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Launch of the 2011 Social Justice and Native Title Reports (2011)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Launch of the 2011 Social Justice and Native Title Reports

Mick Gooda
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Friday 25 November 2011
Law Building
University of Sydney

It is with respect and gratitude that I acknowledge that we sit today on the lands of the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation. Thank you to Michael West for your generous welcome to country on behalf of the Gadigal people.

My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland. On behalf of my Elders I also pay tribute to the Gadigal Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for their country and their culture here in Sydney where colonisation began. I want to highlight this point because as you will hear throughout today’s conversation, the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a key theme considered in both Reports being launched here today.

I would also like to acknowledge my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters who are here today; and my non-Indigenous friends, whom I thank for your ongoing support in the work of my Office and the Commission more broadly.

I also acknowledge Professor Shane Houston, the Deputy Vice Chancellor here at the University, and thank you for supporting our Launch today, I acknowledge our panellists; Valerie Cooms of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation; Muriel Bamblett of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency; and Andrew Jackamoss from the Koori Justice Unit at Victorian Governments Department of Justice.

Before I get to my Reports, I would like to support Graeme, and acknowledge that today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Like Graeme, as a White Ribbon Ambassador, I am honoured to be a spokesperson for the eradication of violence against women. Today is an opportunity to acknowledge the Australian men and women who are taking a stand against violence against women, in this country, and all around the world.

However, it is also important to recognise that there remains much work to be done on the issue of violence against women. 1.2 million women in Australia have experienced violence by an intimate partner since the age of 15. And as the Social Justice Commissioner I am particularly concerned by the fact that studies indicate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Indigenous women.

It is also important that we recognise violence impacts all of us, not just women. Women experiencing violence are our family members, our co-workers, and our friends. Violence affects our families, our workplaces and our community.

Today I’d like to use this opportunity to call on all Australians, men and women, to unite in the spirit of solidarity against violence.

As most of you would be aware, in my role as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner I am required to prepare two annual reports:

  • the Social Justice Report, which reports on issues affecting the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and
  • the Native Title Report, which reviews the impact of the Native Title Act on the exercise and enjoyment of human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

These reports are tabled in Federal Parliament and this years are my second as the Social Justice Commissioner. The annual preparation, tabling and launch of the my Reports is a significant part of my statutory duties and the work of the Social Justice Unit because the reports provide a mechanism to not only assess governments progress in overcoming the disadvantage our communities face, but they also provide a space where our communities can promote, in some cases ground-breaking initiatives, they are developing to address the challenges they face.

Much of this work takes place behind the scenes and is in many instances supported by our non-government and philanthropic friends. Some of these initiatives are leading the way in addressing similar experiences and issues within the broader Australian society.

For example, in my Social Justice Report last year, I highlighted the targeted work that is being led by the Fitzroy Valley communities together with the George Institute here in Sydney concerning Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. This work is continuing to develop, and it is encouraging to hear that the Australian Government has recently announced a National Inquiry into FASD.

In the 2011 Social Justice and Native Title Reports I reflect on the key developments affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that have taken place during the reporting period from 1 July 2010 through to 30 June 2011. I build on my agenda of hope outlined in my first reports. I also begin a conversation on an issue that I believe is a key barrier to our advancement, lateral violence.

But before I go to this new conversation, I would firstly like to talk briefly on a number of events discussed in this year’s Reports, some of which are exciting developments, and others that emphasize the amount of effort that is still required.

While I see cause for optimism, I also acknowledge that there is still plenty to do to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples up to par with the rest of Australia. Some of this will require strength and determination on our part, but we also need the support of our governments and our fellow Australian citizens if we are to be truly equal.

On a positive note, we saw the election of the first two full-time co-Chairs and the Board to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples confirmed at the first meeting of the National Congress held in Sydney in June this year; and we are also engaged in a serious conversation with the Australian people about how we go about recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our National Constitution.

I look forward to continuing to support Congress in its development as the national representative voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia, and I am enthusiastic about the exciting journey we are taking together towards a referendum to recognise us as Australia’s first people’s in our nation’s founding document.

We have seen mixed results in improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples access to our lands and territories and the benefits that we can achieve from our lands in improving our social, economic, cultural and environmental well-being.

I review a number of legislative changes, consultation papers and some significant moments which mark the ongoing operation of the Native Title Act. Some of these key points of review include the Native Title Reform (Amendment) Bill 2011; the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 (Cth); the release of the Leading practice agreements: maximising outcomes from native title benefits Discussion Paper; and the registration of the 500th Indigenous Land Use Agreement.

I also provide an update on the progress of some key initiatives in which we have been involved including the Indigenous Human Rights Network of Australia, the Close the Gap Campaign for Indigenous Health Equality, and our engagement at international forums focused specifically on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, the news isn’t all positive. This year marked 20 years since the tabling of the landmark Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. There was no cause for celebration with more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison now than when the Royal Commission reported in 1991 and by this measure alone the implementation of that report has been an abject failure. This provided a sobering backdrop for some of the other steps forward in Indigenous affairs throughout the year.

As the end-date for the Northern Territory Emergency Response regime approaches in August 2012, we continue to urge government to listen to and work with our communities affected by these laws and policies in determining what the future looks like for Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory.

And with two years having passed since the Australian Government formally adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is disappointing that the Government has not yet made any concerted effort or taken any concrete steps to embed the principles and rights outlined in the Declaration in its policies and legislations that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia. As I have made very clear, the Declaration will underpin all the work I do both during my term as the Social Justice Commissioner and beyond. In particular, I will be using the key principles of self-determination; participation in decision-making; non-discrimination and equality; and respect for and protection of culture to guide me. These key principles are also central to the other priority I have identified for my term; that is how we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples build stronger relationships within our families, our communities and our organisations; and with governments and our fellow Australians.

This leads me to the key theme of this year’s Social Justice and Native Title Reports: lateral violence.

For those of you wondering what I mean by lateral violence, let me explain. Lateral violence comes from behaviours that might include bullying, gossiping, jealousy, shaming, social exclusion, family feuding and organisational conflict, which can and often does escalate into physical violence.

Lateral violence occurs in all levels of society but for oppressed peoples it is particularly acute and has a particularly sharp edge.

The theory behind why lateral violence impacts us differently is because it is often the result of disadvantage, discrimination and oppression, and it arises from living and working within a society that is not designed for our way of doing things.

For us lateral violence can be described as 'internalised colonialism' and according to Richard Frankland includes:

[T]he organised, harmful behaviours that we do to each other collectively as part of an oppressed group: When we are consistently oppressed we live with great fear and great anger and we often turn on those who are closest to us.[1]

While this conversation is relatively new in Australia, the lateral violence experience is not new to other oppressed peoples around the world. The concept of lateral violence for oppressed groups of peoples has its origins in the writings on colonialism from Africa[2] and Latin America,[3] as well as the literature around the oppression of African Americans,[4] Jewish people,[5] and women.[6] According to this literature, lateral violence is created by situations of power imbalance which in turn affects the identity of the people who are colonised.

This occurs because colonised groups internalise the values and behaviours of their oppressors, which leads to a negative view of themselves and their culture.[7] Anger and frustration about the injustice of feeling powerless manifests itself in violence – not 'vertically' towards the colonisers responsible for the oppression but 'laterally' towards their own community.

Acts of lateral violence establish new hierarchies of power within colonised groups that mimic those of the colonisers. So not only are we dealing with the harm that lateral violence causes individuals, we are also dealing with the destruction that it causes to the traditional structure and roles in our societies. At its absolute worst, it calls into question and undermines our individual and collective right to determine our own identities.

Anyone familiar with this nation’s history will know that colonial authorities used Aboriginality – and the extent to which anybody claimed it – as a powerful mechanism of control.

In fact, from colonization onwards it was the privileged and the powerful that controlled the labels applied to this land’s first peoples.

These labels were invariably toxic – with ‘full-blood’, ‘half-caste’ and ‘quadroon’ becoming the common vernacular; people herded on the basis of their skin colour; children removed from their mothers – all as part of a legislated and unabashed policy to assimilate and, ultimately, to eliminate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity.

This legislation defining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity was based on abhorrent notions of blood quantum, shaped solely from the perspectives of the colonisers, rather than our own notions of belonging. The use of blood quantum was taken to extraordinary levels, with Western Australia in 1952 using fractions as minute as 1/128th Aboriginal descent to determine welfare benefits!

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity, then, was shaped to suit the purposes of the colonizers – self-appointed arbiters of who was Indigenous, of who wasn’t and exactly how much of this identity counted. Sadly, our cultural identities continue to be used against us and we are more frequently hearing in public debate, assertions of Aborigines who check in and out of their identity when it suits them, or claiming and using Aboriginality to gain perceived benefits. What resonates for me here, is its significance as an example of our identity again being defined by others – and non-Indigenous others in positions of considerable influence.

Identity and in particular notions of ‘authenticity’ or who is a ‘real Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person’ are powerful weapons of choice in lateral violence. These false divisions about our identity fuel conflict and lateral violence when people step outside of the narrow, prescribed roles about what is an ‘authentic’ identity.

Unfortunately, it is not only voices in mainstream political or media circles that can succumb to these one dimensional models of Aboriginality. Some members of our own communities also express suspicion of those who do not fit their model of Indigenous authenticity - questions of identity becoming a powerful mechanism to keep each other down – like crabs in a bucket – one starts to get too much recognition – and get to the top and we are all scrambling to pull him or her back down into the bucket with the rest of us. This is despite the collective efforts we have made to achieve those gains in the first place.

Both Reports consider what lateral violence looks like in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Social Justice Report looks at the historical and contemporary factors in our communities with a particular focus on Palm Island in North Queensland, cyber bullying, young people and bullying in schools and workplace bullying, organisational conflict, social and emotional well-being and involvement in the criminal justice system.

The Native Title Report considers how the native title system provides a platform for lateral violence to be played out within our families, communities and organisations. Although native title provides a unique opportunity for many of our communities to overcome disadvantage, these outcomes are often not fully realised because lateral violence fragments our communities as we navigate these formalised and often imposed structures such as the native title system.

Let me be clear, lateral violence is a controversial and not an easy topic to talk about. It is one to which I have given long and considered thought about raising in an official capacity. Certainly, when I first did so, I was prepared to be accused of airing our dirty laundry in public. Given the proliferation of bad news stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the popular domain, the last thing we needed was to add lateral violence to the litany of perceived dysfunctions we suffer.

However, I am convinced that there will be little progress in improving indicators for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples without strong, respectful relationships within our communities, as well as between them and the wider population. In coming to this view, I’ve been heartened by the responses from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. There seems to be a considerable appetite within our communities to confront and deal with this barrier to our well-being.

To do this, we need to move beyond our weaknesses - to identifying solutions together and building upon our strengths. As you will see in both of my reports many communities are already doing work that does build on our strengths and draws on our resilence: from the Yamatji communities in the mid-west region of Western Australia addressing bullying with the Solid Kids, Solid Schools project; to developing clear and transparent decision-making processes that enabled the Quandamooka peoples to successfully negotiate their native title claim over their lands and waters surrounding North Stradbroke Island in Queensland.

The Reports also consider options for addressing lateral violence in our communities based on the establishment of strong structural foundations and the principles of the Declaration I outlined earlier. These options include:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples exerting control over lateral violence by naming it, and raising awareness of its existence and its impacts;
  • Governments reviewing and reforming legislative and policy frameworks to ensure that these structures promote healthy relationships within our communities and with our external stakeholders: the National Human Rights Framework; Constitutional Reform; and maintaining efforts to create a just and equitable native title system are three current areas of reform that provide us with an opportunity to immediately focus in this area;
  • Governments, industry and communities creating environments that are culturally safe and secure; and ensure the cultural competence of those who work with us.

However, the reality of lateral violence is that governments cannot and should not intervene to fix our internal relationships. This is not appropriate and takes the power away from our communities to be self-determining. However, governments do have a role to play. They must ensure that their involvement in our lives through the development of policy and law does not create breeding grounds for lateral violence.

I look forward to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to identify strategies to address lateral violence within our communities; and I encourage governments and non-government organisations and industry to work with us to ensure that your structures, policies and legislative frameworks do not contribute to lateral violence but actively seek to minimise it.

To this end today I announce a University of Sydney scholarship that aims to tackles lateral violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It will be funded by a donation from the late Jean Swirles, who directed the funds be used to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people pursuing higher degree research, and to build their capacity as academic leaders and role models.

The scholarship is named in memory of her son Campbell Perry, a former student of the University of Sydney and will support the completion of a PhD on lateral violence.

This scholarship will facilitate the gathering of the evidence that we need to confront that challenges presented by lateral violence.

Confronting lateral violence will take courage, foresight and leadership. It is time now, to shed the negative labels – those of the colonizer and those used by communities against each other. After all, we’ve been sold the negative stereotype for so long, some have started to believe the hype. It is time to take back control of our rich, resilient, and varied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity. For when we celebrate our strengths through our own eyes and in our own words, we enable others to do the same.

Before I finish, I must pay tribute to the staff of the Australian Human Rights Commission, particularly my Social Justice Team for their support over the last twelve months. Reports such as these don’t just appear out of thin air. They require the tireless work of dedicated, committed and highly skilled people. Katie Kiss, Emily Priday, Louise Bygrave, Nick Burrage, Andy Gargett, Chris Holland, Kirsten Gray, Hannah Donnelly, Louise McDermott, Andrew Meehan, Muzna Al Abed, Carolina Simpson and last but certainly not least Allyson Campbell please take a bow as I thank you for your unwavering efforts.

And can I thank all of you for joining me here today to launch the 2011 Social Justice and Native Title Reports.

[1] R Frankland and P Lewis, Presentation to Social Justice Unit staff, Australian Human Rights Commission, 14 March 2011.
[2] F Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963).
[3] P Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1971).
[4] S Carmichael and C Hamilton, Black Power (1967).
[5] K Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts (1948).
[6] J Miller, Toward a New Psychology for Women (1976).
[7] See P Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1971) and F Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963).

Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner