Reconciliation Australia, through Fred Chaney and Jackie Huggins – white man, black woman – called for action. The government, through Phillip Ruddock and the opposition through Bob McMullan, responded with a bipartisan commitment to help protect Aboriginal women and children.
ATSIC was busy fending off the latest allegations of sexual abuse by members of its leadership. It remains silent on the real issue.
I never thought I’d return to the paper with a piece demanding an overhaul of ATSIC and the dismissal of its board. I felt sick writing it last night, and I feel sick seeing it today.
Yet an elder stateswoman of the Aboriginal community rang this morning in tears, saying it all needed to be said. She did not want to be named, but said: “There are so many of my people terrified of the violence of the men at the top. People like me are quite broken-hearted. I never felt so depressed about the Aboriginal situation as I do now. When I think of the people who worked without a cracker for all those years for our people, I cry to see these crooks sitting on their beds of feathers.”
Here’s my piece, and your latest responses to this sad and bitter story.
It’s time to stop messing around. ATSIC must be overhauled, the cover-up must end and a fresh, new Aboriginal body put in place to lead the fight for the safety of Aboriginal women and children.
When Evelyn Scott wrote last week that violence against Aboriginal women had become “a part of our tradition and culture and cannot be spoken about” and that “many women and children are cowed into helplessness by their menfolk” the end was nigh for ATSIC in its current form.
When senior Aboriginal women backed her dreadful confession and Australians learned that ATSIC was part of the conspiracy of silence and inaction, the end had come.
Now claims of sexual misconduct swirl around three senior Aboriginal male leaders, all members of the ATSIC hierarchy.
Now Reconciliation Australia, the replacement body for the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation, urges an end to the talk and the beginning of concentrated, concerted action to save Aboriginal women and children from endemic physical and sexual violence.
ATSIC should have led this debate for years. It should have been its top priority to expose the crisis and to shame white governments into financing solutions. Imagine a world where there is no safe house, nowhere to go if a mother or her child has been raped or bashed. As Labor’s spokeswoman on the status of women, Carmen Lawrence, told the Herald: “There’s no refuges, there’s no support from the legal system, and women are often exposed to the same players. These are the key reasons why indigenous women often shut up about it.”
Yet rather than protect its children, ATSIC was largely silent. It has not denied a devastating claim by former minister John Herron that when he raised the issue five years ago the ATSIC board denied its existence, and that in 1999 deputy chairman Ray Robinson told him ATSIC would allocate a mere $200,000.
Yet in 1995 ATSIC agreed to pay Robinson $45,000 to pursue a private legal action against the Queensland Government for wrongful arrest, after he had been convicted of rape in 1989 (his second rape conviction) then acquitted at a retrial in 1992.
What business was it for ATSIC to underwrite this action, as well as top up his legal expenses?
Robinson said last week on behalf of the ATSIC board that unanimously backed Geoff Clark that ATSIC “will support him in whatever legal course of action he should pursue in seeking remedy against the newspaper”.
Maybe it is time for Aboriginal leaders who cut their teeth winning equal rights for Aboriginal people decades ago to step down in favour of young Aboriginal leaders with fresh ideas and a fresh commitment to further the interests of their people.
One thing is certain: this discredited ATSIC, which cannot see that the safety of Aboriginal children is its top priority, has lost its authority to speak to the Australian people on behalf of the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Bryan Law in Manunda, Queensland
Coming from Queensland, I don’t know Senator Bill Heffernan. From the way he made his statement, he must be a tireless worker for Aboriginal people, deeply involved in the grass-roots communities of NSW.
But what I mostly noticed was that while he used the coward’s castle to name Terry O’Shane, he didn’t put forward one constructive idea on how to address family violence in Aboriginal communities (He vows to provide more advocacy services for victims in the European justice system, but he doesn’t say what or how, and he mentions no programs at the grass-roots of the communities themselves).
I also notice that in the lead up to an election we now have three ATSIC leaders being attacked in such a way as to divide and confuse Aboriginal activists, their supporters, and the general public. Forget reconciliation as an issue, let alone a treaty. Instead we’ll have Laura Norder and the brutish black man. Quite an achievement in a short period of time.
Let’s not kid ourselves that this a campaign against rape, sexual violence, or any other violence within Aboriginal communities. It’s just an attack. Making it an attack based on sexual matters helps to ensure it creates maximum disruption.
Also let’s get off the “newly discovered” advertising slogan you journalist-politician types seem addicted to. For a “hidden” issue, family violence in Aboriginal society has been getting an awful lot of attention over the past few decades, and is a focus of policy and programmes in all the Aboriginal communities I’ve been in contact with (Cairns and Cape York).
Maybe I can tell you about M, our neighbour, and some of her life experiences during the past week of attacks on Aboriginal men.
M is a member of the stolen generation, and was brought up at Mona Mona mission, in the dormitory system. She has few parenting or interpersonal skills as a result of that upbringing, and is a welfare case. She has children and grandchildren scattered around northern Australia. Suicide, imprisonment, and substance abuse are all in her family now. She is a fine person, doing the best she can under difficult circumstances.
Twice in the past week we have lent support and assistance to M and her family. First a son was visiting after getting out of prison, and he “went off”, raging around their housing commission unit and threatening to burn it down. M and three littlies came to our place for safety, and to call the police and have him removed. The police didn’t want to attend, but did after my wife talked to them. Her son had run away by the time the police arrived.
M was shaken by this episode and descended once again into her own issues of alcohol abuse. One night she was very late home, so the littlies came to our place by themselves for some care and attention. When M came home, the kids didn’t want to go to her that night because they were scared of emotional abuse.
That’s just a tiny mote in a relatively well-resourced regional city. Visit any remote Aboriginal community here in far north Queensland, and you will discover concentration camps where the guards have packed up and gone home, and the inmates now run the program themselves. Violence, scary violence, is directed against everyone. Women, men, children.
These problems are deep, difficult and widespread. But there’s no “brutish” ogre at the centre of them. No Geoff Clark. There is a de-humanising concentration camp up-bringing at the hands of church and state. There is the continuing racism of anglo-Australian culture, expressed all through policing and the welfare state. There are the victims of official abuse for 130 years (here).
Care and attention, plus resources, can go a long way to fixing these problems, but it will take time measured in generations. It will also take a big attitude change from us migaloo and our institutions.
The question I would ask you Margo is just what help the attacks on Geoff Clark or Terry O’Shane or Ray Robinson any other Aboriginal leader will provide for people like M and her family? Could you please explain that to me? I’m having trouble understanding it.
MARGO: White people cannot take black children away – look what happened when we did. Only black people can intervene, take children to safety and give them a chance. This requires black leadership.
Maya Hessels in Cairns
How courageous of Mr Heffernan to make such serious allegations against Terry O’Shane. How sure is he of the accuracy of his accusations and could this be abuse of parliamentary privilege?
I know Mr O’Shane from personal experience, when he single-handedly saved the lives and sanity of many Cairns teenagers when their sixteen year-old very close friend was brutally gunned down by a crazed killer. I know this man to be supremely caring and honourable and I think he deserves more than finger-pointing from those who cowardly drop a grenade and then hide behind the skirts of the government.
Maybe parliamentary privilege has its place, but there should be certain considerations and checks before this kind of bleating should be allowed to take place.
Mr Heffernan, I seriously hope you know what you are doing. I, for one, don’t think much of you and your lily-livered ravings. If you are THAT sure of your allegations, be a man and come out to where you can be held accountable for what you say.
Fiona Ferrari in Canberra
Heffernan’s use of parliamentary privilege to name an alleged child abuser will no doubt attract strong negative reactions. Personally I support it.
While our legal system continues to give so much protection to those accused of child abuse (especially through evidence laws and statute of limitation laws) it is inevitable that some people who care deeply about injustice will find other ways of speaking the truth.
Our current legal system protects rapists at the expense of children who have been raped. We must find ways of reforming the legal framework for child abuse cases if we want to stop anarchic leakage of names through the media and parliament.
Preventing child abuse is so important but we also we need better systems to heal the pain of those who have been abused as children.
Most states have victims of crime legislation which provides for payment to child abuse victims to compensate for some of their pain and assist in getting their life together. Unfortunately, most states have recently tried to rationalise these provisions so it is becoming harder for sexual assault survivors to access financial compensation.
In the ACT, the Government recently proposed abolition of all financial compensation for sexual assault survivors and all other victims of crime. The sexual assault survivors only maintained access to financial assistance with the support of Independent members of parliament.
But under the current legislation, if your crime happened outside the ACT, you are not entitled to counselling and other services available to victims of crime. As you can imagine there must be many survivors of child sexual assault who were assaulted in NSW, Victoria and other places where they grew up now living in the ACT, but not entitled to any help.
Suddenly indigenous family violence was on the public agenda – but just as quickly the issue will vanish from view. The problem won’t go away – there’s no risk of that – it’s just that journalists, politicians and the public will lose interest. Already the attention of the Herald and Web Diary seems to have shifted to other angle of the Clark story, the Aboriginal leadership crisis.
I get worried when a chronic, deep seated problem like family violence gets called a “national emergency.” A car crash or a bush fire is an emergency, family violence is something else – something much worse.
An emergency comes suddenly and demands a quick response. Once the victims are in the ambulance, the fires are out and the houses rebuilt the crisis is over and we can let the locals mop up the mess and get on with their lives.
Emergencies respond well to the media’s issue cycle – crisis, intervention, resolution and the afterglow of heroism and survivor stories for the features pages.
It worried me when you called for an “urgent summit or commission” (in Time for action). Policy makers have an issue cycle too. Once decision makers have matched a solution with a problem the problem then drops from the agenda. The more urgency there is about the issue the more pressure there is to say that you’ve done something – the faster the better.
A crisis is no place for discussion among experts or community involvement – a crisis demands action. Almost anything that looks like a solution will do. And once the problem is ‘addressed’ it’s almost impossible to get it on the agenda again.
Americans were shocked when Michael Harrington discovered poverty amidst the wealth of their booming post-war economy. It was a national emergency and the president declared war on it – Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Everyone knew what to expect. America had never lost a war. Things would be tough for a few years but victory was inevitable. But whatever was achieved wasn’t enough. It fell short of the inflated expectations of a swift and decisive victory.
Ever since Johnson lost the War on Poverty conservatives have been saying that the war was unwinnable – that only the poor can solve the problem of poverty. The energy generated by the sudden, shocking discovery vanished. Going to the moon was easier and a lot more satisfying.
So let’s not declare war on family violence. It needs sustained attention. Nobody should expect it to be sorted out in a couple of years. It’s too caught up with other deep seated problems – alcohol, unemployment and histories of childhood abuse and neglect.
I’d like to see more stories about what’s working in communities as well as about what’s standing in the way. It’s too easy for people to think that the situation is hopeless. Once that happens they’ll try very hard not to think about it.
I’m with Anne Marks (in It’s make or break time) when she writes “I look forward to
real support for Aboriginal people who have been beavering away for a
long, long time to make their lives bearable.”
Geoff Eagar in Toowoon Bay.
Many of the last few days’ contributions return to the theme of reconciliation. Jack Robertson’s very practical suggestions are a positive step forward yet still it seems from both his contribution and that of others that it’s up to someone else or “them” such as the Fairfax Press or a TV Station.
If that’s as far as reconciliation has come then we’ve still a long way to go. I remember a while ago the theme of Walking Together. It’s about engaging with Aboriginal People at a face-to-face personal level in your own local community. Try starting at your local school’s ASSPA Committee, your local schools’ district’s AECG. Your school district Aboriginal Education Consultant can point you a direction where you can work in your own area, your local area health service, legal service. Your skills as a journalist helping to draft letters, mentoring students…
Working out what Reconciliation is is like defining the length of a piece of string but it starts with personal engagement: like all the kids at primary and high schools across the state whose art work so commonly depicts a white and a black hand clasping.
What a shambles the way forward for the Aboriginal population has become. Can the leadership of ATSIC not see what they are doing to their people’s cause?
I feel saddened whenever I see the condition in which many of the Aboriginal people live and I am old enough to understand that there are no easy answers. But at the end of the day the Aborigines are only 2% of the population and necessarily rely on the support of the other 98% if they are ever to move forward.
I believe the enlightened leaders of the Aboriginal people, such as Noel Pearson, see this and are bent on moving towards self reliance. The only successful indigenous populations elsewhere in the world are self reliant.
But I am one of those older middle class Australians who, while sorry for events of the past, feel I have nothing to apologise for.
When I look at Geoff Clark’s eyes I do not see reconciliation, I see revenge. I think I can understand that because he may very well be a victim of the same cycle of violence he is alleged to have perpetrated. I believe I understand why some of our forebears tried to remove some children from this environment. After all, how culturally stimulating is it to be the object of continual sexual abuse?
Be that as it may, it seems the entire leadership of ATSIC has a problem in one way or another. Their focus seems to be everywhere but on the future of their people.
But how do we help? For the white people to do this directly leads to (perhaps justifiable) accusations of paternalistic imperialism. It must be done by involving the aboriginal communities.But how can you now deal with ATSIC?
Personally, I would spend whatever it took to help the vast bulk of the Aboriginal people.
I would spend not a penny more on indulging the likes of Geoff Clark.
John Dunlop in Brisbane
I liked your polls “Should Geoff Clark step down?” and “Should the fairfax papers have published the report?”, skilfully crafted such that answering yes to the first question would lead to answering yes to the second.
I’m a yes/no man myself. I can’t see any good coming from encouraging future trial by media journalism. Fairfax has got away with it this time but it’s only a matter of time before someone get’s seriously hurt by this approach.
Yes, he should stand down, not because of the allegations, but because of his contempt for them. An innocent man in his position owes it to his supporters and detractors alike to deal with the pain of others with sensitivity.
Quoted in context, Pat O’Shane was attacking Trial By Media, not supporting Geoff Clark, but Merely pointing out how the media and the public can be manipulated. Offering a magistrate’s perspective, not condoning or supporting Geoff Clark. Her comments since have vindicated her. Full marks to Pat O’Shane for calling it like it is. If I was in court and innocent I’d want her hearing my case.
Did he do it? I don’t know, and neither does Fairfax.