Clueless White Males


It’s been just over two weeks since Alice Springs Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers detailed frightening levels of domestic violence and sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities on ABC TV’s Lateline. These ‘revelations’ were not news to the Aboriginal researchers and community leaders who have been fighting to have these issues on the political agenda for two decades now.

As the story unfolds in the media and the opportunistic slanging match between Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough and NT Chief Minister Clare Martin, thankfully, abates we’ve seen two key arguments emerge. The first is about causes, and centres on a discussion about whether Aboriginal culture is inherently violent towards women. The second is about appropriate responses it’s here that Brough’s big ‘law and order’ stick dominates.  

Although causes and responses can’t be separated, let’s first address the prevailing wisdom (accepted by a judge in a 1980 case in the Northern Territory) that ‘ rape is not considered as seriously in Aboriginal communities as it is in the White community.’

Who is the authority on ‘traditional culture’?

On 19 May, Rosemary Neill argued in The Australian that, ‘it’s clear that some aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture are deeply inimical to women. French and British colonists and explorers recorded how Aboriginal men inflicted serious injuries on their women with seeming impunity.’ Keith Windschuttle has made similar claims and offered similar evidence. Cultural historian and feted public intellectual Inga Clendinnen has also written extensively about Aboriginal male brutality, drawing on First Fleet-era journals. Clendinnen’s analysis is more sophisticated, but all three commentators draw on colonisers’ accounts.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

Over the course of this debate, both legal academic Larissa Behrendt, on Lateline on 18 May and historian Jane Lydon, in The Age on 22 May, have raised the question of Western cultural assumptions in colonial definitions, descriptions, and understandings of Aboriginal gender relations. (Neill, as we see above, assumes Aboriginal men had a proprietorial relationship to ‘their’ women.) Behrendt and Lydon point to the dominance of White, male views of Aboriginal culture in law, history and anthropology, and in the collective imagination. Behrendt refers to several examples of judges ignoring evidence put forward by ‘female anthropologists that supported Aboriginal women’s views that rape in Aboriginal culture was a serious offence,’ instead happily accepting the stereotypes of Aboriginal women and culture put forward by defence lawyers.

These stereotypical views have become the authori ty, Lydon writes, and their periodic resurrection has ‘often helped governments to justify interventionist Indigenous policies,’ be they colonisation, child removal, or, we might add, closing ‘uneconomic’ remote communities. Our collective appetite for Aboriginal brutality is still enormous.

There are many silences in the historical record, but the voices of Aboriginal women today are loud and clear: a young columnist in the Koori Mail , Ruth Shinn, wrote on 24 May that ‘sexual abuse never has been and never will be a part of our culture. That is like saying alcohol is part of our culture and sexually transmitted diseases are part of our culture.’ Alcohol and sexually transmitted diseases were introduced to Aboriginal society via colonisation; like sexual violence, they are a symptom of social breakdown.

In 2005, a judge in the Northern Territory handed down a one-month sentence to an Aboriginal man for the anal rape of a 14-year-old-girl. The judge accepted that the man ‘honestly believed that he was entitled, under customary law’ to ‘take her as a wife’ and abuse her. Behrendt argued that in this and other cases, White, male judges have accepted pretend customary law justifications invented by White, male lawyers, sending ‘the wrong message’ about the justice system to Aboriginal women and communities. The sentence was increased to three years, on appeal, in December last year.

Let’s now consider some of the responses to this complex and distressing issue.

Since visiting the Alice Springs Town Camps earlier this month, Mal Brough has emphasised the need for more police in Aboriginal communities.

Remote Aboriginal communities are certainly under-resourced in terms of policing, as they are in education, housing, community infrastructure, and health services: all of which are crucial preventative measures in addressing violence and abuse. Simply pledging ‘more police’ and ‘getting tough’ on heinous crimes is a tabloid media and vote-winning response just ask Clare Martin.

In less remote, more urban Australia, Aboriginal people in general, and particularly juveniles, remain over-policed in the streets currently constituting 22 per cent of the national prison population. Rates of imprisonment for Aboriginal men jumped 11 per cent between 2000 and 2004, and for women it was a frightening 25 per cent.

Meanwhile domestic violence and child abuse is under-policed: as discussed over the last two weeks, reporting and prosecution rates are very low. Greater police numbers will not necessarily mean increased safety for Aboriginal women and children. An awareness of systemic over-policing and police racism must go hand in hand with a targeted family violence strategy.

One of the forums within which Aboriginal women tried to raise the profile of Aboriginal-perpetrated violence and abuse was the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). The RCIADIC was critical in bringing about greater awareness of the over-representation of Aboriginal people at all stages of the criminal justice process. The Commission’s findings emphasised that every possible alternative to incarceration should be considered.

Tragically, some sympathetic magistrates who are generally aware that there are ‘too many Aboriginal men in jail’ are inclined to give light custodial sentences to Aboriginal perpetrators of violence and abuse. It takes great courage and determination on the part of an Aboriginal woman, family and community to pursue a case of this kind in the courts: inadequate sentences are a devastating outcome.

They are also a gross distortion of the Commission’s stated intent to break the cycle of Aboriginal contact with courts and jails, a cycle that often begins with petty offences.

Far too few of the other recommendations of the RCIADIC have been implemented. Far too few of the recommendations of the endless inquiries into Aboriginal disadvantage including reports that specifically address domestic violence and child sexual abuse have been implemented.

All too easily forgotten is the history of well-intentioned but inappropriate interventions: the ‘White saviour’ syndrome. Images of police, the army, and legions of bureaucrats storming in to fix things won’t wash with communities used to broken promises and ignored recommendations.

Jane Vadiveloo, former social services manager at Tangentyere Council which has now been stripped of responsibility for the Alice Springs Town Camps has released a paper that presents her personal views on the Town Camps. Vadiveloo highlights a long running battle by the residents of Abbotts Camp to have the camp declared a dry zone. Vadiveloo notes,

Camp leaders continually expressed concern that the three alcohol outlets surrounding them were servicing drinkers who then came directly into their camp [and that]they had to live with 30 “40 people per house, resulting in women and children being abused. The Abbotts Camp community determined that being a dry community was the only way forward for the protection of their children.

Despite this determination, it was not until last year that the Abbotts Camp residents finally secured the co-operation of government agencies and the Alice Springs police. Since then, family violence rates have decreased significantly. Vadiveloo asks,

Are the residents of Abbotts Camp solely responsible for the children and women who were bashed and raped for the six years it took the police and Liquor Commission to approve their request to make their camp a safe place?

This is one of many Town Camp residents’ initiatives described by Vadiveloo. Her report reveals the chronic under-funding and ignorance of specific interventions attempted by the most disenfranchised of communities, alongside, or in spite of, government indifference and one-size-fits-all government strategies.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.