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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 53

Senator RIDGEWAY (1:14 PM) —Today I want to speak on the question of Indigenous women falling through the cracks of the government’s mainstreaming policy. It is appropriate that this follows on from International Women’s Day and the tabling on that day of the report of the Senate Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs. In many ways, I think the report and the various evidence heard by the committee really demonstrate the poorness of the government’s way of dealing with this issue. What I think is often overlooked on the national political stage is the question of Indigenous women’s interests. My concern is that the government’s mainstreaming policy—this new set of arrangements—will only make matters worse.

In the process, I want to ask the Senate to consider a motion that I will recommit this afternoon which deals with the question of congratulating the organisers of an inner Sydney campaign against family violence and sexual assault against women in Aboriginal communities called ‘Blackout Violence’. Last night, I spoke about some of the problems in relation to the Redfern community, more particularly on the Block, and acknowledged that there was a need to look at ways of overcoming the problems but noted that leadership had to come from within the community itself. Certainly, I see the ‘Blackout Violence’ program as part of the leadership in recognising that there are problems and trying to overcome those difficulties in the best way that they can. Ultimately, the right sort of leadership is being shown, but what is required is support from all levels of government. I think we have to send the right message, not continually beat up the issues in such a way as to suggest that things are not changing.

The ‘Blackout Violence’ campaign used last year’s New South Wales Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout competition to publicise their program. In that case, and I think it is worth noting here in the Senate, about 1,700 Aboriginal football players from 85 participating football teams across the state of New South Wales joined the Football Fans Against Sexual Assault campaign and wore purple armbands to demonstrate their opposition to family violence and sexual assault against women. All of the participating teams were given information kits on how to prevent family violence and where to seek further help. The usefulness of that is that these are people will go back to their own communities and spread the message and the information immediately.

The ‘Blackout Violence’ campaign is a local community initiative which has been successful through the hard work of people like Dixie Gordon, the Redfern Legal Centre, Robert Welsh from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, and the Inner City Domestic Violence Action Group. They continue to work to keep up the momentum of the struggle against all forms of violence against women and children in Indigenous communities. Many communities have taken note of this, particularly in Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland. They have been inspired by this particular campaign and have requested the assistance of the New South Wales organisers to apply the campaign as a national model to counter family violence.

I think we need to understand the bleak picture of violence against Indigenous women. They have to deal daily with the overwhelming impact on their lives of violence, poverty, trauma, grief and loss as well as family, cultural and spiritual breakdown. It is important to remember that Indigenous women are four times more likely than other women to be victims of murder, four times more likely to be victims of assault or domestic violence and seven times more likely to be victims of grievous bodily harm.

There is a consistent pattern among Indigenous women in prison of having been victims of assault and sexual assault at some time in their lives. The 2002 Social Justice Commissioner’s report essentially showed that Indigenous women were overrepresented in the prison system, at more than 19½ times the non-Indigenous rate, and certainly at a higher rate than Indigenous men are incarcerated in this country. In fact, Indigenous women are currently incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group in the nation. In my home state of New South Wales, Indigenous women represented 30 per cent of the total female population in custody in October 2002, despite only constituting less than two per cent of the female population of the state. Causes of the increase are complex and they can vary between jurisdictions. There was no evidence to suggest that there was an actual increase in crime that would account for the increase in incarceration rates, although I think we can fairly say that increases in police activity and changes in judicial attitudes to sentencing were also important contributing factors. As an example: in New South Wales the most significant contributing factor was the increase in the remand population. What I think is essentially being said there is that, if people lack the financial capacity to meet bail conditions, obviously they are going to end up on the inside.

The relationship between Indigenous women and violence also highlights how the separation between victim and offender is often blurred. In reality, many Indigenous people in the criminal justice system are both offenders and victims—for example, a majority, 78 per cent, of Indigenous women in prison have been victims of violence as adults. Almost half of Aboriginal women in prison were victims of sexual assault as an adult. This depressing list of statistics is the measure of many of our women’s lives. I see this in my own community and certainly in my own extended family.

Against this background and looking at the question of national leadership and national representation, which goes to the question of how we administer Indigenous affairs in this country and the government’s new experimental policy on Indigenous affairs through mainstreaming, there seems to be a vacuum in both advocacy and representation of Indigenous women’s issues. For example, addressing issues like family violence is a shared responsibility between all the levels of government, with prime responsibility lying with health and community service agencies in federal, state and territory governments.

It is important to remember—given that tomorrow we are probably going to be debating the question of whether ATSIC remains an effective voice for Indigenous people in this country, although I dare say its demise is a fait accompli from the government side—that ATSIC funded legal and community based family violence programs across all of the states and all of the territories, and in 2001-02 it convened separate men’s and women’s roundtable meetings on family violence. The end result was the establishment of a national Indigenous working group on family violence, the formulation of the Family Violence Action Plan and eventually, in 2003, the establishment of what was called Kungkala Wakai, a national Indigenous women’s committee to ensure that all national Indigenous policies take account of their impact on women.

That committee was set up to fill the gap in national leadership roles for women and was chaired by the ATSIC Northern Territory Commissioner, Alison Anderson. I compliment her on the work that she did in this area and I hope that she continues to play a role in some form, because the membership was drawn from elected community representatives right across the country. One of the key roles for Kungkala Wakai was to develop the self-confidence of Aboriginal women to operate at the national level by bringing about positive changes in the daily lives of both women and children.

The committee saw that central to this was the need to address the issue of family violence and the impact it has on women and children within the family and the community. Unfortunately, that committee no longer meets because the break-up of ATSIC last year essentially starved it of administrative and funding support. Now there is no national Indigenous women’s committee to monitor and advise government on Indigenous women’s issues. It has become another casualty of the so-called new arrangements in Indigenous affairs. They are certainly not winning any support from government, given some of the debate that we keep hearing. But it is not just at a national representative level that these casualties in Indigenous affairs are occurring. To my alarm, my office has been informed of a number of smaller organisations that perform vital roles within their communities that seem to be falling between the mainstream cracks.

Yesterday, when I spoke on behalf of the Australian Democrats about our supplementary report to the Select Committee on the Administration of Indigenous Affairs, I raised the issue concerning the MiiMi Mothers Aboriginal Corporation, based in Bowraville on the North Coast of New South Wales. They are an Indigenous community organisation in one of New South Wales’s top 10 disadvantaged communities. The MiiMi Mothers Corporation work to support women and families by running domestic violence and youth leadership programs. In fact, they have had remarkable success in recent years but have been restricted by a lack of independence, as they have been based in council premises. The important thing here—and I keep asking the minister and the government for some answers—is that ATSIC had approved the divestment of a housing property that was purchased by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation, to MiiMi Mothers, but in the middle of the process, with the change from ATSIC and ATSIS to the new arrangements, the housing program was shifted to FaCS.

FaCS have not seen fit to honour the original decision that was taken. They have reneged on the approval of the acquisition. They have been given every opportunity to correct this situation. I personally questioned a number of public servants during the select committee hearings, and Senator Patterson as the minister responsible is also well aware of this ridiculous decision. Yet the government keep trying to make money from MiiMi Mothers, who are just a group of mothers with children, by asking them to pay for the property. Indeed, I received a letter in the past few weeks from the government saying that they were happy to talk to MiiMi Mothers so long as the property was purchased at current market value. How that is going to occur is beyond me, because FaCS have told MiiMi Mothers over the phone—but never in writing—that they will not be getting the premises. In addition, MiiMi Mothers know nothing about the claim by FaCS that ‘FaCS are endeavouring to assist them in brokering additional funds to be able to purchase this property’.

What is highlighted here in terms of the transfer of properties is the whole question of caveats that the government have placed on these titles. This is a property that is held in freehold form by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation. They agreed that the property itself should be transferred, yet somehow, because of the way that the legal arrangements are structured, it is okay for the federal government to step in and take full control of this property, despite the fact that ATSIC’s role or interest is very limited. The Aboriginal Housing Corporation made a decision and, in my view, that should be honoured, particularly when we are talking about domestic violence and family violence and the need to look after our young. It is the very least that they can do in one of the most disadvantaged communities in New South Wales and certainly in the country.

Instead we have seen the Prime Minister, Minister Vanstone and all of the senior departmental officers describing the new arrangements as facilitating greater control by communities over their own service provision. They are using family violence as an example of why they need to implement these new arrangements, yet it is clear from the experience of community organisations and service providers that the opposite is true. So it seems to me that the process is about disempowering communities, and family violence appears to be a priority for the government only when it suits. They cannot claim that this is something they have not heard about when it has been raised on so many occasions.

This seems to be what passes for good Indigenous affairs policy these days, but it is not good enough. It is communities like Bowraville in New South Wales, and right across the country, that are suffering. Unfortunately, they have been caught up in the political debate highlighted in the media between the minister’s office and the board of ATSIC commissioners. It is sad that it has got to this stage, where it is okay to treat organisations out there in this way. What we ought to be doing when we have examples like MiiMi Mothers is showing more understanding; we ought to be telling our public servants that if we are talking about partnerships on the ground and empowering communities then there is no better way than by following through on legitimate decisions that were taken right at the start.

The new arrangements, however they will be applied, really are of paramount concern to the endeavours and interests of Indigenous women and children, from the smallest community to how we deal with it here in the national arena. I want to make sure that they are adequately represented and supported. I know that the chair of the new National Indigenous Council, Western Australian magistrate Sue Gordon—an Indigenous woman, a very capable woman—has a heartfelt response to these sorts of issues, and I hope that the council has the capacity to take this up and bring it to the attention of the Prime Minister, because, quite frankly, it does need to be resolved.