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Involvement of Indigenous juveniles and young adults in the criminal justice system

Mrs Knight —On behalf of the traditional owners, I wish to welcome the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs into our presence here in Fitzroy Crossing to hear all of our aims, wishes and aspirations for our youth. I welcome you to this country, to our Bunuba country. Thank you very much.

CHAIR (Mr Debus) —Thank you. The members of the committee—that is, the Hon. Danna Vale and I—are very thankful to the Fitzroy Crossing community for receiving us today, for the conduct of these public hearings. I would like to just explain very briefly about the hearings. We both belong to a sub-committee of the House of Representatives of the Australian Parliament which makes inquiries from time to time into matters that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This particular inquiry is about the high level of involvement of Indigenous young people in the criminal justice system. We have been in Melbourne and Sydney and in western New South Wales and in Perth, and later we will be in North Queensland and in Arnhem Land, always having meetings of this sort. I would, of course, like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and pay our respects to elders past, present and future.

I should just explain how the hearings work. They are recorded—because it is like you are in parliament. They are recorded by Hansard. Hansard is the organisation that records everything that happens in the parliament in Canberra, and it means that there will be a record of what we say to each other. It will be on the internet, unless you indicate that you would like it not to be. The recording also happens to make sure that the committee—especially the committee members who are not here—have an accurate record of what has been said between us. The meeting is open to the public. Obviously, we treat the proceedings of the meeting very seriously, because we have come with the authority of the parliament and you have been good enough to give us your time and to speak to us honestly about these issues. So thank you again for having us. Often the way we do things is to ask members of a group that is giving evidence to say who they are and make some opening statement, and then we can discuss what has gone on. Who is going to start with an opening statement? Emily, please go ahead.

Ms E Carter —I would like to start by acknowledging that we live, work and meet today on Bunuba land. We thank the Bunuba people for their support and for their welcome to country. Also, on behalf of the community, we welcome the committee to Fitzroy Crossing and we thank you for your invitation to Marninwarntikura to present on issues affecting our families, in particular our young men and women who have come into contact with the criminal justice system. We wish to raise with the committee our thoughts regarding effective prevention strategies, which we hope will prevent further generations of family members from coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

I would like to tell you a little bit about our organisation. Marninwarntikura was originally formed in 1991 as a women’s group. In 1995 the women’s shelter was opened and in 2003 the women’s resource centre building was opened. We currently have 22 members of staff spread across all of the program areas. Marninwarntikura is a non-profit community organisation directed by a board of directors made up of local women from each of the four language groups: Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Walmajarri and Wangkatjunga. Funding for our programs is received from various state and federal government departments. Current programs aim to support Aboriginal women to assist themselves and their families; to ensure that the community, local organisations and the government are kept aware of the needs of Aboriginal women; to advocate behalf of Aboriginal women; and to assist Aboriginal women to maintain and strengthen their culture.

Alcohol restrictions introduced in Fitzroy Crossing during 2008 were a major step in reducing the impact of alcohol-fuelled violence within families across the Fitzroy Valley. Women and children have increasingly reported a lessening of the violence, and communities have at last had some respite. These restrictions were called for at the Fitzroy Valley Women’s Bush Meeting in 2007. Marninwarntikura women’s resource centre are the lead agency for this remarkable achievement.

We have well-established programs such as: the Family Violence Prevention legal unit, funded through the Attorney-General’s Department; the In-Home Practical Support Program, funded through the Department of Housing; the community workshops; the mobile playgroup, funded through the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations; the Fitzroy Women’s Shelter, funded through the Department for Child Protection; the Indigenous Parenting Support Services, funded by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs; and growing power, which is a garden project funded through Healthways. All these programs assist and support women with issues of safety and wellbeing for themselves and for their families. The centre has a strong focus on supporting women and children to obtain the best outcome for themselves and their families.

Marninwarntikura employs local Aboriginal women in all its programs, mentoring and supporting them as they grow in ability and confidence. Marninwarntikura places great emphasis on empowering women to grow stronger within themselves while maintaining their language and culture. The centre offers women and their families options and choices while always aiming towards a future of financial independence, human rights and equal opportunity. That gives you an outline of what our organisation is about. I would now like to hand over to June Oscar.

CHAIR —Thank you, Emily, for pressing on in the middle of many disturbances, including some around here. Thank you.

Ms Oscar —I would like to acknowledge one of our elders, George Brooking, who is also the chairperson of Bunuba Inc. I was born here in Fitzroy Crossing and I have lived here most of my life, apart from when I was sent away to Perth for schooling—like many other Aboriginal children from this area—when I attended university, and when I worked for the Kimberley Land Council in Broome and Derby for a number of years in the nineties. This is my home. This is my traditional country as a Bunuba person. This is where the majority of my family live, and it is for their future and the future of other families who occupy this part of the world that we provide services. We care for their futures and make decisions with them so that everyone can have quality of life and a future here and so that we can grow this community.

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people come together in forums such as the Fitzroy Futures Forum, which includes all residents, service providers, private sector businesses and pastoralists. Anyone you can think of who lives in the Fitzroy Valley can come to that forum, be informed and look at matters that impact all that live here. I understand that it is the only forum of its kind in Western Australia, if not nationally. It is something that we have raised with the Coordinator-General and the people who are involved in COAG’s Closing the Gap and remote service delivery programs. We have been promoting it as a model for other organisations in this state as well. This is a community that is growing and embracing everyone. It is about building a safe community where everyone can thrive, particularly our children, and where people feel valued, acknowledged and appreciated for what they do and for their contribution to this community.

I am not sure if you are visiting Halls Creek, but it is another community like Fitzroy that has had challenges. As Emily mentioned, alcohol restrictions were one of the highlights for our organisation, as it is for Halls Creek, where women similar to us lobbied for changes to what was, in this community and that community as well, the chronic oversupply of alcohol. We had been witnessing the death rates through suicide and the premature deaths among our old people and it was something that we felt we needed to change so that we could have a future here and continue to build this community and make it a strong and safe community.

Whilst we live in this community and there are many challenges for us, there is also much strength in this community. We are a community that has a vibrant culture. We have our four languages and we celebrate our survival and the survival of our cultures and languages in many ways. We also celebrate that with the rest of the Kimberley, but Fitzroy is a community that has attracted all sorts of people from all walks of life. People who have come and made Fitzroy Crossing and other places in the Fitzroy Valley their home have been embraced into the community and we want to continue to share this place with people who choose to come here. There are newcomers who have just recently made Fitzroy their home, and I think since the restrictions there have been more people wanting to come here, certainly with the housing development that is happening, and we need more of that.

We need more housing support here, not only for our communities because of the huge need to address the appalling housing conditions that have been the case in Fitzroy for a number of years but also probably for many other communities in the country. We are seeing the need to provide housing accommodation for service providers—not just government but community organisations who are working at the coalface, who are dealing with the many complex challenges that exist in this community. That is one thing I would really like to highlight so that we could have the support of this committee in moving along housing for the Fitzroy Valley. I understand there are agreements in place to deliver housing for this part of the world, but a lot of the services that we need in this area depend on our ability to accommodate and house the people that we need to recruit to these areas. There is a real shortage.

One of the key things that we have been advised the committee has a particular interest in is the alcohol restrictions and why we lobbied strongly for them. I mentioned a while ago that this is a community that has suffered too many preventable deaths. Many of those deaths were suicides and, from the coroner’s inquiry and the toxicology reports, many of the people that we lost had high levels—lethal amounts—of alcohol in their blood. Whether people live or die in that state was something that this community had to face up to and to make decisions to change, because we could not and we will not continue to see our family members die because of the oversupply of alcohol that was happening here in Fitzroy.

An issue that we were aware of then and that we are acutely aware of now and want to address is the issue of our children being born with foetal alcohol syndrome or spectrum disorder or foetal alcohol effects. It is a huge issue that has not been tackled by this community or by governments in my view and from the advice I have been given. In simple terms, it is children being born with permanent brain based disabilities, which are lifelong and which affect every aspect of human life and development. That is a huge issue for this community, as it is for many other communities in Australia. It is not just an Aboriginal issue, but it is very significant in places like this when the population of Aboriginal people is greater than that of non-Aboriginal people and when children are being born into this world with this severe condition. And FAS is something that we know is 100 per cent preventable.

CHAIR —Nindilingarri is conducting a program to deal with FAS now.

Ms Oscar —That is right.

CHAIR —Is very interesting to us that you have a number of organisations that seem to be created within the community and designed for the community. You designed them; someone did not design them for you. Is that fair to say?

Ms Oscar —That is right.

CHAIR —Do you think that is why they work?

Ms Oscar —Very much so. It takes in local ownership and local control, which is far more successful than something that is introduced and we are expected to make it work. Regional bodies or national bodies and structures being developed and designed, and then being expected to work at a local level, I think needs rethinking and review.


Ms Oscar —Whilst Nindilingarri will be talking about the work around foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, I would like to just make mention of some key points that arise for us and that could be reinforced by Nindilingarri. We know that research around the world estimates that 60 per cent of children born with FAS or FASD will be in trouble with the law or go to jail. To date we have not had the ability to access information here in Australia about much of this work, but we have in relation to First Nation communities in Canada, where there has been decades of work around FAS and FASD. We know from the work that has been done in Canada that it is estimated that up to 60 per cent of people incarcerated in jail have been alcohol exposed in utero. So this is something this country needs to be looking at in terms of resources and becoming better informed about it. We as a community certainly want to become informed about it and to start developing well-informed prevention strategies, and thus we have been working to support the work of Nindilingarri and the partnerships that they have been able to establish with the Westmead Children’s Hospital and the George Institute for International Health in Sydney.

CHAIR —So you are saying that the first step in preventing offending behaviour is to deal with underlying health problems.

Ms Oscar —I think every one of us needs to be informed about what issues these individuals are grappling with, then better supports can be established for them.

Mrs VALE —Also, June, from my reading I understand that we really do not know the extent of the problem yet; we do not know how many babies are born with this syndrome. It seems that we really have to understand how many we are dealing with. You are right about prevention. We already have a cohort of young people that have a severe disability that need help. They need the right kind of help and they need help that is coming from the ground up, where the mothers can say what they need. It must be very hard for individual mothers without resources to try to deal with children that are born with this syndrome. That does not include the education system. How do they get educated if they have permanent brain damage?

Ms Oscar —We understand that a different education model needs to be explored and developed to cater for the specific needs of young children living with complex needs. We understand also from the paediatricians who have been working over several decades here in the Kimberley that there are high rates of young people with FAS and FASD in the Fitzroy Valley. Maureen and the other representatives of Nindilingarri will speak on why it is that we have decided to undertake a prevalence study here.

Mrs VALE —June, have you had incidences where young adults with FAS go on to have children of their own?

Ms Oscar —We understand from medical research that if a woman is consuming alcohol while pregnant with a female foetus, that foetus is swimming in alcohol in the womb and contamination of its allocation of eggs occurs. Even if that female does not drink as an adult, the eggs that she is carrying will have been contaminated.

Mrs VALE —So they will have another generation of FAS children?

Ms Oscar —Yes. It is a huge issue for this nation. It affects all of these fronts—legal, health, education.

Mrs VALE —And the criminal justice system.

Ms Oscar —Absolutely. We want to recommend to the committee that research into links between FAS and FASD and rates of juvenile crime and detention is something that we need to look at. We would want the committee to support the assessment of young people who have contact with the criminal justice system to ascertain whether they suffer from FAS or FASD. This is a highly sensitive issue. It needs to be approached respectfully and sensitively, because it could destroy someone. It is not something that we can treat lightly. We need to consider all of this.

CHAIR —It is kind of like radioactivity, isn’t it?

Ms Oscar —Yes. We need collaboration between governments and Aboriginal communities on community based justice for FAS and FASD sufferers as an alternative to imprisonment or detention. We would like the committee to support the recognition of Aboriginal people with nurturing and traditional learning expertise in education, justice, health and early childhood development fields. Answers and solutions cannot be found in Western models. We need to incorporate Aboriginal ways of healing and managing family members.

Mrs VALE —Has your centre come across any programs that you have been able to develop yourselves that have helped families who have children with FAS?

Ms Oscar —At the moment families are developing their own models of care. Those of us who give care to family members affected by FAS do so off our own bat. There is no support program, and there are no criteria for the Disability Services Commission or Centrelink, or any institution, to support caregivers and care recipients who are FAS affected, at this point. Aboriginal people here—

Mrs VALE —Are trying to struggle as best they can on an individual basis.

Ms Oscar —Until a criterion is established we need to support initiatives like the prevalence study, which will give rise to establishing a criterion so that families and individuals can be supported in this country. They cannot officially go to Disability Services or anyone in Centrelink for carers payment support.

Mrs VALE —Is it apparent to families that they do have a young child or a person who has FAS? I suppose there are different levels of brain delay or brain damage, so there might be some who have only a little brain damage and some who would have greater brain damage.

Ms Oscar —That is right.

Mrs VALE —So it might take some years before a family would identify that they have a child who has an impairment at some level?

Ms Oscar —Yes. That is probably the case now but, with the work of Nindilingarri on education and awareness around the effects of alcohol on unborn foetuses, people are becoming aware and informed. It is not just the health sector who has the responsibility of informing people in the community; it is all of us, because it takes all of us to raise a child. So we need the support of the highest office in the land, the parliament, and organisations in between.

Mrs VALE —So this would really be the No. 1 one priority for your organisation, for your centre?

Ms Oscar —Yes, it would be. There are the communication and awareness strategies of FAS and FASD in the broader community and the service delivery agencies that need focus to inform people. At the outset of the restrictions, Marninwarntikura was able to partner with the Fitzroy Crossing police and the West Australian police force to look at how we manage the restrictions. We have been party to the establishment of the Fitzroy Valley Alcohol and Other Drug Management Group, which has representatives of the licensee—and representatives of the licensee are here today, Mr Rodrigues and Mr Green. We have been working together and looking at how, as a collective, we manage the supply of alcohol to this community and the effect of it on the people who live here.

CHAIR —Apart from FAS, there are still all sorts of other effects of alcohol that lead young people into the justice system.

Ms Oscar —Yes, but this is something that has not been discussed. It has not been considered in the way that it should be—it is the elephant in the room—and we need to look at it and learn from some of the fantastic work that has been done in Canada, in the US and in other parts in the world. There is a need for resources to be developed for the judiciary, for the police and for other groups in our community.

Mrs VALE —With the education too, June.

Ms Oscar —Absolutely.

Mrs VALE —With Down syndrome children early assessment and identification is so important to their eventual progress. I should imagine that this would have very similar urgency.

Ms Oscar —Yes. We are very supportive of working in partnership with the Fitzroy Crossing police, the judiciary, education authorities and other stakeholders to develop the resources and to develop networks with people who have established findings from research. We would like to have the support of this committee for some of the initiatives that we want to pursue here. I would like now to ask Christine Gray to raise with you issues around families and domestic violence since the alcohol restrictions and prior to them. She will talk to you about just what we are doing in that area of our work. Thank you very much.

Ms Gray —I think we all know that, here in Fitzroy, before the restrictions it was a very different town. I probably do not need to tell you about that again. But since the restrictions we have been looking at the numbers of women who come to our shelter. We saw a decline and then we saw an increase. What we have seen over the last year or so is that there has been an increase in numbers. We attributed that to the fact that women are actually leaving the family situation far sooner. They know when alcohol is coming to town. They see the signs. They know what is going to happen next. They come to the shelter. Initially I thought: ‘Oh no! This is not right. The number is going up.’ But women have reported to us that they get out very quickly and they bring their children to the shelter. The time that they stay is a lot shorter. In the old days people would stay a lot longer because the alcohol would stay around a lot longer too.

As for the level of injuries, when I first came to Fitzroy the injuries were horrific. I am not saying that they have disappeared, but they have certainly lessened dramatically. That is borne out by evidence from the hospital and the police too. We have seen that happen over the time that the restrictions have been in place. The whole town is a different town, I believe. It looks different; it feels different. It is a much better place for families.

There is a lot of work to be done. We were talking earlier about being able to offer programs to people. It is not our place to tell people about violence. They live with it every day. We try to do things differently. I would never presume to put a program in place for people here in the same way that I might have done back in Victoria, for instance. We work with an art therapy worker. That is silent counselling, if you like. Women and young people can come and have some time out, use their hands in clay work or painting—and they do. They know what we do there. They have all the posters and the information. We do not talk at them about family violence, but they know who to come to if they want to and need to—and they do. I think that is the difference between our programs here and programs in other big cities, where they are used to asking for what they want. The people here do not say, ‘Come and tell us about violence.’ They know about violence.

I was thinking earlier that there has been a lot of research coming back to us about the  misdiagnosis of FASD. I think over time a lot of kids have been poorly diagnosed as having ADHD. There have been huge numbers of children over time that we have seen. What is happening in other states? How come they have all these kids with ADHD? Maybe that is what we are looking at. I am not a medical person at all, but I think now is the time to look at what FASD is all about.

For our women here, as June said, housing is a huge issue and always has been. If a woman wants to leave the family and does not want to go back but does not want to lose her family and her country, she has no choice but to go back because there are no other options. We cannot just find her an apartment somewhere or another home in Fitzroy or the surrounding communities. She has to get out altogether. We find that women will come back because this is where the heart is; this is where all of their family is. So, unless the situation changes with the violence and the drinking, a woman has no choice but to stay there. That is what happens for children. Children grow up with that example of violence and drinking in their home and then they go on to replicate it—not all of it but some of it. So it is a slow chipping away for all of us to just keep at it, and we do what we can.

CHAIR —Have you had any contact from the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee?

Ms Oscar —Not directly.

CHAIR —In any event, we should get them in touch with you. It is an arrangement that brings together people from all over the country who are experts on drug issues. There are professors of pharmacology and sociology—all sorts of people. They have been responsible for a lot of the national drug policies that are now in place and which have a good reputation around the world. They have policies around marijuana and cocaine. Whatever else we talk about, we need to make sure that we get them in touch with you. They are really smart people and I cannot believe they will not be very responsive to the issue here. They probably know something of it. We will do that for you.

Ms E Carter —We do get their newsletter, but we have never had any contact with them.

CHAIR —Okay. They have an executive officer whose name Gino Vumbaca. We will get you more detail.

Mrs Knight —Good morning. I am a community elder where I live in the Wangkatjungka community. I was born around there at Bohemia Downs Station. I have lived in the Kimberleys all my life just about. I want to speak on the EIP program that we run out on the communities which is a project of Marninwarntikura. This is in accordance with the 175 act which was more or less a blanket ban that we accepted out in the communities. Most of the communities did not take it, but at Marninwarntikura we wanted to take it on. Domestic violence and alcohol related problems were so rife in our community that we thought, ‘Enough is enough and that’s it.’ A blanket ban was imposed, or a 175 was imposed, on the Wangkatjungka community. We had the support of the people there as well as the chairs of council of the community.

Since then we felt that the restrictions were a key stepping stone towards early intervention for our family groups. I think we have achieved a lot during that time. One of the achievements was an awareness of the real causal factors of alcohol related problems within our community. Some of the discussions at present talk more alcohol being the cause of our trauma and other things. This was the case with our recent trauma a few weeks ago out at one community. These causal factors are recognised as being alcohol related. In the past we used to be sidetracked by other issues—cultural issues and that sort of thing—but people are now more focused and are asking about the causal factors. Our intervention program which is run by Marninwarntikura is to create interconnectedness between families and between children and families. Once there was a huge divide. We now want to close the divide between families. Since the consumption of alcohol, the families have been so divided and there is not the bonding, the interconnectedness and all that happening between the families. It is still like that, because there are a lot of problems with it. We are not going to create this interconnectedness overnight.

A lot of the families are struggling and at present we wish to pursue other examples through the EIPP. I am the community coordinator at present and I was talking with my mentor here about pursuing other examples, such as mentoring projects that are being run in the Northern Territory. The example is an outstation in the Northern Territory called Mount Theo. What we are talking about here is the prevention of further criminal activities by our youths who were being neglected in the past and who have been directly affected by alcohol. These are the criminals that we have at the moment who are under the justice system. We want to pursue a lot of other examples, and Mount Theo is one of them.

Let me just give you a couple of examples of what happened at Mount Theo. I happened to be at a conference where I heard about what was happening with thieves, housebreakers and that sort of thing. One of the first inmates at this program is now a top footballer with Melbourne, I think it is, and another one is an aspiring lawyer. So that is a real mentoring program for you. That is what we want to see—good examples of getting our young people into a position where we mentor them, give them self-esteem, raise their awareness of themselves and give them aspirations for the future. They are more or less leaders within their own communities, and creating this continual leadership will be like a ripple in a stream.

I wish to acknowledge the chair of my council, who is present at the moment. She and her council have made moves to create a proper venue and we wish to open an outstation as a mentoring venue for youth at risk and those already under the justice system. We wish to make ourselves known to those who can refer them to us, such as the police and all of the justice people, and also to create an avenue for partnership with those who are sympathetic towards our cause. We wish to carry on this project, to develop it in huge ways, and we want to change the education system out there. As you may be aware, I am at this present moment in a fight with the education department out of my community, which does not recognise foetal alcohol spectrum disorder behaviours and the other related issues.

Mrs VALE —Sorry, could you just say that again? Did you say that the education department does not recognise foetal alcohol syndrome amongst the children?

Mrs Knight —The education department does not recognise foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. They have not been educated in it. There has not been a workshop or professional development run for the education department. They are still grappling with the issue and they are calling it something else, whether it is ADHD or other things. They are still bringing in disciplinary measures, to more or less discipline children who are normal. There is no recognition of what the behaviours are all about and why the children are being that way. I am practically embroiled in that at the moment.

Let the Senate be aware that we are hopefully going to change the education department. If this organisation can do it, well and good. We wish to create avenues where our youth are learning, maintaining and creating their own development in projects such as multimedia and the like. We seek a partnership with the rest of our sympathetic organisations such as KALACC and Yiriman and all the other people who would wish to come alongside our struggle to save our youth and to create a very solid future not only for those who are under the justice system but also for those who are incarcerated in prison at present and to keep them from being further incarcerated. These are the generations that we want to save for the future. Thank you.

CHAIR —Olive, Wes Morris saw us in Perth yesterday and he gave us a hard time about the absence of resources under the Closing the Gap program, particularly in the area of justice, rehabilitation and public order. Are you able to be a bit more precise about where you would like to see some more resources from government for the kinds of programs which you are talking about? Have you some ideas about that now?

Mrs Knight —For a beginning, we would like more than anything else more resources for organisations, because these are the organisations that will be involved with our community aspirations and aims. Ideally, what we would like out in the communities are more trainers who will mentor us. I am a trained mediator in conflict resolution but I have only got limited qualifications to do such work. We will need more counsellors and more people who will come in and assist us in all of these things and who can equip us to do our work on the ground. Marninwarntikura has been more or less the instrument in creating this venue—this ideal situation, as it were—to get people out on the ground and create these things for us.

CHAIR —So you could actually begin to elaborate on some programs and you would be able to work out the extra resources that you need—mostly people—to help put the programs into practice?

Mrs Knight —That is right. We would like to do it from the ground because that way it will be our thing. We wish to own it. If we can create things from the ground, draw up plans and programs and get the resources we need on the ground, well and good. In the past, it has been a case of top-down methods; they have been passed down all the time, and we want to break free from the top-down attitudes and methods that people have carried. We want to stop the paternalistic attitude that people in governments have taken in the past. We now want to begin a journey from the bottom.

CHAIR —We have had some evidence in other places where some Aboriginal groups have indicated their concern about way that governments quite often give money—and this happens at state and federal levels, regardless of exactly who is in government—to big NGOs to go out and implement programs.

Ms E Carter —That is very much the case with Anglicare and all of those sorts of organisations.

CHAIR —It is a very hard issue, because Anglicare is obviously a highly respected and motivated organisation. But in one place where we took evidence the big NGOs were referred to as ‘the usual suspects’! I am quite interested in what you think about how to make those relationships. You have already made a good analysis, but I think it is really important for us to understand how you think you can actually be self-determining, on the basis that you have already made these amazing innovations about the use of liquor, and you did that by yourselves—no-one else could do that. I am taking a long while to say: I would really like to hear some more about your own ideas about the value of being able to form institutions for yourself and have people support them, rather than the other way around.

Ms Oscar —We would be happy to make a written submission to the committee identifying some of those initiatives and elaborating further on them.

CHAIR —That would be good. Thank you.

Mrs VALE —One of the things that we did hear about why some of the big NGOs were given the resources was that they had the knowledge to put together the applications to actually get the funding. Maybe there has to be a recommendation, as part of the structure—because when structures go into place they end up in the delivery end, down the road. Maybe it has to be put in that, if any of these big NGOs are applying for it, they have got to have a certain Indigenous component, or Indigenous people at the delivery end—and not just at the delivery end but also at the policy development end.

It is clear to us that there is not sufficient Indigenous input into a lot of the programs at local level. One of the reasons that we wanted to come to speak to all of you is that it was the Indigenous ownership, control and implementation that obviously has made Fitzroy Crossing the wonderful town that we are seeing out there today, and that has come from the women. You had this bush meeting in 2007. What was the catalyst that pushed the women of this community to decide that you were going to do something to change for the better of your community?

Ms Oscar —There were a number of catalysts. There was the number of deaths by suicide. In 12 months, in 2005-06, this community had attended 50 funerals and was stuck in a rut of grief, despair and trauma. The shock and horror made us as a community become so numb to the degree of violence and despair that it was being viewed as normal. We know that was not normal.

So, after much discussion, over many years, by Aboriginal organisations based here in Fitzroy, with the involvement of people in the mental health services, the health sector and the police, Indigenous people gathered together, here in Fitzroy, to look at what this was doing to this community, to members of the four language groups, and to the survival of Indigenous people here. We needed to take an honest look at where we were at as a community. Discussion happened over that time. There were approaches made here locally to various committees and to the licensees, to help to address this situation. It is fair to say that there were some steps taken by the licensees, but things continued to become worse. So it signalled to this community that we needed to make some serious and hard decisions here.

In our bush meeting in 2007, which is an event we have each year where women spend time out bush being hosted by the different language groups—in this case it was Gooniyandi women who were hosted by the Mingalkala community—it was women who said enough is enough. We cannot continue to live like this. We need to make some decisions so that our children and our families can have a future. Alcohol was killing any chance of us having a future.

Mrs VALE —So it was that realisation that was the driver in empowering the women to seek another solution.

Ms Oscar —It was not something that just happened overnight; it was an issue that was being discussed by this community over many years. We are now the owners of the licence here. Nineteen years ago, the decision to become owners of the business was taken so that we could be in a position of control.

Mrs VALE —Have you found support form the menfolk within your community?

Ms Oscar —There was strong support from cultural leaders and senior elders, both men and women, from men in this community and from non-Aboriginal people as well as Aboriginal people.

Mrs VALE —Would you say that other communities can do exactly what has happened here at Fitzroy Crossing?

Ms Oscar —They would need to look at their situation but they can certainly learn from what we have done here. The details of their approach would probably be different. I do not like to say that one size fits all. This community has a long way to go. We have had 42 years of chronic alcohol oversupply here and we would like to be given that chance to rebuild. We are a community that is certainly on the way to rebuilding. We would like the government of Australia to continue to support us and we would like the COAG process and the remote service delivery and Closing the Gap strategies to look at ways of continuing to work with us. We have established good relationships with the Australian government and the Western Australian government, particularly with officers in the Department of Indigenous Affairs, with the policing sector and with other ministers in the Australian government as well. We would like to be given a chance.

Mrs VALE —The model that you established is so respected that it speaks for itself. The women of this community have national respect for their leadership and their courage in doing what they are doing. It is certainly my hope that your model can be looked upon by other communities and they can find the strength and the leadership that you have found here in this community. The fact that you have got the whole community behind you and working together makes this a very powerful model.

Ms Oscar —In all honesty, whilst we have the support of many, we have critics within the community. People have a different point of view and, as someone who has been in the position that I have along with the board of directors, we have had more than our fair share of critics and we have been vilified to the hilt.

Mrs VALE —June, leadership is a very lonely place.

Ms Oscar —That is right.

Mrs VALE —You would only have to ask Winston Churchill, if he could speak. Also, everybody has critics whenever they do something new. But the men and women, the elders, of this whole community are showing the dividends already. The evidence is just so powerful.

Ms Oscar —Yes. I have one final thing to say: the children are worth fighting for.

Mrs VALE —Yes, absolutely.


Ms Oscar —It is as simple as that.

CHAIR —Thank you all. I would rather not end the session, but we must do so to make sure that we speak with everybody. Thank you again for speaking with us. George, we missed you at the beginning but I want to thank you for having us. I do not know whether you would like to say anything to the committee.

Mr Brooking —I would like to say that you are all welcome to country. I thank you all for coming and listening. It is good for us. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you very much.

Proceedings suspended from 11.36 am to 11.48 am