her always-drunk father physically abuse her mother.’ This speech was a welcome corrective to the White Ribbon Day pontificating. A victim’s voice should always be heard. A victim’s voice should have priority. If not, the problem will be dealt with in the same way that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions were able to hide paedophiles: with reassuring symbols that served to cover up the crimes.
I support White Ribbon Day, just as I support reconciliation. But the metanarrative is disturbing if men predominate, if the male voice predominates; if the ribbon serves like the sanctity of the clergy to mask crimes, little changes. And the motives of some men in wearing the ribbon, and presenting speeches in parliaments and at events on 25 November are plain to see: they are hiding their ongoing complicity in violence – whether as a perpetrator, witness or defender – behind the little piece of ribbon. We recognise their faces, we remember their wives and girlfriends and their bruises and absences, and shake our heads, so deeply disappointed again that their arrogance is unstoppable.
FEMALE PARLIAMENTARIANS SHOULD have some idea how gruesome life can be for Indigenous women and children who are victims of violence, abuse, humiliation and intimidation. In 2016, a study by the global Inter-Parliamentary Union reported that sexist violence and harassment against women lawmakers is ‘real and widespread’ and ‘the phenomenon knows no boundaries and exists to different degrees in every country, affecting a significant number of women parliamentarians’. The report, Sexism, Harassment and Violence against Women Parliamentarians, relied on data provided by fifty-five women parliamentarians of all ages who were selected from thirty-nine countries in five regions, including Africa, Europe, Asia-Pacific, the Americas and the Arab world. The report found that four out of five of the female politicians reported having been subjected to hostile behaviour causing psychological harm or fear, and just under half said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their term in office: ‘Most of these acts were committed by their male colleagues – from opposing or their own parties’.
In June 2016, Jo Cox, the 41-year-old British Labour Party Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen, died after being shot and stabbed multiple times by a 52-year-old local man named Thomas Mair in Birstall, West Yorkshire. Mair targeted Cox because she was a ‘passionate defender’ of the European Union and immigration, as The Guardian reported in November 2016, and because he viewed her ‘as “one of the collaborators”, a traitor to his race’. Hewas found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a whole-life order.
All these women have more in common than gender, but it’s their gender that makes them the target of violence. Likewise, most of the domestic violence committed in Australia involves women as victims and men as perpetrators. The other main category of victims is children.
Given the experience of women parliamentarians and lawmakers in Australia with male violence, why the tolerance of violence against Indigenous women and children? Are we not human? Few Indigenous victims have the audience that women parliamentarians have.
Take the case of Lynette Daley, murdered near Iluka on the New South Wales north coast on Australia Day in 2011, whose killers were not prosecuted until 2017, after a campaign by her family and others, and exposure of the case on Four Corners. The campaign caused the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to relent and prosecute two men, Adrian Attwater and Paul Maris. In September 2017, an eleven-person jury took just thirty-two minutes to decide that the men were guilty. Adrian Attwater received a nineteen-year sentence, with a non-parole period of fifteen years and three months, for the manslaughter and aggravated sexual assault of Daley. Paul Maris, who was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault and hindering the collection of evidence, received a nine-year sentence, with a non-parole period of six years and nine months.
The state prosecutor is required to take account of community standards, and his refusal to prosecute in 2011 reflected public acceptance of violence against Aboriginal women. Community attitudes to violence against women have changed rapidly following Rosie Batty’s advocacy as Australian of the Year. But four years before she became a lightning rod, the revulsion of ordinary members of the community at the failure to prosecute in this case fell on deaf ears. Six years after Lynette Daley’s death, the prosecutions succeeded.
This lag let the community down in many ways. It indicated a tolerance for violence against women and could be seen by some as disregard for the lives of Aboriginal women. Although the coroner found no fault with the NSW police in this case, I feared that some would take the failure to promptly prosecute Lynette Daley’s murderers as a signal of an ‘open season’ on Aboriginal women and think nothing of assaulting us. If the law could not be applied equally, then our conclusion that the legal system is racist was reasonable.
The primary example of this tolerance of violence is the Prime Minister’s Third Action Plan 2016–19 of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. It recommends that cases of violence against Indigenous women and children should be dealt with through ‘activities that provide wraparound, case-managed support for families, and encourage behaviour change without resorting to police or courts’. Indigenous women involved in ending this violence are asking: Why would the plan recommend that police and courts not be involved?
We who are familiar with the patterns of violence in the Aboriginal world know that one of the key problems is the ‘code of silence’. Women are too afraid to call the police or to seek assistance, too afraid to apply for a restraining order, because the police will not attend in any case, and if they do, they will involve child protection authorities and remove the children to institutional care. Or, as is increasingly the case, they will arrest the female victim. I have been told that the women’s prisons in Perth are filling up with Aboriginal women who were arrested when they called the police to obtain assistance in a domestic violence crisis. The Human Rights Law Centre and the Change the Record campaign have reported a rising tide of imprisonment of Aboriginal women. Yet there are no suggestions for how to end the violence that triggers their contact with the police. It may be possible to negotiate an end to violence without police actions leading to arrests, but when lives are threatened, the police must be involved because of the high risk of homicide and serious assault. The rates of homicide for Indigenous victims of family violence are twice that for other Australians, a statistic reported by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia 2018: ‘Two in five Indigenous homicide victims (41 per cent, or thirty-two victims) were killed by a current or previous partner, compared with one in five non-Indigenous homicide victims (22 per cent, or ninety-four victims) during 2012–14.’
The case of Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in Western Australia in 2014, is exemplary in explaining this problem. She was abused and humiliated by the police and many believed she was denied medical treatment. The inquiry found otherwise, but family and friends who saw the video of her writhing in agony on the cell floor and crying for help have their own views. The point I need to make is that before she was arrested, she was assaulted – probably by her partner or boyfriend, a known and named person in the documents and coverage of this case – and the infection from her broken ribs caused her death. This is not to minimise the failure of the police and the hospital that refused to treat her. If it had, she might have lived. But in the first instance, she was a victim of partner violence.
IT SEEMS OBVIOUS that the police forces of Australia need to lift their game and deal more effectively with the scourge of family violence in the Indigenous world. We should unanimously clamour for more support for the victims; too often they are ignored in the fashionable rush to perpetrator behavioural-change programs. The data shows the situation worsening in every conceivable way. Why doesn’t the rule of law, so highly valued by all major political parties and purported to be one of the bedrocks of Australian society, work to stop this?
Several reforms were announced at a 2016 Council of Australian Governments meeting: a national domestic-violence order scheme, a national information-sharing system, and the development of national perpetrator standards. Reporting on these developments with transparent and accessible data is urgently required. This is essential if victims are to have integrated and effective support during regular crises – the episodes of violence and community mayhem from which they need safe haven. The police need to be trained, for obvious reasons, to treat the victims and household members with respect, and to quickly remove the perpetrators of violence. They need to make the process of a victim obtaining a restraining order or DVO streamlined, and they need to follow up to make sure that the victims do not surrender to their fears. Their lives and the lives of children involved are always at risk, as the statistics show. They need the removal of the offender, not the women and children; easy access to social-security payments and bank accounts; legislation to ensure police protection of victims from perpetrators and their enablers. A national taskforce of highly qualified Indigenous women and men should be appointed to identify the programs and policies that work and are most urgent.
THE UNDOUBTEDLY SINCERE and well-meaning people who wrote the Third Action Plan, and people I have met in governments with key responsibilities in this area, have been told by some Aboriginal leaders that these levels of violence and abuse are ‘cultural’. Yet when I ask what that might mean, they have no answers.
What do the Aboriginal leaders mean when they give this deadly advice? They are referring to a new version of Aboriginal culture that can only mean – if we follow their arguments to their logical end – that assault, forced detention, capital and corporal punishment, and sexual assault of adults and children are acceptable. These actions are illegal under Australian law, but are condoned by some men in the Aboriginal world as a form of ‘Aboriginal culture’. The argument, the logic and the consequences are repugnant and should be regarded as such in Australian policies and laws.
Another excuse for the violence – the dominant one, I think – is that Aboriginal men are the victims of ‘colonisation’ and ‘need to heal’ before we can deal with the violence.
For raising these issues, as I have done for at least forty years, I have been accused of labelling all Aboriginal men as rapists and perpetrators of violence. I was accused of such by a highly educated, urban, cosmopolitan Aboriginal male academic at a meeting of Indigenous health leaders and research leaders in Melbourne a few years ago; and by a male Aboriginal lawyer, who is one of the leaders of the Change the Record campaign, at a meeting of Indigenous health staff in Brisbane. This is the standard dismissal of Aboriginal women who advocate for solutions to the violence that are aimed at giving some respite to the victims.
Again, the argument, the logic and the consequences are repugnant and should be dismissed. The logical answer is that men who do not approve of such violence should stand beside Aboriginal women advocates to end the violence and defend their cause. They should report perpetrators of assault and rape to the police. They should demand that the criminal justice system deal with these matters effectively.
But the justification for violence is that Aboriginal men have been colonised and are victims who need to be addressed as a priority over their victims. Why? Well apparently because men come first, if we follow this specious reasoning.
ARE THERE ANY feminist arguments that address the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and children? There is the inspiring Rosie Batty, who could not easily be labelled a feminist. At times it feels like there are more white feminists defending the indefensible – the violence of the perpetrators as an exceptionalist category of colonial impact – than those defending the women whose family life is torn apart by the violence, who are increasingly incarcerated, whose children who are removed into institutional care arrangements and sent into care in the homes of others, to graduate eventually into juvenile detention centres, and then prisons.
The violence knows no bounds. There is a tragedy befalling Indigenous children whose incarceration rates rival the Indigenous adult imprisonment rates and whose trauma is the subject of a growing number of inquiries.
Twelve years ago, in 2006, this pattern of the traumatisation of Indigenous children was reported by Naomi Ralph, Kathy Hamaguchi and Marie Cox, three mental health workers from the Kimberley region. In a paper presented at a Canadian conference, they revealed that sexual abuse of children was contributing to high suicide rates, and warned of dire consequences if it was not stamped out in Indigenous communities. High rates of suicide among the Kimberley’s young people were previously thought to be the result of depression. But they suggested that the cause was more likely to be exposure to trauma, writing that ‘child sexual abuse is the core social and emotional wellbeing issue impacting on Aboriginal communities’. Since then, the pile of coronial inquiries investigating the deaths of Aboriginal women and children in Western Australia has stacked up. The enduring trauma is gripping the communities in a state of fear and, worse, acceptance of violence as the norm.
More and more young girls are being sexualised and abused at a young age, dooming them to lives of trauma and further jeopardising the future of the family as a viable social institution in those regions where one of the outcomes of this normalisation and acceptance of violence is the laissez-faire responses of the criminal justice system to these victims.
So, in the year of Because of her, we can!, my hope is that these issues will be addressed – not only in the Indigenous world, but also in the corridors of power. I hope that the necessary reforms to end the violence and to enable safe communities are implemented, so that she can.
She will be able to thrive if Indigenous men play their part in recognising her humanity and right to a full and happy life. She will be able to thrive if she is not wrongfully arrested and imprisoned, if she is treated by medical personnel in hospitals, if she is educated and treated with respect. And if she is able to thrive, so will those around her. It is impossible to accept anything less.