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Tony Jones speaks to writer Louis Nowra -

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Tony Jones speaks to writer Louis Nowra

Broadcast: 06/03/2007

Reporter: Tony Jones

Tony Jones talks with author Louis Nowra about his controversial new book.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: We're joined now by the author of 'Bad Dreaming' Louis Nowra. Why did you
write this essay?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: I thought I actually owed something to the Aboriginal
community. I've worked with Aborigines for 20 years, worked, lived, mixed with them for 20 years
and I've learnt so much about Aboriginal culture and I've learnt to respect it so much, respect
Aboriginal people and I thought that when I began to collect all these reports and articles about
this escalating violence towards women and the abuse of children I thought well, somebody should
actually say something about this and I thought I'd owed an obligation to the future, especially
the children.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Your essay begins with a visit you were forced to make to Alice Springs
hospital and an encounter there you had with a middle-aged Aboriginal man who's actually boasting
of raping a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl.

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: Yes. You see, this has actually happened to me before. I met a
couple of guys two years before in central Australia who were boasting that they were going off to
buy some plastic toy dinosaurs in order that both men would actually have sex with a 12-year-old
girl at the same time and this guy when I was in hospital was actually boasting of the fact he
raped this 13-year-old girl, 12, 13-year-old girl. But that was not the worst thing. The worst
thing was when I was in hospital, you saw these women who were viciously beaten by their partners,
their husbands and other relatives and I thought to myself, I can pretend this doesn't exist and I
can just go off and maybe, you know, write about something else, or I can actually stop work on my
other projects and go, no, this has to be spoken about. And I thought it was very important that a
man writes about it.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: You've been doing this for a long time, in a way, collecting anecdotal
evidence, collecting reports from newspapers, clippings since the 1980s, what prompted you to start

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: I was fascinated in the 1980s, you started to get reports in
newspapers about customary law being used as a defence when a man had kind of killed a woman or had
severely brutalised her and the men were using customary law. And I thought this is very
interesting how customary law matches up against the white law system. I was making no judgments or
anything. I thought, well how do you decide? How much of customary law do you keep at the same time
as how much does this go against the grain of what we would say would be a humanitarian beliefs in
Western democracy.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: One of the things that obviously stuck in your mind was the case of a young
Gurrinji woman from an isolated community near the Western Australia border who talked about, this
is more than 20 years ago now, but talked about young women in her community being pack raped and

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: Yes, it was a very interesting case and that was the first case
I actually collected because they showed a photograph of her and she looked so forlorn and she'd
been beaten up, she'd been in hospital and she wouldn't give her last name because she was so
ashamed. You remember, shame plays a great part in women coming forward but at the same time what
she actually told me, I thought, is this customary law, is this what actually used to happen in the
past? Or is this girl entitled to actually have a future where she is not - she was promised to an
older man, can we actually change that? Should whites actually say this should be changed?

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: What was the response, would have been the Northern Territory Government at
that time?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: The Northern Territory Government kind of wiped their hands of
the issue itself. They said that they were kind of protect her but really they didn't want to get
mixed up with customary law and I think that still has continued through Northern Territory law.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: What do you put that down to? Is it political correctness? Is it lack of
interest in the fate of these young women? What do you think is the reason for that kind of

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: I think there's a few reasons for it. One is white guilt after
whites have done to Aborigines over 200 year. It's let's leave them alone, they have their own
customs and traditions. And then there's what I call kind of benign racism which is, let them do
what they're doing to destroy one another. And what actually happens is that you begin to treat the
women and children as lesser human beings. You're actually saying... and I quote judges in their
judgment, when they give a lesser sentence to an Aboriginal guy basically going well, for an
Aboriginal woman to be raped in their community doesn't mean as much as a white woman is raped or
it happens to children and I think that's kind of what I call benign racism. It's actually saying
you're a lesser person than anybody in the white community.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: You trace this use of customary law right back to the 1960s and a specific
case where a public servant actually tells a judge this is how traditional Aboriginal men behave
towards their women, they beat them up, in this case the wife of a man had died. How did the judge

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: The judge is basically going, well f that's the way that anyway
behave. You've told me, I don't know, you've told me, then I'll give you a year's jail or some
pathetic term saying this is the racial customs of Aborigines. You see this whole question is
really not about customs, it's about being human and what's actually the defence that the male's
using and the lawyers who are actually defending these males and the lawyers who are defending
these males is basically saying custom overrides any humanitarian interest at all. And so the other
thing you've got to understand in the 1950s, 1960s there's not many judges knew about traditional
life, Aboriginal life, so you did have patrol officers or you had anthropologists who would say
that's how it was in traditional life. Women were whacked around a lot, they were kept in line,
they were chattels, so the judges really didn't have a lot of experience to go well, was this
really true? Is that how they behaved?

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: You've had heard the criticism earlier from Judy Atkinson, the idea that
people are now suggesting that all Aboriginal men are violent, how do you respond to that?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: See, I'm not saying. That that's a stupid thing to actually
say, I've got to say. I work with Aboriginal men who are doing their best to mentor young boys to
get them out of this traumatic, toxic environment and they're trying to do the best that they can.
But there are men in any society if you allow them to get away with something they will, and
especially every society has basically been misogynist at one time or another. So these men can get
away with it and because they can get away with it they'll continue to do it. But there are a lot
of Aboriginal men who care for this situation and they don't know what to do.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Are you drawing a big distinction here between traditional Aboriginal
communities still existing and those that are more integrated into the general community?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: One of the most horrible things I discovered when I was writing
'Bad Dreaming' was that in fact the rates of abuse and assault were pretty similar in an urban
situation and a rural situation and I quote people talking about this. There was Breaking the
Silence report last year was sent about 29 communities in NSW, rural and urban, and in all of those
29 communities there was still the same dysfunctional groups that child abuse, domestic abuse and
everything, it didn't seem to be a great deal of difference.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: One of the most disturbing things about the statistics that you've collated
in this book is it indicates that in many communities, in many parts of the country, in fact things
are getting worse. It's not getting better, in spite of the exposure.

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: Well, this is the most frustrating thing. When I was writing
the book. You're actually expecting figures to peak. You're actually thinking because of this
publicity that surely things will begin to slow down but they're. Every report, there's been about
40 reports since 1999 about this, every report is basically saying the problem is getting worse and
worse, things are spiraling out of control and the trouble is that when I was writing the book you
do get to a stage where you go, this is hopeless, what can we do? And it's up to all Australians,
and Mick Dodson who is an Aboriginal elder says it's not only our problem, the Aboriginal problem,
he says it's everybody's problem. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Why is it then so much worse and why is it getting worse in Aboriginal
communities in your opinion?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: I think there is a lot of reasons, one is obviously drink is
getting completely out of control and drugs have now been incorporated within this violence and
also we happen to be at a time when a lot of people find this whole topic distasteful or they can't
deal with it and they basically go, let them get on with it, we don't want to know about it. And
it's - and I think that's what I'm saying about benign racism. A lot of people are actually saying,
well, we think it's their problem and it's just as bad in one society. Well it isn't, it's much
worse in black society.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Here's where things are going to get controversial for you as you answer the
critics because in chapter two of 'Bad Dreaming' you actually go right back to the historical
record of the First Fleet and the observers of the First Fleet, Governor Philip even, and what
they're saying about relations between Aboriginal men and women at that time.

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: Well, I follow it all through right through to the end of 19th
century, early 20th century when I stopped quoting explorers and I quote anthropologists, male
anthropologists, women anthropologists. Quite simply it was a hunter-gatherer society. Lets not be
hippie or idealistic about this. The weak didn't survive. It was a very difficult life for women.
They were hit around, if they did something that the man didn't like. At 9 or 10 they were promised
brides and they would go off with the man, not necessarily have sexual intercourse then but maybe
the age of 12, 13. But the crucial thing that I learnt about this, there was no child assault. This
has been the huge change. You can actually say that the attacking of women and everything is kind
of distortion of what was in traditional society but children in traditional society were treated
wonderfully well. They had a very promiscuous upbringing. Now this is the horrifying thing now is
that children are now living in many communities in a very nightmarish, traumatic situation where
they're fearful of being assaulted again or being assaulted for the first time.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Let me go through that because in covering these issues on this program
we've consistently said that the most vulnerable members of these communities are the children and
it is absolutely shocking when you look at the statistics. You've put together some of the
statistics, here's one of them. The number of indigenous children infected with sexually
transmitted diseases in Western Australia has doubled in the past five years.

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: Yes, that's consistent and it's continuing to rise. There's
also a - there's a secret that nobody really talks about because Aboriginal children are taken from
their communities at a rate much higher than at the times of assimilation in 1920s, 1930s. So in
Victoria 1 per cent of children are Aboriginal but 12 per cent are taken from their homes because
of the violence and because of the alcohol. Now the trouble is many more should be taken. Now we
have this whole problem with white society going, oh my God, it's going to be another stolen
generation. Well, the fact is children have to be rescued and that's one of the crucial reasons why
I wrote the book. They do have to be taken out of this environment, they do have to be educated
because if not, you have people - young people - who don't have pride in their culture and then if
they're not educated where do they go from there? Where do you get the next generation of people
who are going to be elders? What's going to happen?

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Let me go back to something you said earlier and something you write in the
book on page 23 - "There's been too much romanticism of the traditional Aboriginal life". Are you
looking for clues in this historical search you do of the record of the anthropologists, the
observers of the First Fleet, are you looking for evidence there's something within the culture
that actually created the violence we're seeing today?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: I think there were aspects of attitudes towards women that have
become pathological now. But you've got to remember in Aboriginal society the aggression towards
women was highly structured, it was ceremonial, it was part of the - when you had less women in the
clan you'd go out and you'd kidnap a woman and then generally gang rape her and bring her back and
bring her back in the tribe. These are hunter gatherers. It was the only way to exist. Now there's
a pathological distortion of that and when people use customary law as a defence it's not that. It
wasn't out of any desire to get a wife, it was they were drunk, they wanted to beat around a woman,
they wanted to gang rape her, they - it was out of pure lust this is happening now. It's a
pathological distortion of what was happening traditionally.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: A final quick question. Our own experience has indicated you're going to
open up a can of worms here, you'll face severe criticism, create a debate and be attacked by the
National Indigenous Times and their barrackers almost certainly, are you prepared for that?

LOUIS NOWRA, AUTHOR AND PLAYWRIGHT: Yes, I am prepared for that because the most crucial thing is
to actually save these children.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Louis Nowra we'll have to leave you. There hopefully once the debate gets
going again, as I've no doubt you will, you'll come back and take part in the debate on this
subject. We thank you for coming in and talking to us tonight.