Indigenous Law Bulletin
By Heman Lee.
In March 2009, Louise Taylor received the ACT Women’s Award in honour of International Women’s Day. This award is given in recognition of significant contributions to the community, recognising work done towards creating a better world for girls and young women.
Louise Taylor has a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Laws and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the Australian National University. She is a Kamilaroi woman originally hailing from Sydney but she has lived and worked in Canberra for the last 14 years. Louise has worked primarily as a criminal lawyer in the ACT. During a significant portion of her seven years with the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, Louise performed the role of specialist Family Violence Prosecutor. Louise currently works for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions as a Principal Legal Officer.
Louise has a strong interest in access to justice for women, particularly for Indigenous and other marginalised women. She is a long time member of the management committee of the ACT Women’s Legal Centre. The centre is predominantly funded by the Commonwealth and is run by women. The Centre aims to improve women’s access to justice by providing legal information and advice and referring affected women to sympathetic lawyers and other support services. The Centre also conducts community legal education sessions, produces information for women about their rights, the legal system and the law and carries out research, law reform and lobbying activities that help to remove barriers to women’s access to justice.. The Centre is currently overseeing an Indigenous-specific legal service for Indigenous women in the ACT region. Lobbying for increased funding for this program is Louise’s top priority at the moment.
Louise is also the Deputy Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women. The ACT Ministerial Advisory Council on Women provides strategic advice to the ACT Government on issues affecting women in the ACT. It also provides a link between the Minister for Women and women in the ACT community. The six goals of the Council include
1. Preparing a 'stock take' of the achievements and work in progress of the retiring Council integrating follow-up work in the Council's third year (2008 - 2011) work program, including finalising the previous Council's Women's Health Roundtable report;
2. Completing the review of the 2004 - 2009 Women's Plan;
3. Establishing a system of Working groups/Sub Committees;
4. Developing a Communication Strategy for community and Government;
5. Exploring and establishing the integration of the principles of reconciliation into the work of Council; and,
6. Developing relationships with other key ACT Councils and networks.
First of all, congratulation on winning the Women’s Award in the International Women’s Day. What does this award mean to you? Do you have any tips for others who are fighting for their cause?
I was incredibly flattered (and very surprised) to receive the award, especially given that I was nominated alongside some extremely talented women doing very important work in our community with women. For me, the award was really about recognising the work that I do, particularly with the ACT Women’s Legal Centre. The Centre contributes in a truly meaningful way to the lives of women in the ACT region and I play a small part in that work. So for me there was a real sense that I was sharing the award with the other committed women who are part of the Centre and I felt very gratified by that.
Much of my work is about persistence and creativity. Being persistent with the right people and committed to a goal goes a long way to achieving a successful outcome. I am a fairly driven person and I’m not known for being subtle so part of my persistence is being upfront with people about what I want to achieve and convincing them to get on board. I also think that being creative and trying to find different ways of achieving your goal is helpful when you feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall (because it does feel that way sometimes!). One of things that has really assisted me over the years is that I have been very lucky to be surrounded by some very clever, savvy individuals (mostly women!) from whom I’ve learned a lot, particularly with respect to effective ways of doing business and achieving outcomes. Latching on to good operators really assisted me to build my own capabilities and capacity. As I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser) I have become more and more certain of who I am and what I want so I’ve been less influenced by those who would seek to bring me down or shake my confidence. Being certain of what it is you actually want goes a long way to building resolve and building an immunity against criticisms and personal attacks. Being able to have a good laugh is also an essential asset when you are doing largely thankless work.
Compared with the old times, we have seen some improvements in women’s rights in general. What is your comment on the development of women’s rights in recent years?
As a feminist, I agree that the plight of women and girls in Australia has improved dramatically since my grandmother’s era. We have choices, we can have an education, we can have a career and, in theory, we have equality. But there are still enormous obstacles to the full participation of women in a whole range of areas. Women are still largely responsible for child rearing; they are sadly predominantly the victims of family, domestic and sexual violence; and I think there is a still a glass ceiling for women in the workforce. These issues are of course compounded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. I would point to some of the responses to the idea of a nationally funded maternity leave scheme as evidence that we still have a way to go in recognising women in our community for the work they do and the multitude of roles they juggle. For some, the scheme is a radical approach that gives women some sort of ‘special concession’, yet this is completely out of touch with what is happening on this issue globally. We have significant progress to make with respect to creating truly ‘family friendly’ working environments for women. I think most organisations observe the rhetoric; not too many willingly adopt this philosophy on a practical level. I think it’s dangerous to think that women have ‘made it’ in terms of equality with men; quite simply, we haven’t. This is especially so for Indigenous women; we need to carve out our own space on the agenda of women’s issues.
What do you see as the most important issue/s affecting women in Australia?
Family, domestic and sexual violence. Recent figures suggest that these issues cost the Australian community $13.6 billion annually and will rise to $15 billion by 2021. These have wide-reaching effects on the lives of women and their children – in relation to housing, health, employment and education. For too long, violence against women has been seen as an exclusively women’s issue; this attitude has really allowed it to be sidelined as a priority for government and society. As a community, there needs to be a greater sharing of responsibility, men need to be part of the solution. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, violence is yet another barrier to empowerment; it is a significant factor in their marginalisation. Indigenous women report higher levels of physical violence and are more likely to sustain serious injuries. Even scarier is that Indigenous women are ten times more likely to die as a result of family violence – that statistic is just reprehensible in the year 2009. It is a sad indictment on the position of Indigenous women in our community.
In my time as a family violence prosecutor, I learned that women are so much stronger than they give themselves credit for. I also saw how violence prevents them from fully participating in life. The saddest aspect of that work was seeing how many women believed that living as a victim was the best that they could expect from life. As a community we need to take responsibility for that. Part of the solution is shifting entrenched community attitudes towards women. This means educating young people, beginning in primary school, about respectful relationships, giving them the tools to appropriately deal with conflict.
As an Aboriginal woman, how do you feel about the legal and conceptual division of ‘Indigenous’ rights and ‘women’s’ rights?
In my mind it is difficult to separate being a woman and being Aboriginal. They are both aspects integral to my identity. As a lawyer, though, I recognise that there are distinct and separate issues relevant to both those parts of my identity; sometimes the distinction is necessary – both legally and conceptually. There are some similarities between the two: each challenges the dominant paradigm and provides an alternate view to that espoused by the mainstream culture. In some sense Indigenous rights and women’s rights share an historical legacy of discrimination and marginalisation; this legacy continues to haunt women and Indigenous people today. However, I think that historical legacy is more acutely felt by Indigenous people; Indigenous women especially need to carve out their own space and be recognised for their unique position in the spectrum of women’s issues. Non-Indigenous women must ultimately recognise the position of privilege they hold. I don’t think we lose anything in advocating for both groups at the same time, but I do recognise that, in most situations, each issue ought to be dealt with individually in recognition of the concerns particular to each group. One situation which comes to is the NT Intervention: if the Government purported to target and discriminate against non-Aboriginal women in the way that Aboriginal people have been targeted in the Northern Territory there would be an uproar. Yet the Intervention continues with only a small number of voices calling for the discriminatory practices to end.
Have you experienced discrimination because of your race or gender, and how have you dealt with it?
Yes. On some occasions I have chosen not to deal with the behaviour and forged on anyway. At other times, it seemed appropriate to challenge the situation and expose it for what it was. Maturity has taught me to pick my battles; some people simply do not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to know any better. But I am more likely to speak up when such behavior is directed towards others than when it is targeted at me. In many ways, this is what prompted me to become a lawyer. Knowledge is an effective tool to battle discrimination and abuse.
What is the most effective institution in protecting women’s rights? Is there a role for the Government to play?
The law clearly has a role to play in protecting and fostering the rights of women; the Government has a role to play in ensuring that legislation supports the rights of women and other citizens. I support an Australian Bill of Rights; such a document would be an opportunity for us as a nation to express and enshrine the fundamental rights that every Australian citizen should be afforded. On a more informal level, Government and business both share a responsibility to model behaviour that promotes the protection of the rights of women, that encourages the community to retreat from traditional and damaging ways of thinking about the role of women in our community.
Do you think the law is an effective avenue to better protect women’s rights? What are some improvements you would like to see, particularly in respect of Indigenous women?
The law is one avenue available to women to protect and assert themselves. By its nature, the law doesn’t necessarily cater to people who sit outside the dominant, white male paradigm. That said, I would much rather be a woman today given our legislative protections than, say, fifty years ago. The law can be an effective tool for women seeking legal redress if their ‘rights’ have been trampled. Another way that women can protect themselves on a practical, day-to-day level is to arm themselves with knowledge. In this way, they can challenge discriminatory or misogynistic behaviour and know when the law supports their position. This applies equally to Indigenous people: knowledge is power. Becoming aware of the legal tools available to assert your rights is crucial to knowing where you stand in terms of discrimination.
What do you think is the most effective way to mobilise people to support women’s rights?
Getting people to think about the sort of community in which they want to live and the sort of lives they want for their children and family. This is one way to make people think about what is right and what is wrong for less empowered members of the community. This applies equally to Indigenous people in this country. So much of the antipathy directed towards minority groups in Australia (especially blackfellas) is the result of fear mongering and ignorance - I think we can be a much more intelligent country than that. Putting a human face to an issue is always useful in encouraging people to think about an issue as something affecting a person’s everyday existence. At the Women’s Legal Centre we have been forced to think creatively in fundraising and raising awareness - we have been very successful in attracting people who we might not ordinarily see or hear from. You have to make it simple for people to be involved and easy for them to understand the issues at stake.
Over the years, have you found it difficult to balance tensions between your commitments towards women’s rights in the public sphere and your family life? How do you manage these difficulties?
My roles as a mother, partner, lawyer, volunteer are in constant competition with one another. I confess I never feel as if my life is perfectly balanced and I suspect I will always feel that way. Many of my female colleagues and friends, like me, are in a constant state of guilt about their inability to fulfill their various obligations. By far the most important roles for me are being a mother, partner, daughter, sister and friend. Having said that, though, I am a much happier person and better at all of those roles when I feel like I am also contributing to my community and my professional development. I’m not especially good at relaxing and I’m not very good at taking no for an answer when I think something is important. That probably helps keep me going! Managing my competing interests is always difficult: setting priorities, asking for help and realising when something has to give assists me to juggle all the things going on in my life. Ultimately, my children come first so the rest of my life has to get in line behind them.
Is there any particular person or organisation that you have found particularly helpful or inspirational in your life?
There have been many people in the course of my life, both personally and professionally, who have had an influence in who I am and where I am. My parents had an enormously positive effect on my desire to succeed. Education was very important in our house and I was always encouraged to pursue my goals. Seeing my father return to university as a mature age student and watching my mum juggle work and family life had a strong influence on my ideas about how life could be. I found university life quite difficult. Actually, I didn’t feel as if I really fit in there, so being part of the Indigenous student community went a long way to making me feel comfortable in that environment. As for inspirational figures, I need only look around to see the committed, passionate people who work in our community organisations to make a difference to people’s lives – often at a cost to their own. I have a core group of people who I know I can rely on to tell me the truth, encourage me to keep going and support me when it all feels a bit too hard. That sustains me. My partner Joe is pretty long suffering and incredibly supportive of me. Ultimately, inequity and injustice are touchstones for me and keep me focused on the things I want to do and the issues I want to be involved in.
Heman Lee graduated from the University of New South Wales with a combined degree of Bachelor in Law and Bachelor in Commerce (Actuarial Studies). He has completed his study with the College of Law in New South Wales, and is currently working in the Indigenous Law Centre as a volunteer research assistant.