‘The importance of mothers & families in lowering the indigenous incarceration rate.’
Good evening, “Empower a Woman, Empower a Nation’ – I like the sound of that, and this evening I want to talk to you about empowering Indigenous women from all 250 Indigenous nations across Australia. Before I can do that I need to provide context on the current status of Indigenous women in Australia. I don’t do this because I’m a masochist, but in a sincere attempt to ensure we understand the depth of the challenge in front of all of us, and what I see are the solutions to those challenges. In doing so, I will emphasis the plight of Indigenous women in remote communities, as the challenges are disproportionately larger there.
For those that follow the public policy rumblings from Canberra (you know who you are!), you will have noticed that over the last three months there have been four major reports released on Indigenous Affairs, they are:
- The two Productivity Commission’s reports, one on ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’, and the other on annual ‘Indigenous Expenditure’ by Australian governments in each of the nine jurisdictions;
- The Australian National Audit Office’s report on the implementation of the Commonwealth Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy; and
- The Commonwealth Government’s Closing the Gap Report and accompanying statement to the Australian Parliament by the Prime Minister.
These detailed, evidence based reports, provide a frightening window into the lives Indigenous people, and especially Indigenous women in Australia.
I’ll share some of the more attention grabbing statistics on violence, housing and imprisonment with you:
In 2014-15 hospitalisation rates for Indigenous females for family violence related assaults were 32 times the rate for non-Indigenous females. For Indigenous males it was 23 times the rate of non-Indigenous males. Among remote Indigenous populations, the rate was 42 times that of non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous hospitalisation rates for assault were highest in nearly all remote areas and, in particular, it is an alarming fact that the rate of hospitalisation for assaults on Indigenous females was 51 times that non-Indigenous females. In the Northern Territory, this rate jumps 63 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault for non-Indigenous females.
In 2014-15, 38% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over in remote areas were living in overcrowded conditions. This rate is almost three times the 13% rate for Aboriginal people living in non-remote areas. Younger Aboriginal people are also significantly more likely to be living in an overcrowded household. In 2014–15, 24% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0–14 years, and 25% of people aged 15–24 years were living in overcrowded households compared with 17% of Aboriginal people aged 45–54 years and 10% aged 55 and over. In remote communities across the Northern Territory, they need an additional 2000 houses right now to reduce overcrowding to the accepted international standard for safe living and environmental health, which is from the Canadian National Occupancy Standard. It sets the standard of two people per bedroom and says that a household is experiencing some degree of overcrowding if one additional bedroom is required to house the number of people in a house. It is common knowledge that in many cases more than fifteen people live in the three bedroom ‘bessa block’ houses in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory – this is the same for remote Indigenous communities across Australia.
Indigenous people make up 3% of the Australian population, but we make up nearly 28% of the prison population:
– with Indigenous women making up 30% and Indigenous men making up 24% of the overall prison population respectively;
– Indigenous youth make up 48% of juveniles in custody. These rates are of course much higher in jurisdictions with significant remote Indigenous populations, such as the Northern Territory, where in 2016 Indigenous youth made up 96% of the juvenile detention population.
– Between 2000 and 2010, imprisonment rates for Indigenous women increased by 58.6%, but for non-Indigenous women it was 22.4% and for Indigenous men it was 35.2%, but for non-Indigenous men it was 3.6%.
The prison statistics are simply getting worse every year – the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system nationally has been the subject of extensive documentation, criticism and concern since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 – the situation has significantly deteriorated over the last two and a half decades. That’s enough statistics to get the picture for the moment I think.
I’d now like to share with you what I see are the solutions. And why women are the key players in leading the required change! I’ll address some broader issues first, before addressing specific issues associated with justice and violence, Indigenous imprisonment, housing, education, economics and land. And in particular, I’ll draw on the experiences of my own family.
The first broad issue is remote Indigenous Australia. The 2016 ABS census showed that a little over 20% of Indigenous Australians live in remote communities, which is approximately 150 000 people. There are of course some very good areas of progress for Indigenous Australians, mostly in urban environments. But unless we can address the overwhelming crisis in remote Australia the Close the Gap report will read the same every year – the report released last month showed we were only on track to achieve one of the seven Close the Gap targets.
The key issues in remote Indigenous Australia are the lack of an economy and the lack of infrastructure to create an enabling environment to support local and regional economies and sustainable remote communities.
Let me be clear on what is at stake here – it is the very future of Indigenous Australia. Of the 250 Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia in 1788 only 35 are now in use every day and remain largely unchanged – all are remote Indigenous languages.
All of Australia used to be Aboriginal land, now through the Native Title Act and various forms of Land Rights legislation, Indigenous Australians have some level of control of about 40% of the continent – nearly all of which is in remote Australia.
On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision, it is timely to explore why Indigenous people are not able to use their land assets and resources to create wealth, continue culture and language, and address our chronic social problems. Until we can address the absurdity of the definition of Native Title in Section 223 of the Native Title Act, Indigenous Australians will remain asset rich and dirt poor.
The ability for Indigenous Australians to live on country, practice lore, speak language and follow customs and cultures that have thrived for over 50 000 years is vital for all Australians – not just Indigenous Australians. As Australians we should all be proud that this land and it’s first peoples represent the oldest continuing cultures on the planet. We Indigenous Australians are great at many things, but one of our best is the ability to share, and we want to continue to share our languages, cultures and customs with the world for another 50 000 years.
Prior to 1788 Indigenous Australians had local, regional, national and international economies through which we expressed ourselves as nations and sweated our endeavour as individuals. We traded our goods and services, and intellectual property with each other across this great vast land, usually along our song lines – keeping culture strong at the same time. And we also traded across the seas to south east Asia well before the Dutch East Indies company invented globalisation!
However, modern Australia is a western democracy with a structured economy that is vastly different to our remote economies of old. The structure of this new economy ensures there are few jobs and limited opportunities for individuals in remote communities to apply their endeavour to productive pursuits that support themselves and their families. Welfare has taken the place of an economy, sapping the energy and morale from Indigenous Australians living in remote communities, and breaking down our social norms.
Australians living outside of remote Indigenous communities enjoy an enabling environment for themselves and their families – they have access to parks, play grounds, cinemas, shopping centres, roads, power, water, sewerage systems, telecommunications, housing, health, education, community safety and policing, and professional services. Most of which don’t exist in remote Indigenous communities, i.e. there is no enabling environment for individuals and families. For example, a 2015 infrastructure audit of the 73 largest remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory found that less than 50% had mobile and data services, only 19 had standard town planning regimes, less than half had a permanent police presence, housing only met 60% of demand, and nearly all had no sealed transport services, ensuring those in the north are inaccessible by land for half the year due to flooding.
The impact of this lack of infrastructure is devastating for Indigenous women. When you go home tonight, take a minute to imagine what it would be like to manage your three-bedroom household if you had 15 people living in it, if you only had one stove, if you didn’t have a land line, internet or mobile phone services, if the water and power regularly didn’t work and there wasn’t a Bunnings around the corner to manage your own repairs and even the most basic problems, such as a leaking tap, can take more than a month to fix through the current bureaucratic system. Imagine trying to raise your family in those circumstances, could you get your kids to school, could you support their homework, could you or your partner go to work? It is a barren scene – but is lived daily by tens of thousands of Indigenous women across remote Australia.
The solution then is to build the enabling environment across remote Australia. This requires billions of dollars of investment over decades. Most importantly, this infrastructure investment must be leveraged to support sustainable remote communities by facilitating local and regional economies.
There are a number of very good government employment and procurement policies in Australia that do just this. We know what needs to be done, in some cases it is being done with significant success, but we need it done across all of remote Australia to the extent, and in the time-frame required.
The second broad issue is addressing the trauma, and associated mental and physical health problems, Indigenous Australians experience from the taking of Australia by the British in 1788 and the process of non-Indigenous Australians spreading across the continent thereafter.
The outcome of this process was the decimation of Indigenous nations, lands, languages and people and in 2017 that process weighs very heavily on the psyche of all Indigenous Australians.
The challenge is that very few non-Indigenous Australians know anything about the true history of Australia. Very few non-Indigenous Australians have associations with, let alone strong friendships with Indigenous Australians. Therefore, very few non-Indigenous Australians can walk in our shoes, understand our views and have a sense of the challenges we face, and certainly not conceive of the solutions to these challenges.
The solution to this is the building of a National Indigenous Cultural Centre. Something similar to the Smithsonian Institute or the National Museum of the American Indian in the United States, or the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. There have been many proposals for such a centre discussed over a long period of time, but we are yet to get to the starting line that we do actually want such a place in Australia.
Such a centre is critical for Indigenous Australians to tell our stories and our history to show our art and our culture. It would not be in competition to any of our wonderful national institutions such as the National Museum or National Gallery, but it would certainly complement them. Importantly, it would have a national footprint, rather than just being a building in Canberra, and would connect and work with all Indigenous nations across the country.
Such a centre is necessary if we are to truly understand who we are as Australians. Only then will we be able to move forward together, where all Australians can share equally in our opportunities, responsibilities and prosperity.
I’ll now move on to some of the more specific issues. At the start I presented some prison statistics. I think the key to solving the high levels of Indigenous imprisonment is through a focus on families and in particular mothers. It is important to consider the drivers of offending behaviours, including drug and alcohol abuse, poor school retention and performance, poor health, and unemployment. But more importantly, we must ask why so many children entering the criminal justice system are placed into care, and why Indigenous women are victimised at such high levels. We need to move away from the rationale that positive change will only come from the provision of services such as health programs.
Services are important, but it is vital to ensure that every mother and child have a safe home and are given the same opportunities as other Australians. A wide range of factors, including family violence, communication barriers, remoteness, and economic disadvantage influence community safety outcomes, there are five significant drivers of crime within Indigenous communities: drug and alcohol abuse, poor parenting, poor school retention and performance, poor health, and unemployment.
The tolerance of violence among a significant proportion of Indigenous communities is especially evident in the rates of domestic violence or intimate partner violence. This is not to say that there is a predisposition of Indigenous people to commit offences, as some suggest, but rather that this represents the feelings of powerlessness among victims, the reluctance to report violence for fear of retribution, and the inability of services, such as the police, to respond to victims’ calls for assistance. This is partly because of remoteness, insufficient resources, and the unwillingness of victims to make formal complaints. The increasing levels of reported violence and the increasing imprisonment rates of Indigenous people for violence-related offences, as I will discuss, point to the need to address this problem.
Tackling the high rate of Indigenous imprisonment, the number of children in care, and domestic violence requires a multifaceted effort by Indigenous people and organisations, government, the social services industry and businesses. Before moving on to some practical examples I want to touch on a related matter that has troubled me in recent times.
Politicians and the media are leading the extreme politicisation of Indigenous affairs. This creates an ‘us and them’ environment, where short-sighted media attacks consume the attention of Indigenous leaders and the public policy debate rather than substantive dialogue on outcomes and policy options. I am particularly troubled by politicians and media personalities who try and deny the suffering of Indigenous Australians, who reject the psychological trauma of women in horribly overcrowded houses and the impact of the past on the present. It’s no wonder things appear to be getting worse.
What troubles me is that this situation and the people that lead it are completely oblivious to the fact that Indigenous families, fathers, mothers and children continue to suffer from inter-generational trauma. Such an environment plays a leading role in preventing those who live that trauma daily, from seizing the opportunities available today.
An example of this was relayed to me by my sister in law, now in her fifties. She speaks vividly of the time when, as children, she and her two brothers were ‘nearly’ placed in the care of the Aboriginal Protection Board. In a time when there was no welfare, and her mum picked beans on the riverbank of the far south coast of New South Wales. At that time, their family was forced to live as fringe dwellers, and left to survive on riverbanks, huddled together sleeping in tents with firelight bouncing off the riverbank. These were times that many older people tell me were happy as families remained together. But this was not to last, as the family was forced to move to an Aboriginal reserve, and again to live in substandard conditions. Although provided with a house, it was built of nothing more than tin and old planks of wood. Their mum would spend hours sweeping the dirt floors. She was a very proud woman. Her several children were always well dressed and had a presence. It was obvious the children were well kept and well feed.
On this day, her mum was to leave her children with a relative while she took the young babies to her work picking beans. This day the children played happily in the dirt, but drew the attention of the local police officer who, due to their scruffy appearance, immediately assumed the children were abandoned and not cared for. He took them before the local visiting Magistrate. What saved my sister in law and her siblings from being taken from their mother on that day was the sharp eye of the Magistrate who noted that the children’s clothes, although covered with dirt, were immaculate and hand-sewn with all the trimmings, including bows and ribbons. He therefore waited until the end of the court list until their mum appeared, and stopped their removal. For some, such stories are only one generation removed. They loom large, and this is why I have been advocating strongly for investment in police and community activities. Understandably, Aboriginal people have an innate fear of the state. Those who deny this bring more pain to those who have suffered. I think this corporate memory does affect the rule of law and its effectiveness in Indigenous communities, and is one of the main reasons why victims do not call the police, leaving criminals in some communities to go unchallenged.
To allow you, the audience, to grasp the harshness of the ‘recent’ past for many Aboriginal people, I will relate two other stories, neither of which are intended to paint all police in a bad light, but to highlight the suffering, suspicion and fear of authority, especially of the police, that is held today by several men and woman of this generation. In saying that, it is also good to be in a position today to highlight the ground breaking contribution some police are making in this area to regain the community trust.
As a young trainee at an Aboriginal Medical Service on the Far South Coast of NSW, my first client, I will never forget, told me she was raped in a police cell by visiting police officers. Although this had occurred some years before, each year on the anniversary of this horrific event, she suffered severe trauma and was convinced she should end her life. The mental health team took hours to see her. So every day for at least two weeks she called me and said that today was the day she was taking her life. I also became very stressed as I knew she would be leaving her six children without a mother, so I would sit with her for hours waiting for the mental health team to arrive. They would give her medication and on occasion would take her to the hospital for observation. The cycle continued until finally some years later the anniversary of the rape was no longer at the forefront of her mind. It is heartening to know, that in this instance, the offenders were arrested and prosecuted.
Another rape survivor report was from an Aboriginal woman named Marilyn Cummins. Unfortunately, the police interviewing Marilyn told her she was a liar and she was arrested for ‘offensive language’ after she became distraught and upset following a rough and insensitive police interview. If we are to break these cycles, ongoing investment and commitment are needed to help repair the relationship between police and Aboriginal communities.
It remains so dangerous in some communities that riot squads are necessary to remove children at risk. This practice is not good for our society in general. Perhaps we need a Truth and Justice Commission of some sort to heal the wounds of the past and move forward. It appears that we are in no-win situation at the moment, although thankfully many people are prepared to tackle this issue.
On a positive note, the younger generation of Indigenous youths, those who have had the benefit of education and life experience, can now see and live with this. I was recently surprised when discussing with a young relative the risks of consuming marijuana. In a discussion about an older male relative who had episodes of marijuana psychosis, the young man said, “I know, Aunty, but while his marijuana addiction is trauma related. It is not the trauma of child removal. It is the trauma of child sexual assault”.
And I know too clearly the effects. This young person’s uncle was raped by a distant relative when he was between the ages of 9 to 13, and as a result, he started smoking marijuana not long after the first attack. At the age of 13, he grabbed the large knife he kept under his pillow and threatened the predator. By this time, he was too ‘big’ to abuse. But the young 13-year-old developed a chronic drug addiction and in his 20s suffered such bad hallucinations that he attacked family members.
We know that child abuse and violence against women does not just happen in Indigenous communities, but the current rate of drug addiction does not bode well for happy and safe families. However, there is hope, and more Indigenous people refuse to drink or take drugs because they witness the pain of this while they are growing up. Many take the road of reliance and triumph. The young man who was the victim of such horrific abuse is now a fine father of two children. He will never be an academic, lawyer or rich man, but he is a good father. Why did he achieve while others continued on a cycle of destruction? As I observed, it was with support from his female relatives. They refused to put up with his abusive behaviour while he was on drugs. They were patient and accepting when his mental health episodes would flair up.
What distinguishes those who fall from trauma to those who rise above it appears to be connected to family support. When I say support, I don’t mean unconditional love and care. I mean the harder road of support where there are consequences for bad behaviour, loving boundaries and reinforcement for good behaviour.
I again ask the question, “Why are crimes in Aboriginal Communities not being reported?” We know the community has a fear that the State will not protect them. So we are caught in the perpetual cycle of lawlessness and victimisation. This was not always the case as Indigenous societies, like all other cultures, had law and order. There is an incorrect argument that Aboriginal culture is embedded in violence and disrespect of women. While there were aspects of traditional cultural that were harsh, oppressive, and sometimes cruel to women, the same could be said for most cultures historically.
Audrey Bolger refers to the distortion of traditional law in the interests of men who attempt to justify violence, which takes place for illegitimate reasons with claims of traditional rights — referred to by one woman as ‘bullshit traditional violence’. Peter Sutton discusses violence as an aspect of traditional culture in various parts of Australia at the time of first contact. He refers to ‘frontier accounts’ of formal pitched battles, skirmishes and sneak attacks by night resulting in a substantial number of casualties’ in North-East Arnhem Land in the first part of the 20th century. Further, Stanner’s descriptions of formalised large-scale fights and wife-stealing raids in the Daly River area in the 1930s appear to substantiate these observations. Sutton also quotes an archaeological study by Stephen Webb, which found an abnormally high incidence of depressed skull fractures in early skeletal remains of Aboriginal women.
The Northern Territory Law Reform Committee of Inquiry into Aboriginal Customary Law cites reports by Donald Thompson of ‘feuds’ and ‘blood vengeance’ to the Canberra Minister for the Interior in 1939. The practice of interpersonal violence as a form of punishment, the infliction of violent revenge, and the belief in the legitimacy of such practices have continued through the second half of the 20th century and beyond.
Nancy Williams described details of a dispute in the late 1960s at Yirrkala over the inheritance of a promised wife, in which the man was asserting the right to have a 15-year-old girl established as his wife and beat her many times for running away. The story is full of complications, but she reports indignation in the community when the man was arrested and charged with assault.
The Australian Law Reform Commission on Aboriginal customary law referred to the common law tradition of deeming some customary laws as inconsistent with the rule of law when the customary laws are ‘repugnant’. This is a sensitive issue, but the use of customary law as a defence for and justification of violence, rape and physical assault of women is unacceptable under Northern Territory laws. Further paralegal education should be considered to discourage the incidence of this kind of violence and to enable women to complain.
While it is true that, traditionally, within Aboriginal society there was community and domestic violence, it should be recognised that abuse of women was widespread in many other societies including Britain. For example, up until the late 1800s, under British laws, it was permitted for a husband to beat his wife. In contrast, during the same period within Aboriginal society, Aboriginal women had considerable higher status than their British/Australian counterparts. Their status was based upon their strong roles in society as they produced 80% of the reliable food sources and had some control over its distribution. It may also be that the status of Aboriginal women in community leadership is negatively affected by colonisation and modern factors, such as alcohol and drug abuse.
What is clear from current statistics is that Aboriginal women are suffering a high-level of victimisation due to these factors, and cannot be excused or attributed to Aboriginal cultural practices.
The lack of housing is a key contributor to domestic violence, imprisonment rates, poor health, lower education and limited economic development outcomes. The worst statistics for family violence, rape, murder and child abuse are all in the most remote communities, which is also where you will find the worst overcrowding. There have been longstanding problems with the standard of Aboriginal housing in Australia, which have been identified as a major factor affecting the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people. Again, these problems are particularly acute for Aboriginal people living in remote communities. Having an adequate number of bedrooms and access to working facilities enables a household to function effectively, but overcrowding and/or a lack of working facilities can pose serious health risks, such as greater exposure to infectious diseases, passive smoking and a range of other stressors.
Improving the quality of social housing and reducing overcrowding has been identified as a key building block to overcoming Aboriginal disadvantage. Overcrowding has been associated with poorer health status among Aboriginal people with estimates that overcrowding was responsible for 30% of the health gap between Aboriginal adults living in remote areas and the non-Aboriginal population. Overcrowding among Aboriginal people has also been associated with poor housing quality, higher levels of life stresses, domestic violence, the misuse of alcohol and other drugs causing problems in the household, and a higher number of family and neighbourhood problems.
Across most social and economic indicators, average outcomes for Indigenous Australians in remote areas are poorer than outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in major cities and regional areas. The reasons include:
- Poorer reading, writing and numeracy results for Year 3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with performance declining as remoteness increased under 55% in very remote areas for reading, writing and numeracy.
- In 2011, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians aged 20–24 years with year 12 education or above education was higher in less remote areas, ranging from 64.1% in major cities to 30.7% in very remote areas; and,
- the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 20–64-year-olds who had a qualification at Certificate level III or above or were studying at any level decreased with remoteness, from 44.8% in major cities to 16.8% in very remote areas.
- Further, in 2012-13, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians aged 15–64 years, the employment to population ratio was higher in major cities and inner regional areas compared to very remote areas, following a significant decrease in very remote areas from 2008. Home ownership declined with remoteness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, decreasing from 38.4% in major cities, 38.1% in inner regional areas, 29.7% in outer regional areas, and 19.7% in remote areas to just 5.1% in very remote areas in 2012-13.
This highlights areas of critical social and economic disadvantage prevalent in remote Indigenous communities. These contribute to and reflect low levels of employment, a high degree of welfare dependence, and a lack of the key elements required for economic development and reduced disadvantage.
Even those who are doing the right thing suffer from the lack of housing in remote communities. A recent example is Eva whose name is changed for her privacy. Eva is a good friend of mine, and her life has been acutely affected by the critical housing shortage in the remote community where she lives. There is no available rental accommodation, so Eva is forced to live in one bedroom of a house with her four children, her mother, her aunties and other families share the rest of the house. She works for a reasonable wage, pays her bills, she does not drink, take drugs or partake in illegal activities. Eva is subjected to cramped and unhealthy conditions, not because she wants to be, but because she has to. She finds it difficult to send her children to school every day, as inevitably there is a fight between a couple in the next room disturbing her children’s sleep. Eva tells me they lack sleep and are not in a fit state to attend school. Further, it is not uncommon that someone is drunk in the home and that her children’s food for the week is eaten by another occupant. Her children are often frightened and disturbed. The kitchen is unkempt and not fit for food preparation. Eva prepares sandwiches or anything that is quick to put together. Head lice, scabies, skin infections spread quickly and are hard to control as other family members are not as attentive to their children’s needs as she is. There is nowhere to wash her children’s clothes as the washing machine is broken and there are no trades’ people close by to call. So Eva spends hours hand washing her clothes in an old plastic tub. It may not sound like it, but Eva is one of the lucky people in the community, as she can read and write and has a job.
Imagine living your life in a remote community where the most overcrowded homes have 19 adults. Could you do it? It is no wonder women and children are quietly suffering. What would this situation be like if Eva was in a domestic violent relationship? Where would she go?
The second specific issue I’d like to explore in detail is economic development and the role, ‘Indigenous land’ does, or in this case, doesn’t play in economic development. Again, I will look more closely at how these issues present in remote communities.
A common misconception is that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in remote areas of Australia. In truth, almost 80% live in major cities and regional centres. But unemployment is more acute among Indigenous Australians living in remote areas, where only 36% of those of working age are actually in work. The Commonwealth’s Indigenous Procurement Policy has ignited a new wave of Indigenous entrepreneurialism, increasing the Government’s expenditure on goods and services provided by Indigenous businesses from $6 million to more than $250 million over five years.
In the recent KPMG Indigenous thought leadership paper, Igniting the Indigenous Economy, economist Craig Emerson and Professor Marcia Langton argued that the momentum in government policy innovation in employment and business investment must be continued. They also noted that this policy innovation is likely to have a much more positive impact on urban and regional Indigenous communities than remote ones. They noted, “Inevitably, the policy prescriptions for improving the employment rates of Indigenous Australians in major cities will differ from those for Indigenous people in remote communities, where employment prospects are limited by distance and lack of infrastructure.”
However, they rightly noted that improving remote Indigenous employment is not unattainable, noting the example of the Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA), a not-for-profit organisation with 25 shops in remote communities, that topped the annual table produced by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.
ALPA is a sign of the growing success of Indigenous enterprises, even in remote areas, in the public-private sector. It provides retail, employment and community services, trades and mechanical work, job-placement services, social club management, accommodation and hospitality. It is also a large provider of the Commonwealth’s work-for-the-dole program. ALPA provides these services across the Northern Territory, Cape York and the Torres Strait, with income of $89 million last year, up from $60 million the previous year. It has 933 employees, 83% of them Indigenous, which absolutely dispels the overtly racist myth that Indigenous people are lazy, don’t want to work, or have not the ability to hold down a job.
Others argue that Indigenous people should move to cities and towns where there are more jobs. I don’t think that this is the solution as many Indigenous people will have similar issues with accessing affordable housing and can run the risk of becoming homeless. We don’t tell farmers to move away from their family property because there is a drought. In fact, government, through generous tax concessions and other support, encourages farmers to remain and live the ‘Australian dream’ of living on the land.
As the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision approaches, it is scandalous that Indigenous Australians have land title over nearly 40% of Australian land mass, but many people, particularly in rural and remote communities, live in third world conditions. It is as if, under the Mabo decision, many were given back the ‘bike’ that was stolen from them.
They can look at the bike, even sit on it but it is chained to a tree, as the descendants of those who had originally stolen that bike do not believe they are capable of riding it.
In a KPMG paper, Unlocking the potential of the ‘Indigenous Estate’, Eddie Fry, Chairman of Indigenous Business Australia and the Indigenous Land Corporation noted that across the Australian landmass Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold a rich base of assets and rights. Indeed, according to estimates, as outlined earlier, Indigenous people now own or have controlling interests in some 40% of the Australian land mass under various forms of title and legislation. The repossession and growth of the Indigenous Estate in the last 40 years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been significant.
He rightly notes that the challenge now is both to continue to grow the Indigenous Estate and more importantly to cause its assets to be converted to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders cultural, social and economic benefits and national influence, particularly over decisions relevant to their land and interests.
Mr Fry argues strongly that the Government needs to develop a framework to map the Indigenous Estate to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the full opportunity to protect, and if they wish, develop or harness, their respective interests in the Indigenous Estate. A framework is needed that enables the potential of these assets to achieve the outcomes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples choose.
It is within the power of the government to commit to a framework that maps the Indigenous Estate, local Indigenous employment and expands contracting targets.
We need investment into developing industries in the north, and examining the opportunities for exports growth in agriculture and aquaculture. With the growing appetite of our Asian neighbours, this is one area where proper planning, and mapping would not only benefit Indigenous communities but Australia in general. To do this, we need to start by solving issues of overcrowding. I think it would be beneficial for the Government to commit massive investment in infrastructure and housing in remote Indigenous communities.
High local Indigenous employment can be achieved through the provisional sum contracting policy and an Indigenous preferential contract policy with targets on parity with the local population, such as that used by the Northern territory Government that requires 30% Indigenous employment, to ignite the local Indigenous economy. This effectively means that local Indigenous businesses have opportunities to grow and contractors would be required to have a minimum number of Indigenous employees. This puts a signal in the market. It forces the private sector to bring their innovation into engaging local Indigenous employees. This type of preferential contracting and local employment targets have been done successfully by mining companies in Australia where some mining companies have achieved up to 80% of local Indigenous employment and this was proven to work internationally, notably in the US where this type of procurement provision has been operating for decades.
I’d also like to touch on what Australia does internationally through our aid programs within the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is an example of what could be done locally! The empowerment of women and girls is embedded throughout Australia’s foreign policy, economic diplomacy, and the overseas aid programs.
DFAT has a very comprehensive process when it comes to its aid programs, gender equality must be integrated into all programs, regardless of sector or geographic location. DFAT’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy sets priorities that guide its work in embedding gender equity throughout our foreign policy, economic diplomacy and overseas aid programs. At a minimum, DFAT aims to avoid exacerbating gender inequalities, and to ensure that women and men benefit from its interventions equally. DFAT seeks to enhance women’s voices in decision-making, leadership and peace-building, and at least 80% of its aid program investments needs to demonstrate real progress in addressing gender equality issues. This type of gender empowerment framework should be embedded across all Indigenous policy but particularly in any housing or infrastructure investment.
That’s a lot of information – very detailed and difficult information. I find it hard to comprehend and retain information if it is too overwhelming, I suspect that is also the case for you this evening. Let me finish by leaving you with three key messages:
- It must be a national goal to support, sustain and where necessary revitalise Indigenous Australia as the oldest continuing culture on the planet, this will require a massive investment in remote infrastructure, and for that to be leveraged for economic development, and also for the establishment of a National indigenous Cultural Centre;
- We must immediately address the overcrowding in remote Indigenous communities by delivering the thousands of new homes that are required; and
- We must empower Indigenous women through practice, policies, programs and services to deliver the changes that will see Indigenous Australians enjoy the same life opportunities and prosperity as all other Australians.
I sincerely wish to thank you for your time this evening.
Josephine Cashman is a Worimi woman from New South Wales. She is a lawyer, businesswoman and social entrepreneur with more than 18 years of experience on working on projects to create social and economic empowerment with Indigenous communities.
In 2013, Josephine was appointed by the Prime Minister to the Indigenous Advisory Council and Chair of its Safe Communities Committee. More recently Josephine was appointed as Secretary of the Board of Directors at Gadigal Information Service.
As a lawyer, Josephine worked for more than nine years in the Australian courts and has worked in consultancy and voluntary roles for a variety of private, public and non-profit sector organisations. Josephine recently spoke at a special session on violence against Indigenous women and children at the United Nation’s full Human Rights Council in Geneva and is widely acknowledged for her work at all levels of the community to help bring an end to violence.