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ANU College of Law Conference: Parenthood and Work in a Post-COVID Context

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

[Introduction in Bunuba]

It is a pleasure be speaking to you all today. My name is June Oscar, and I am Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands across Australia and pay my respects to all elders, past, present and emerging. I also pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples for those of you located at the Australian National University. I am speaking from the lands of my Bunuba people here in the central Kimberley in Western Australia. And for conferences such as this where themes of parenting and care are discussed, I like to give thanks to our powerful lineage of First Nations matriarchs who carry the knowledge of nurture and have birthed and raised tens of thousands of our peoples.

So, welcome everyone, what a big and necessary theme you have all gathered to discuss.

I have been asked to talk to the issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in relation to parenthood and paid work. For me this is a topic that cannot be considered without the concept of care. To understand what parents, children, families and our society needs to weather the impacts of Covid and beyond we have to answer the question: What is care work and how should we value it?

In my mind it is the provision of care, not money, that makes the world go round. Care that nourishes the young and respects and honours the old, that embraces and supports those of all abilities. Care that is the empathy and thoughtfulness—the common neighbourly goodness—that knits civil society together. We all know, have been the recipient of, and have enacted, this multidimensional concept of care.

And when it comes to a First Nations conception of care, the interconnecting systems that benefit from care extends to encompass all living things. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people care for Country, culture, kin and community. Care is the knowledge we carry and the work we do to ensure a healthy planet from one generation to the next for the benefit of all beings—the human and the non-human.

I heard about this broad and meaningful conception of care throughout the Wiyi Yani U Thangani engagements, meaning women’s voices in my language. Throughout 2018 we ran the largest national engagements since 1986, with over 2,000 First Nations women and girls right across Australia. We heard about their strengths and knowledges, their challenges and solutions across all areas of life. These stories are captured in the landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani 2020 Report.

What has left a lasting imprint for me from this engagement period—and that continues to characterise the work that we are doing through socialising and implementing the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report—is the breadth of parenting and care work that our women and girls do, and which goes completely undervalued and unrecognised. It is the type of care work that I have described, which keeps everything functioning—it’s time-consuming, never-ending hours, takes planning and strategy. It is real labour, with incredible far-reaching benefits that we all depend on.

But throughout Wiyi Yani U Thangani, women and girls consistently spoke to the fact that since colonisation, over the centuries and in contemporary times, this work they do and the knowledge they carry, has been rendered invisible. As such, systems and structures have been formed that do not value our women’s work and fail to recognise our conception of parenthood. Obviously, these dominant systems not only fail to meet the needs of our women and families, but in seeking to force our people to fit within the mainstream, they have caused ongoing harm and trauma. We see this manifest in so many different ways, perhaps the worst of which is the rapidly growing pipeline of First Nations children who have been removed from their families and who—despite many having undiagnosed cognitive disability such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)—are ending up in juvenile detention, and then into cycles of recidivism and adult incarceration, at a rate that is beyond alarming.

This cycle of trauma, entrenched through systems, with few effective supports or interventions to remedy it, only serves to deepen the burden of care on our women.

This is a burden that has been building since colonisation. Exclusion, dispossession, dislocation, injustice, and discrimination have driven a cumulative pattern of inherited poverty and trauma across generations—heightening the need for care, healing and matriarchal knowledges of nurture and growth, just as surrounding patriarchal structures were built to be unashamedly uncaring, simultaneously undermining of women and our roles, skills and knowledges.

This nation and our society at large has denied the truth of these deeply systemic harms, perpetuated by Western societal and economic structures for centuries.

What is changing in the here and now is that the global upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into plain sight truths that for so long have been denied by those in power and authority—the truth of entrenched institutional inequalities.

For many, this crisis has been a wake-up call. And under the added weight of truth-telling from the Black Lives Matter movement, the ‘Me Too’ movement, and about the climate emergency we all face, the façade of a system that purported to operate fairly and for the common good has cracked, laying bare the structures that have always been there undermining us.

There are many First Nations experiences throughout the pandemic that are highlighting both the exposure of this truth and the possible shift in the way society wants to function.

At the onset of Covid I returned to my homelands as so many others did. One of the deepest motivating factors was care—Country felt like the safest and most caring place to be at a time of such great uncertainty, my family and kin were there to provide support for one another, and I had guardian caring responsibilities to children, elders and those with disabilities.

While travelling home, in a complete reversal of decades of public policy that was seeking to withdraw supports from our communities, governments acknowledged almost immediately the incredibly vulnerable position First Nations people were in. Because of severe underinvestment in community infrastructure our communities have horrendous conditions of overcrowding and many underlying health issues—the worst conditions for Covid to take hold.

The return of our peoples to homelands during this time further highlighted this underinvestment, as a rapidly growing population put huge pressure on scarce resources and services.

Many communities have only limited health and social service supports—often lacking things others take for granted such as the availability of children’s’ day care services. Where there should have been long-term investment in local skills, health and social infrastructure, fly-in-fly-out services have been provided instead.

In response to this now all too visible crisis, the measures taken by the Government in March 2020, including Jobkeeper, the introduction of the Coronavirus Supplement, cessation of mutual obligations requirements, and free childcare constituted some of the most significant social and economic measures in recent decades to alleviate poverty in Australia. Research showed that there was a 32% reduction of people living in poverty during the period that these measures were in effect.

During this time, I heard from First Nations parents who had—some for the first time in their lives—been able to pay for rent and electricity while also regularly putting food on the table for their children and putting fuel in their cars to travel to shops and access essential services. Before the Supplement, the combined cost of these activities had been unaffordable and attempting to make ends meet was the cause of great stress for many financially insecure households.

And it was not only adults on income support who benefited from the Coronavirus Supplement. Children do not exist in isolation—what happens to their families, their parents and their communities affects them, and their wellbeing is best protected when those around them have their wellbeing protected too.

These measures are the type of structural supports that acknowledge and begin to renumerate the immense caring work provided by women and parents, understanding that supporting parents and families to be able to care for one another brings innumerable social, cultural and economic generational benefits.

While the introduction of these measures demonstrated that swift and decisive action could be taken to alleviate poverty, that they have not been sustained has shown that there is still a blockage in transitioning policy beyond crisis response into a model of sustained investment into communities. Likewise, there appears to be an ongoing reluctance to accept the lack of merit inherent in punitive policies such as work for the dole schemes that do not reflect wages and benefits at the minimum award rate or compulsory programs for parents so as to badger them back into the workforce even when there are no local jobs available.

Overall, it is clear that the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 have been born unequally.

Evidence from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey in May 2020 showed that the approximately 3.5 million people employed in the industries most impacted by the economic shutdown in response to COVID-19 were low-wage workers and disproportionately female and/or young. The survey did not record details about ethnicity but international research in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom has shown that people of colour are significantly over-represented in the sectors most affected by the pandemic.

Furthermore, where the Government invested in industries amidst the pandemic, it was overwhelmingly in male-dominated sectors. This is despite evidence that investment in many of the industries and sectors that women are employed in can contribute greatly to a nation’s economic growth. In particular, we know that care work for children, those with disability and the elderly are growth sectors that largely employ women.

The evidence also tells us that women’s economic empowerment is correlated with improved health and educational outcomes for children as well as reductions in gender-based violence.

This is why, as one of the county’s most disadvantaged and marginalised groups and one of its greatest untapped resources, First Nations women must sit at the centre, not at the margins of our strategy for economic recovery—we must invest in their potential, skills and knowledges which have been neglected for far too long to the detriment of all Australians.

My engagements with First Nations women reaffirmed that we are resilient. There is no doubt we have a remarkable capacity to survive. But we want more than survival. We want to heal beyond trauma and restore family and community bonds and societal-wide health and wellbeing. We have had enough of being ignored and of taking part in processes that are limited to tweaking fundamentally flawed systems that have failed to alleviate the disadvantage we experience.

We must seize the opportunity to emerge from the pandemic with new systems across the board, including but not limited to the way we think about, do and are remunerated for care work, and the priority we give and resources we provide for the wellbeing and care of our families and communities.

With care at the heart of our economic structures, we will see reformed social security systems that ensures an economic base that enables parents and carers to raise families free from poverty and that keeps women and children safe and together. We will also see sustained investment in culturally appropriate care infrastructure and supports—redistributing the burden on First Nations women at the same time as offering training and paid opportunities to pursue care work. Women spoke about wanting formal opportunities to carry out the care work they are already doing, whilst many spoke of the need for additional supports to enable them to participate and engage in social and economic spaces in ways that meet their goals and aspirations. And the evidence tells us that if we invest in First Nations businesses and particularly those run by our women they are 100 more times likely to employ First Nations peoples an develop these types of culturally safe, flexible workplace structures that support meaningful work, as well as valuing care and parenthood.

Ultimately, our economic empowerment cannot be just about fitting into the mainstream. It must be about designing our own economic base that can bring about the social, cultural, political future we all want. We know that when recognised and supported by the structures and the world around us the strengths of people and communities can be harnessed to create positive change.

Through the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Project, First Nations women and girls have a powerful mechanism to convey and progress their vision for the future. As I mentioned earlier, we are now in the third Stage of the Project, a key element of which will be a National First Nations women and girls’ Summit to be held in the first half of 2023. In preparation for dialogues at the Summit, the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Implementation Framework which we will be releasing this week will be built upon through further research conducted with partner organisations and ongoing discussions with communities and other stakeholders in the lead up to the Summit. The Implementation Framework is a follow up to the report translating the major findings into priorities and actions. The Implementation Framework identifies 24 actions spanning nine priority areas which sit under four key themes. These are: women and girls’ ‘leadership and decision-making’; ‘language, law, culture and knowledge systems belonging to women’; ‘healing approaches to breaking intergenerational trauma’; and ‘economic justice and empowerment’ which holds a particular focus on unpaid work and care responsibilities that women carry and has as its key priority areas: control over income and financial resources; engagement in meaningful economies; and a transformed care economy.

One of our significant partners is ANU, who will help us explore some of these actions, in particular the breadth and extent of First women’s unpaid care work.

I encourage everyone participating today to read the Framework, which will be available on our website by the end of the week.

And, before I leave you, I will share the vision statement for the thematic area: economic justice and empowerment —:

Our skills, knowledges and work are recognised, valued and understood as central to the functioning of Australia’s economy.

Economic systems and policies are structured around a deep understanding of, and value for, the care we provide our families, communities and our Countries so as to enable a sustainable economic system that guarantees our financial security and shrinks inequality so that no one lives in poverty.

Women are in control of the financial decisions and resources in our own lives and are empowered to develop and lead vibrant local economies where profit stays circulating across our regions for the benefit of our communities and our Countries.

Economic justice and empowerment for First Nations women and girls is a vehicle through which we are secure and supported to lead the lives we value. Not only does our economic justice benefit us, it benefits entire communities—men, women, girls and boys.

Our sustainable economies provide significant wealth and wellbeing for everyone, leaving no one excluded or marginalised.


Thank you.

Commission logo

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice