Remembering Black Australia On White Ribbon Day

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Today is White Ribbon Day. This is undoubtedly a great thing. For those who don’t know, White Ribbon is a male-led campaign to stop violence against women. The website notes that “White Ribbon Day signals the start of the 16 Days of Activism to Stop Violence against Women, which ends on Human Rights Day (December 10).”

They explain that “violence perpetrated by men against women must stop and it is up to men to stop it.”

The website proceeds to list some of the facts that illustrate the seriousness of the problem of violence against women in Australia:

• Over 12 months, on average, one woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence.
• One in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by someone known to them.
• One in four children are exposed to domestic violence, which is a recognised form of child abuse.
• One in five women experience harassment within the workplace.

Consider the issue of violence against Aboriginal women and children. The literature on the issues go back decades, with major work written by women like Judy Atkinson, Audrey Bolger and Boni Robertson

Yet even though there has seemingly been a big appetite for reports on the problems, governments have shown approximately zero interest in ever implementing the recommendations of these reports.

Take The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report, a report from Queensland in 1999. The report was to “Advise on the development and implementation of policy and program initiatives aimed at addressing violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, children and families in Queensland”.

The chairperson of the taskforce was Boni Robertson, who also wrote the report. It makes for powerful reading, all the more so as so much of it could have been written yesterday.

The report notes that whilst “the violence being regularly committed in Indigenous Communities has become front-page news, it is not new. It has been acknowledged by Indigenous and non-Indigenous forums for many years.”

However:

“The people who could have made a difference have failed to intervene to stop innocent women and children from being bashed, raped, mutilated and murdered and exposed to forms of violence that have been allowed to escalate to a level that is now a national disgrace.”

The problem – the key obstacle to change – was government inaction in the face of desperate calls for help. Robertson observed that:

Indigenous women’s groups, concerned about their disintegrating world, have been calling for assistance for more than a decade. While their circumstances may have been recognised, their pleas have not always been met and in some cases, deliberately ignored. At times, Government representatives appeared to regard violence as a normal aspect of Indigenous life, like the high rate of alcohol consumption.

Yet Robertson’s report, whilst angry, was not one without hope.

Robertson wrote that “Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people must work together to stop the carnage through proactive intervention. Indigenous people can no longer live under a system that defies and inhibits autonomy and self-determination.”

Since then, not very much has changed, except the accumulation of more reports detailing violence and sexual assault in Aboriginal communities. For example, in 2006 a report on child sexual assault in Aboriginal communities in NSW was released.

Like comparable reports, before and since, it made for upsetting reading. Like other reports, it paid homage to the determination of Aboriginal communities to overcome their problems. The report,

“tried to present its findings in the same spirit it found among communities. That is, in a way that is open and generous, acknowledging the issues are serious and complex, while at the same time as adamantly stating that it wants the abuse to stop, healing to begin and a better future for our children.”

“… Communities expressed concern that the findings of ACSAT won’t be published and that the recommendations won’t be implemented. They felt that they had contributed to many government inquiries in the past that had not been acted on.”

Tragically – if unsurprisingly – this fear was well-founded. ABC interviewed the chairperson of the taskforce, Marcia Ella-Duncan. The transcript goes as follows:

“MARCIA ELLA DUNCAN, REPORT AUTHOR: I have been in communication with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs quite recently about the Government establishing a state-wide advisory body which is one of the recommendations of the task force.

REPORTER: How many recommendations did you make in your report last year?

MARCIA ELLA DUNCAN: 119 recommendations.

REPORTER: And how many would you say have been acted on in any way?

MARCIA ELLA DUNCAN: To my knowledge, this is the only one.”

Barry O’Farrell – then in opposition, proclaimed: “If Morris Iemma was fair dinkum about ending child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, last December he would have put $25 million into backing this report.” No prizes for guessing what steps Morris Iemma took to implement or fund the report’s recommendations. Or for guessing how “fair dinkum” Barry O’Farrell was either.

The scholarly literature on family violence in Aboriginal communities was reviewed in a meta-analysis by Harry Blagg in 2000. Blagg identified “multicausal factors” for high rates of violence, including:

• marginalisation and dispossession;
• loss of land and traditional culture;
• breakdown of community kinship systems and Aboriginal law;
• entrenched poverty;
• racism;
• alcohol and drug abuse;
• the effects of institutionalisation and removal policies; and
• the ‘redundancy’ of the traditional Aboriginal male role and status, compensated for by an aggressive assertion of male rights over women [sic and]children.

Blagg’s study went on to observe that “Intervention in Aboriginal family violence must be guided by principles which accept, respect and value Aboriginal culture.”

He noted that “Violence is a crime and is not acceptable within indigenous culture nor condoned by victims.” Importantly, “Intervention must not seek to impose non-Aboriginal belief systems on victims. Intervention must explicitly support victim’s decisions even where this does not accord with worker’s beliefs.”

Or, as Judy Atkinson wrote as early as 1990: 

“At the moment the worst that could happen is if Government responds to the mounting demand for reactive intervention without thinking enough about the long term results of the action it takes… The need for a community based holistic approach to the problems previously outlined, both to deal with offenders and to assist victims, cannot be over emphasised.”

Atkinson’s warning turned particularly prescient with the Intervention in the Northern Territory in 2007.

The ostensible trigger for it was the Little Children are Sacred report. Yet the authors of the report, Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, were “devastated” when they saw the “troops roll into the Northern Territory”.

Anderson said that she and Wild felt “betrayed, disappointed, hurt and angry — pretty pissed off all at the same time”.

She complained that “There is not a single action that the Commonwealth has taken so far that has corresponded with a single recommendation… There is no relationship between all these emergency powers and what is in our report.”

As I wrote in the Aboriginal magazine Tracker, the report noted that what they had to say would be obvious. They,

quickly became aware – as all the inquiries before us and the experts in the field already knew – that the incidence of child sexual abuse, whether in Aboriginal or so-called mainstream communities, is often directly related to other breakdowns in society. Put simply, the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children.

So “what’s the use of yet another report?” They responded:

but what has been done? We know the problems, we know how to fix many of them and the likely monetary cost. …We have an enormous amount of knowledge in this country ….The money is available. The Australian Government budget surplus last year was billions and billions of dollars. What has been lacking is the political will.

What was needed, they wrote, was providing “the necessary strength, power and appropriate support and services to local communities, so they can lead themselves out of the malaise: in a word, empowerment!”

The government response was roughly the opposite.

Yet empowerment was essentially what all of the recommendations were about. The recommendations section begins with a long anecdote, to drive home one point: the central, crucial importance of consultations.

Again and again, they write “we have specifically referred to the critical importance of governments committing to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people”. “The thrust of our recommendations,” they wrote, “is for there to be consultation with, and ownership by the communities, of those solutions.”

Anderson and Wild explain their belief that there “needs to be a radical change in the way government and non-government organisations consult, engage with and support Aboriginal people. A different approach is urgently needed.” After all, they had spoken with Aboriginal communities, and found that it was “a common theme of discussions that many Aboriginal people felt disempowered, confused, overwhelmed, and disillusioned.” They then set out nine key principles of reform.

Principle one: the government needs to improve service provision. This requires “significant fiscal outlay, much better infrastructure and improved provision of resources.” Principle two: Take language and cultural “world view” seriously.

It notes that “genuine solutions must be community driven.” Principle three: “Effective and Ongoing Consultation and Engagement”.

The Inquiry reported that “effective and ongoing consultation and engagement is an essential principle in reform.” This means “an approach whereby the relevant community is not only consulted about and engaged and voluntarily involved in, developing the policy but there is at least majority community consent for the final policy developed.

This consent needs to be informed consent.” The principles go on in this manner, stressing respect for Indigenous communities, and empowering them to solve their problems.

Contrasting the recommendations of government reports with government policies leaves us with rather striking results.

The federal government withdrew funding from remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria. The state governments of SA and WA responded by threatening to close their remote Aboriginal communities – in WA, this was threatened against up to 150 communities.

Meanwhile – even as countless reports warn of the devastating effects on entire communities of the removal of children from their families – the latest Productivity Commission report has shown in shocking detail the extent to which Aboriginal children are being removed from their homes and families.

As the excellent journalist Amy McQuire reported in New Matilda, the increase in removals every single year from 2004 has been dramatic – and the devastating effects of these removals are hard to even estimate. Between 23.3 and 31.2 percent of children were removed to non-Aboriginal carers, resulting in further cultural decimation.

Meanwhile, Western Australia decided to stop funding “the state's only Aboriginal interpreting service”.

As Chris Graham noted back in 2009, Western Australia “jails black males at more than eight times the rate of South Africa during Apartheid.” The Federal Government – led by our first Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs – gave the WA interpreting service $400 000 for this financial year, but evidently claims that it cannot afford to provide that money in the future.

Which brings me to another government report that I suspect the government would like us to forget. Jenny Macklin handpicked a panel to review the Intervention. Its final report was sanitised, but an uncensored draft version was leaked to the Australian. It observed that “dysfunctional government service delivery” and “the chronic failure by all levels of government to provide basic civic services” were the “key determinants” of all that was wrong with Aboriginal communities.

It further observed that “Too frequently, often at a subliminal level, Indigenous culture is regarded by policy makers as an impediment to the future development of remote communities, rather than an essential resource for their development.”

The fact that the government deleted a passage warning about governments not understanding the value of Indigenous culture, and the danger that poses to the development of remote communities is a tidy capsule summary of the state of government policy in the face of its own reports.

Aboriginal feminist scholar Kyllie Cripps has warned against putting family violence in Aboriginal communities in the “too hard basket”. She wrote that:

whilst this is indeed a hard problem to deal with, Indigenous and non Indigenous people are doing something about it and have been for some time. I would argue that with continued support and commitment from our fellow Australians working in partnership with us… we can beat this – there is hope.

To return to White Ribbon Day, it is indeed important that we oppose all violence against women. It is important that men make clear to other men that violence is unacceptable, and that we try to create a more humane culture.

However, as Australians, we should also urge our government to listen to what Aboriginal communities have been crying out for decades for. When they ask us for our partnership and support, it is way past time that we stop ignoring them.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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