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Family violence in indigenous communities: breaking the silence? Opening remarks at the launch of UNSW Law Journal Forum, 25 July 2002

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Family violence in Indigenous communities: Breaking the silence?

Opening remarks at the launch of UNSW Law Journal Forum delivered by Dr William Jonas AM, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission,

Sydney, 25 July 2002

As is customary, I would like to begin by acknowledging that we meet tonight on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to them.

We are here tonight for the launch of the latest forum to be published as part of the University of New South Wale's Law Journal, titled Family violence in Indigenous communities: Breaking the silence?

This is of course an issue that is faced by non-Indigenous women as well - family violence is certainly not an Indigenous phenomenon. And the silence that has traditionally dictated that family violence belongs in the private sphere rather than the public domain has been an ongoing struggle for women in this country for many years.

But despite this, I want to say at the outset that family violence and abuse in Indigenous communities is far too prevalent. And that too often, women and children are the victims of this.

It is for this reason that I applaud the Editorial Board of the Law Journal for making this important, timely contribution to the understanding that the broader community has of these issues, which are of such pivotal importance and consequence to Indigenous peoples' daily lives.

Indigenous family violence is not normal. And contrary to popular myth, or romanticised notions of Aboriginal culture, or the less pre-dominant but still existing racist stereotypes of 'savagery', it is not culturally acceptable.

And it is not part of our systems of customary law. In fact it is the reverse. It is an indication of the fragility of such customary law and a sign of the breakdown in traditional governance mechanisms in communities. It is, in short, an indication of community dysfunction.

This is not to excuse it - for it is clear that violence and abuse are also a cause of greater dysfunction in our communities. They contribute to the heightened level of trauma and stress that exists in many of our communities, which is too often reflected in suicide, crime, substance abuse and despair.

Indigenous family violence is also an abuse of the fundamental human rights of Indigenous women and children - such as to security of the person. And it cannot be tolerated under any circumstances.

But one of the things that became clear during the national debate about this issue that took place over the past eighteen months is that ultimately, Aboriginal women often do not have the luxury of choosing between asserting their rights as women as opposed to their rights as Indigenous people.

This national debate has put into sharp focus the unacceptable choice that many Indigenous women face between having to prioritise between issues of race and gender. And it was clear that issues of race would almost always hold dominance over issues of


Accordingly, it is important to recognise that Indigenous women who suffer such violence experience it in multiple ways. It is often the combination of racialised marginalisation from the mainstream society which can render many existing mechanisms for coping with violence inaccessible or inappropriate, combined with the oppression which comes with violence from within their own communities that contributes to a great sense of hopelessness, resignation and despair among many women.

This is undoubtedly a bleak picture that I am painting. But it is necessary that I do so.

What goes with this, however, is the full acknowledgement and encouragement of the strength of many women and men in our communities who are actively fighting these problems.

What I am particularly pleased about is that this Forum not only provides a frank acknowledgement of the problems that are faced -it also provides numerous examples of the ingenuity and determination of our people to overcome it. And it also provides clear guidance as to ways forward in addressing these issues.

What the contributions in this forum all do is fundamentally assert our right as Indigenous peoples to be properly equipped to take control in our communities through our effective participation in the design and delivery of programmatic responses by governments at all levels and in all areas.

And this is why I see the question in the title of this forum - breaking the silence? - as very appropriate. As the Editor points out in the foreword 'the silence referred to… is not that of Indigenous women - it is of the wider Australian community'. As many of the contributors point out, Indigenous women have been identifying the problem and the solutions for quite some time. It is the mainstream society and governments who have not listened to these cries or acted to respond to them to date. This is an unacceptable silence that has existed for far too long.

I have also expressed concerns in my Social Justice Report 2001 that the extensive attention that has been given to the issue of Indigenous family violence in the past eighteen months has not been matched by an appropriate or sufficient level of action by any government, and that this issue has been used at the national level to foreclose debate about other serious issues relating to reconciliation and human rights. In other words, I would question whether the silence has truly been broken even now.

I don't have time to detail fully my concerns in this regard, but I encourage you to read chapter 6 of my latest Social Justice Report. Instead, I want to highlight three areas of the concerns that I have expressed.

The first is the lack of sufficient action at all levels of government in addressing Indigenous family violence and the lack of effective coordination between governments.

The main attempt at coordination between governments has come from the Ministerial Council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (or MCATSIA), specifically their meeting of 28 July 2000.

MCATSIA agreed to an audit of existing Indigenous family violence strategies, and to a seven-point strategy comprised of reducing alcohol and substance abuse; child safety and well-being; building community capacity; improving the justice system; creating safe places in communities; improving relationships (focusing on perpetrators and those at risk of offending); and promoting shared leadership.

However, in addition to the Federal Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and his Parliamentary Secretary, the meeting was only attended by three State ministers (from Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria) and Deputy ATSIC Chair. ATSIC noted its disappointment at the non-attendance of so many state and territory ministers and at the lack of any proposals for new targeted funding or resources.

Reconciliation Australia criticised the outcomes of the meeting since they 'did not demonstrate that a coherent national strategy is

being progressed in tangible ways' and questioned MCATSIA's authority to instigate change in this area, given that many departments and agencies responsible for the issue are not under the control of MCATSIA.

Accordingly, they called for Indigenous family violence to be dealt with at the higher level through the Council of Australian Governments. [1]

There clearly remains a need for further commitments to be made to drive a whole-of-government approach across all relevant Commonwealth, state and territory agencies and departments, including appropriate responses to requests for additional funding and services. As ATSIC noted in their Annual Report for 2001, 'the feeble national response to this family violence strategy provides yet more evidence of the defects of Australia's federal system in relation to Indigenous Australians'. [2]


A press release issued by the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs after the MCATSIA meeting recorded that: 'the question of providing additional funding was raised at the meeting, and I indicated that I was prepared to pursue this at the Commonwealth level but unfortunately state ministers were not prepared to do the same.' [3]

And this is the second aspect of my concerns about governmental responses to family violence, namely, the specific failure of the federal government to back its concerns about family violence with adequate funding and a holistic programmatic response, as well as its cynical use of this issue to back its practical reconciliation agenda.

On the funding issue, we have seen in recent years:

The abolition of ATSIC's Community and Youth Support Scheme which included the family violence intervention program as a result of $470 million funding cuts to ATSIC over 4 years from 1996.


Limited funding going to ATSIC and Indigenous issues under the government's Partnerships Against Domestic Violence scheme, which was launched in 1997 at the National Domestic Violence Summit. ATSIC received $1.3 million funding over the first 3 years of this scheme for 2 projects, but no increase in funding when the scheme was expanded by $25 million in 1999, despite extensive calls for additional funding by ATSIC.


Last year, ATSIC had to inject emergency funding from its regular budget to save the Apunipima Family Violence Advocacy Service on Cape York when the first 3 year stage of its funding under the Partnerships Against Domestic Violence scheme expired. As ATSIC Commissioner Pryor pointed out at the time, 'This is the old story with pilot projects - what happens when the funding runs out?' [4]


Despite the intense media attention given to the subject of violence in Indigenous communities, there were also no increases to funding for projects and services in this crucial area in the 2002 Budget, although the federal Budget of 2001 had allocated $11 million funding for Indigenous-specific family violence projects over the next four years.

Instead we hear through the Senate Estimates process that while ATSIC fully spent the $4.9 million it had allocated to Indigenous family violence issues in the past year; the government had through the Office for the Status of Women's program for domestic violence underspent by $4.3 million. This was money that ATSIC - not the key deliverer of services in this area as many have claimed during this debate - has stated it could easily have spent on programs to improve community safety for Indigenous women and children, if only such funding were to be allocated.


The final issue I want to raise is that the limited focus of the federal government on this issue has been used to reinforce its practical

reconciliation approach. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs claimed that a long term benefit of the public debate about these issues was evidence that the 'public debate is finally beginning to catch up with the government's emphasis on practical assistance'. [5]

The implication of his comments was that a focus on rights did not have the capacity to 'make a practical difference to people's lives.' [6] As I argue in my Social Justice Report 2001, however, this is an overly simplistic argument which disregards the history of government neglect of this issue.

Indigenous representatives have articulated a number of common elements for achieving effective outcomes in response to family violence issues. These include the need for national coordination of a holistic and strategic long-term strategy rather than quick-fix, short-term solutions, and to ground policy on Indigenous family violence in self-determination and cultural rights. This is well reflected in the collection of articles in this forum.

If anything, the renewed focus on family violence issues has highlighted the need for recognition of Indigenous cultural values and traditions.

ATSIC's Indigenous Women's Roundtable, for example, has endorsed a rights-based family policy to drive its national strategy for addressing family violence. This policy upholds the distinct cultural characteristics of Indigenous families in accordance with the right to self-determination; the importance of traditional authority structures and the role each family plays within community; and the need to redress those issues with a detrimental effect on families, communities and cultures through strategies related to women, men, children, youth, elders and people with a disability. [7]

Each of these aspects is discussed in detail in this Law Journal Forum. I hope that it will contribute to a broader understanding among the community of the scale and destructiveness of the problem to our communities. But I also hope that it will contribute to an understanding of the history of neglect of these issues by governments and by doing so, contribute to greater pressure being placed on them to be accountable for such neglect through increasing their efforts and commitments to finding adequately funded solutions that are culturally appropriate and reflect our unique status as Indigenous peoples.

I commend the Forum to you and once more offer my congratulations to all contributing authors and the editorial board.

Thank you.

1. Reconciliation Australia, 'Heads of Government should ensure concerted national action on domestic violence in Indigenous communities - Co-Chairs', Media release, 6 August 2001.

2. ATSIC, Annual Report 2000-2001, op.cit, p45.

3. Minister for Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and Parliamentary Secretary on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 'Agreement on Indigenous family violence welcomed', op.cit, p2.

4. ibid.

5. Ruddock, the Hon P, 'Aborigines reach a turning point: the public is coming round to practical reconciliation based on individual responsibility', Age, 23 July 2001, p15.

6. ibid.

7. ATSIC (Chair), 'National Indigenous group on domestic violence', Media release, 22 August 2001.

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