Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Libby Carney
Indigenous communities throughout Australia differ greatly, partly attributable to location and the diverse impacts of colonisation. It is a reality that the colonisation of Indigenous peoples, proven to have lived in this country for than 60,000 years has lead to the detrimental existence that we experience today. It has made Australia a country at war with its own constituents. The devastating effects of colonisation have resulted in a loss of identity, self worth and freedom felt by Indigenous people; contributing factors to the prevalence of Family Violence amongst our people today. Family Violence has been aided by numerous contributing factors that would be hard to put down on one page. Many are more obvious than others, such as alcohol and substance abuse, whilst other factors are less public, such as the breakdown of culture and identity and the total misunderstanding and misconception about what is ‘good welfare’ for Indigenous people. This article explores some of the reasons why Family Violence is an increasing issue for Indigenous peoples and recent developments aimed at combating this problem.
Indigenous Family Violence has always been a ‘hot topic’ in Australia, although I think it has rather been historically handled as the ‘hot potato’ when it comes to governmental commitment to seriously and practically deal with it. Family Violence has been elevated in more recent times partly because of its public attraction as a significant human rights issue.
The response from Indigenous peoples to public scrutiny and exposure experienced as a result of the increased public awareness of Indigenous Family Violence has been varied. On the one hand there is ‘shame’ felt in communities and a desire by some to pretend this isn’t a real problem. On the other hand, Indigenous people are sick and tired of witnessing the destructive patterns and behaviours that have poisoned Indigenous family life and our communities. We know that we have to work on formulating mechanisms that will make some serious, hard, positive and workable changes to the behaviour and patterns of Indigenous Family Violence by way of counteracting the impacts left as a result of colonisation.
Indigenous people are tired of witnessing violence and the destruction it has had on our elders, our men, our women and our children. We are getting confident enough to speak out loudly so that this issue will no longer be silenced and forgotten about. I read an interesting quote that, “Silence breeds Violence”. In other words, if we remain silent to Family Violence in all stratums and levels of Indigenous communities, whether you are the victimiser or the victim, or the one turning the ‘blind eye’ because ‘it is not your business’, we are all in fact “breeding the violence” that is killing our people and our strength to combat it.
For Indigenous people, the many battles that we have fought have made us stronger. There are many Aboriginal men and women who work tirelessly and diligently and will continue to do so. Unity is our strength and it will be the tool that will keep us vocal and active. We have about 15 appointed Indigenous men and women in state and territory governments now, and this is proof that we have, and will continue to never give up. This is great! Indigenous people are getting smarter and wiser about working within the system and see the need to have leaders represented in government bodies so that we have a voice in government decisions. It is imperative to engage Indigenous people with decisions that affect our peoples, communities, and our Nation.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) has set up 15 Family Violence Prevention Legal Units (FVPLU) across the country to specifically address Indigenous Family Violence in our communities. These are proving to have successful outcomes and strive to deliver ‘models of best practice’ for other communities and organisations to adopt. The establishment of these units instigated the formation of the National Network of Indigenous Women’s Legal Services Inc (NNIWLS) in 2000 and consists of strong women who work within these FVPLU. They have developed a network to incorporate other Indigenous women’s services that address and provide legal assistance to Indigenous women and their families. This Network provides much needed support for our front line workers. These women are our quiet achievers and deserve so much recognition and support for what they tirelessly continue to do to address and confront Indigenous Family Violence. Moreover they are clearly making a significant and positive impact on communities.
State governments are also supporting initiatives to combat Indigenous Family Violence. The NSW Attorney General's Department implemented a Violence Against Women Strategy in 1996. This Strategy has engaged 18 Regional Violence Prevention Specialists around the State, each assigned a region to instigate, encourage discussion, and deliver various projects that will assist in implementing the Strategy. This project is about increasing awareness and strengthening existing strategies of other Government and non-Government services in order to reduce and prevent further violence on all women. The Strategy aims to incorporate a holistic and culturally appropriate approach when dealing with the prevention of violence for women. I am employed under this Strategy to work more specifically with Indigenous women and their families.
The European criminal justice system has historically proven to be destructive and disempowering for Indigenous people. However as I have witnessed, the criminal justice system has tried to adapt certain elements to develop and encourage respect for Indigenous culture and Customary Law. Court structures and community justice groups are now being implemented that encourage Indigenous responsibility for management of our offenders that strive to be similar to the traditional management of offenders, for example Circle Sentencing. I have witnessed Magistrates’ desires and frustrations to understand Indigenous culture and Customary Law when considering the most appropriate and workable sentence. For example, applications for Restraining Orders can now be designed to better suit the needs of the applicant and therefore, gives consideration to Indigenous Family Violence issues and culturally appropriate resolutions.
Ultimately, Indigenous people need to develop their own solutions to problems experienced within their communities and the Australian legal system is far from giving real power to Indigenous peoples to develop solutions to Indigenous problems. That said, we recognise that Australia has given some consideration to our democratic rights to establish Indigenous elected Leaders. The ATSIC Board of Commissioners has declared and signed an agreed commitment in their determination to take a stand against Family Violence and have pledged agreement to a new Policy Statement and Family Violence Action Plan – Our Family, launched in August 2003.
The Action Plan supports community action against Family Violence at a regional level and will provide assistance to ATSIC Regional Councils to promote projects that focus on this issue. Agencies and other services will work together to deliver and implement the Action Plan within their various regions. Of course with the abolition of ATSIC and the distribution of Indigenous services into mainstream governmental departments there is a concern as to whether Family Violence services will continue to provide the best culturally appropriate services possible to Indigenous women.
As an Indigenous person working in the area of Family Violence, I am excited by this Family Violence Action Plan – it is a much needed breakthrough that will instigate Indigenous affairs to be worked on by Indigenous people in ascertaining responsibility and solutions to address Indigenous Family Violence. But as usual ‘funding’ is one of our biggest obstacles. Governments need to put more faith and trust in Indigenous people to be able to manage and govern our own affairs. I’m not suggesting necessarily throwing money at the people but governments need to look closely at grass roots projects that are proving to be making huge differences in the communities in which they work. In other words, don’t reinvent the wheel but improve the wheels that are working. Furthermore, because of insufficient funding, whilst many of these projects are successful, our front-line workers are exploited and over worked.
Finally, I would like to issue a challenge to Governments at all levels: select a winner of the Annual Indigenous Family Violence Projects Awards and provide scope for this winner to further develop their project. Perhaps a ball can be set in motion by choosing one of these successful projects to work with each year, backed by financial assistance, with a chosen government representative working closely with that Project. There is no point to having a whole-of-government approach if governments cannot develop a better and closer relationship with Indigenous communities. This can only be done if those in power commit themselves to working on the ground with an Indigenous Project or within an Indigenous community.
Libby Carney is a Murri woman from North Queensland. She is the Regional Violence Prevention Specialist for the Crime Prevention Division of the Attorney General’s Department in the Far West Upper Region, Bourke NSW.