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Global Alcohol Policy Conference 2017

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Wurundjeri yani u.   Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngarragi thangani.  Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

I stand here today on the lands of the Wurundjeri People. There are many of us that have come from afar, we come speaking different languages, and we are strangers to these lands. The ear of this land is hearing our different languages and we reassure that we gather and talk together with good feeling.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we meet, the Wurundjeri people, and I pay my deep respects to their elders both past and present, and the generations to come.

I am a proud Bunuba woman from Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia, and it gives me great pleasure to be here with you all to discuss this critical issue that impacts far too many Australians, and far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Thank you to the organisers of this conference for the invitation to speak to you all today. It is great to see so many people in this room who are committed to seeing change when it comes to discussing the devastating effects that alcohol can have on our families and communities the world over. 

The work that you are all doing on this important issue is critical and I look forward to continuing to share our experiences and expertise. It is only through working together that we can begin to change cultures and behaviours around alcohol.

We know that undoing the grip that alcohol has on our communities represents a significant challenge for us all. However, I hope to share a story with you today about the journey that I have taken alongside some of our women in Fitzroy Crossing and how we stood up to tackle this challenge.

It is by no means a story that is finished but it speaks to the power of one community, united in their desire for change and united in their desire to see their people, their children and their community, thrive.

Today I address you as the first Aboriginal woman appointed to the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner since the position was established.

For those of you who may know a little about my own journey from life in community, you must know that it gives me enormous pride to be able to bring to bear the hard, on the ground realities from our communities to the fore in this position.

I truly hope that I will be able to elevate the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout my term and particularly the most vulnerable in our community – our women, children, our elderly, and those with unique and complex needs.

I want to shed light on the complex issues in our community such as alcohol consumption – we can’t shy away from these challenges but we must emphasise the great strengths that exist in our communities as well.

When I was first appointed to this role, and before I made the long journey from my home in Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia to Sydney, I was spending a lot of time with the women in my community and preparing for my departure.

I had many people ask me about where I would be going and what my new role as Social Justice Commissioner would entail. I had people coming up to congratulate me but not quite understanding the role and the significance of the work of the Australian Human Rights Commission? What was this thing called human rights?

This is a comment that struck a chord with me because although our communities know concepts around justice and equity well, found in our protests and marches, and in our stand offs with police and alcohol boards- we don’t necessarily know about the language of human rights. I have said since my appointment this April that I will work hard to ensure that the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples are more than just words on a page and a part of our lived reality.

Whilst I think that it is important to acknowledge that alcohol is a challenge that confronts all Australians, and not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – today I will be speaking with this group in mind and from an Indigenous perspective.  Having said that, I know that alcohol touches all lives and that the content that is delivered during this Conference will have broad application.

I think that many of us know that there is no quick fix or easy solution to approaching an issue such as alcohol use and misuse in our society. However, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) is an important tool to guide these complex discussions, particularly when it concerns Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

For those of you working with Indigenous communities, I really encourage you to have a look at this framework and use it to inform the way that you work with our communities. It can really mean the difference between success and failure in the design and development of programs and policies that affect us.

Whilst there is no “human right to drink alcohol,” a human rights based approach is critical to addressing the key issues that confront our communities. A human rights based approach to alcohol policy means neither encouraging the free flow of liquor or blanket restrictions in our communities.

In line with the Declaration, this means principles of self-determination, free prior and informed consent, respect for and protection of culture and non-discrimination and equality must be central considerations.

There is no one size fits all approach to alcohol policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but the Declaration provides an important framework that is likely to empower and have a positive impact in our communities.

This means investing in an approach that empowers local communities to take control, as well as one that prioritises prevention and early intervention. The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy Crossing might be renowned for its strong stance on alcohol, but nearly a decade later, we are still yet to see some of the necessary investment into treatment and supports that are required.

So, whilst we know that community based responses to alcohol are really important, we also know that responses to alcohol consumption must fundamentally seek to address not only an individual’s behaviour, but also the systems, laws and policies that surround the use of alcohol.

We must also acknowledge that in this highly contested space of alcohol policy, we have a wealth of evidence at our disposal about what measures are effective in addressing alcohol abuse, particularly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Key features include that they are:
• supported and controlled by affected communities
• designed and tailored to the specific needs of particular communities and subgroups within them
• culturally sensitive and appropriate
• adequately resourced and supported, including to cater for clients with complex needs
• provide a mix of broad-based and substance specific services
planned and integrated as a suite of interventions. 

Lessons from the Fitzroy Valley

These principles have been key to the success of the work of my community in the Fitzroy Valley.

Prior to taking up my role at the Commission, I was the CEO of the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Crossing Women’s Resource Centre. 

Established as the women’s refuge in the early 1990’s, Marninwarntikura has long been a safe space for our women – not only where they are free from violence, but where they can come together, to share their experiences and to draw strength from each other in addressing our various challenges.

MWRC is now the official site of much of the women’s business in our community, but our women have had a vision for the families of the Fitzroy Valley long before the centre was established. 

In fact, a group of Aboriginal women from the Fitzroy Valley came together decades ago now in the late 1980’s to address the devastating effects of alcohol and domestic violence in our communities. Collectively, they bore witness to the addictive, aggressive and abusive behaviours that were becoming entrenched into the fabric of everyday life. They saw the scourge of alcohol and violence take a grip around us, with too many of our children being borne into this cycle of despair. From the cradle to the grave, the destructive effects of alcohol enveloped us, leaving many in our community with lifelong consequences.

The women in my community stood up against this unchecked supply of alcohol, determined to free our children from a never-ending cycle of trauma, violence and harm.

We didn’t know it then, but this stance started a long and arduous fight with the alcohol industry in our community and many others who were invested in the sale of grog around us.

It also started the long road of healing and recovery in our community and the path that we are still on in this country to provide proper support and awareness around alcohol related harm – something that I will speak to a little later this afternoon.

In 2006, our community was in crisis. In that year alone, we had 55 alcohol related deaths in our community. Just think about that for a minute.
Fifty-five people in our community died from alcohol related harm, including 13 people who took their own lives.  This was a devastating time for our community. However, when you translate this cost in human and social terms over extended periods of time and in many cases, generations - the cost is catastrophic.

We could see that alcohol was ravaging the circles of care that our women had worked so tirelessly to create. We knew we had to act, and that drastic action was necessary.
In identifying this need, our women took an unprecedented step.

With the support of our elders, we lobbied the Director of Liquor Licensing to seeking a 12-month moratorium on the sale of full strength take-away liquor across the Fitzroy valley. We were met with fierce resistance, especially from some members of our own community who were addicted to a destructive lifestyle, but we were unshakeable in our determination for a better future for Fitzroy and in the need for a circuit breaker to release us from the grips of chaos and grief.

From this crisis, the Aboriginal women led the way in advocating for community responses to alcohol. Alcohol restrictions have now been in place in our community for over a decade and have led to a number of positive outcomes. This includes a reduction in the number of alcohol related police events and hospital presentations.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating for blanket alcohol restrictions. I tell this story to demonstrate that my community sought the measures that we thought would work for us, and to some extent, they have. We could not wait for government or others to act. Too many of our people were dying and we took decisive action.

These measures were not imposed on us from the outside – our communities saw a need and stepped up to the plate. This speaks to the responsibility that we as communities have too, in order to better realise our human rights. Not every community will be able to act in the same way or to the same extent but we must all work together with Government and others if we are to resolve some of these complex challenges facing our peoples.

What has worked in our community in the Fitzroy Valley may not work for other communities, but it is important, as I have alluded to earlier, that our communities be at the centre of any strategy to addressing alcohol.

This is a critical lesson for the trials of the cashless debit card, which is seeking to address various issues in relation to drug, alcohol use and gambling. I know that some communities have not wholly supported these measures and that is crucial to driving change.

The cards have raised a number of human rights concerns, particularly around their non-voluntary nature and the disproportionate affect that they have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is not fair that those people on income support who do not have issues in relation to drugs or alcohol should also be subjected to these measures.

I know that the Government is hoping to expand the card into further communities and to that end, I think that we should be cautious about drawing any conclusions about their efficacy at this stage. There are other, less intrusive ways to support those with these issues.

We know that measures that are driven BY the community will be most successful but the same can also said for a package of supports rather individual measures alone.

The alcohol restrictions in Fitzroy Crossing were never intended as a panacea, but represent just ONE part of an ongoing strategy in the fight against alcohol use and misuse.

After two coronial inquests in two decades, many relating to the alcohol related deaths and suicides in the Kimberley region, it is clear that greater support is needed to address alcohol related harm. 

The women in our community of Fitzroy knew that this was a challenge that they could not undertake alone. We knew that in order to tackle the worrying legacy of issues such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome or FASD in our community that we needed only the best experts to help us.  We reached out and sought the advice, support and expertise of leading paediatricians and medical research from organisations such as the George Institute and Sydney University.

Collectively, we established what has now become known as the “Marulu Strategy,” which, for the first time, introduced a much-needed holistic approach to the prevention, diagnosis and management of FASD.

This ground-breaking approach placed Aboriginal communities at the centre, in critical partnership with key actors. Together, we formed a circle of care for our children made up of multidisciplinary groups of health professionals, psychologists, community organisations and youth workers.

It is through these approaches that we have been able to elevate the challenges in relation to FASD and raise the profile of what is needed to address the enormous challenges that come with alcohol related harm.

Crucially, this has meant being able to provide our families caring for children with FASD with the therapeutic services and support that they need on this long road with their loved ones.

As a Bunuba word meaning “precious” and “worth nurturing,” Marulu has fundamentally been about nurturing our children. This strategy lies at the heart of our approach to alcohol management in the Fitzroy Valley – we want our children to live healthy and full lives, free from the clutches of grog and the consequences that flow from it.

We know that there are still huge trials around alcohol use and consumption in our community, but we have come leaps and bounds - and we know what works best for us.

My own dream for Fitzroy when we started this journey, was to bring about better life opportunities for the children in my community. This is a vision that I share for our peoples right across the country. We can imagine a better future for ourselves free from the numbing effects of agents like alcohol.

I’d like to close by thanking you all for listening today but also to encourage you to think about how you might be that critical partner for a community in the way that the George Institute and Sydney University was for Fitzroy.

An enormous strength rests in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country. We have the solutions to the critical issues facing our communities – of that there is no doubt. But we all have a role to play in this space and I know that through working together we can begin to address some of these complex challenges.  


Thank you.

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