• Josephine Cashman has spoken out about family violence in remote communities. Photo supplied by Julie Remy/Doctors Without Borders. (Supplied)
Worimi lawyer Josephine Cashman is a member of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council, serving as Chair of its Safe Communities Committee. The following speech was delivered at an International Women's Day event hosted by Doctors Without Borders on March 7, 2016.
By
Josephine Cashman

8 Mar 2016 - 5:38 PM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2016 - 6:06 PM

On International Women’s Day, we Australians should be proud of our achievements with gender equity, and our heightened consciousness of women’s issues such as gender diversity, parental leave and living in a society where the rule of law operates in winning the war against the scourge of family violence. Our privileges and freedoms have led to a number of female leaders in business, law, politics and the arts become great co-contributors to our society and democracy.

Although we should be extremely optimistic about the progress we have made over the last hundred years, there are women who continue to live as second class citizens, not protected by the rule of law, and victims of complexities that result from the tolerance of repugnant cultural practices and political correctness. These attitudes prevent these women from living free of violence, and contribute to a climate in which violence against women is condoned. These women are predominantly First Australians and the most newly-arrived Australians.

'These examples are shocking and confronting, but confront them we must if we are to end violence against women once and for all.'

In this speech, I will highlight many examples of this inequality, including that of my friend and colleague, NT Minister Bess Price, the Indigenous Minister with several key portfolios, who advocates for safe communities in the midst of unending violence that has taken most of her siblings lives; the case of a young Indigenous woman living in an Aboriginal community in Victoria who lives in fear; and my own experience working to achieve the right policy settings. These examples are shocking and confronting, but confront them we must if we are to end violence against women once and for all.

Minister Price, a native Warlpiri speaker, represents a large constituency of traditional and non-English-speaking first Australians in the NT. Bess has been subjected to the worst type of attacks including from her own Indigenous Australians. Recently, a social media campaign has been waged to undermine Minister Price because of an ABC story from February 2013 in which she was quoted supporting some aspects of mandatory sentencing in the NT. She said that some Aboriginal people support imprisonment, because jail gets the younger generations sober, fed and keeps them safe. What the journalist failed to explore, however, was Minister Price’s own tragic family history and the reason why she acknowledged that many youths are safer in jail than in their very violent communities. She was pointing to the irony, not understood by those who do not live in these communities, that jail is safer than their own homes.

Violence worse in remote communities

What many do not understand is that remote women suffer the worst rates of violence in Australia. Bess was a young mother at the tender age of 14, whose baby died in infancy. Her tragedy does not end there, only one of her eight brothers and two of her five sisters are still alive, the last dying in a well-publicised vicious knife attack in a town camp.

'She said to us in a very soft voice something I will never forget, ‘I have cried all my tears. I have no tears left’.'

My colleague, Marcia Langton, and I are lucky to call Bess a friend. We have great respect for her. She deserves to be held in our esteem for her courage in standing up to the extraordinarily violent men in communities in the Northern Territory, who have normalised the highest rates of violence against women in Australia. Recently, we asked Bess, ‘Why don’t you cry or show emotions when being interviewed about the scourge of violence and death in many NT communities?’ She did not answer us at first. We talked about Bob Hawke’s tears for Aboriginal people at the end of his Prime Ministership, his acknowledgement that he had not done enough, and the overwhelming public compassion and support he received for this show of his emotions. After a long pause, she said to us in a very soft voice something I will never forget, ‘I have cried all my tears. I have no tears left’.

Family violence driving imprisonment rates

The focus on Indigenous imprisonment rates by the bleeding heart lefties is advocacy only for the offenders and a denial of the many Indigenous victims of child abuse, violence, rapes and sexual assault. Some believe, including those who undermine Bess, that Indigenous people are continually trapped as victims of racism in the criminal justice system. What is not widely reported, however, is that most Indigenous offenders are in custody for offences involving serious violence against their own including wives, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters and mothers, and this includes sex offences and homicides.

'The death rate from homicide for Indigenous people was seven-to-eight times the rate for non-Indigenous people.'

The statistics are staggering. In 2012 and 2013, Indigenous women were hospitalised for non-fatal family-violence assault at 34.2 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. In NSW, Queensland, WA, SA and the NT between 2008 and 2012, the death rate from homicide for Indigenous people was seven-to-eight times the rate for non-Indigenous people.

Current legislation not enough

Despite the best endeavours of legislators, current data suggests that Indigenous Australians are not effectively deterred from committing crimes. Even given the NT’s zero-tolerance laws against violence and regime of mandatory sentencing, these legislative measures are not impacting upon Indigenous social norms, or the rates of Indigenous youths and adults entering and re-entering the justice system, especially for violent offending.

'Domestic and community violence is not a recent phenomenon or the result of a racist system.'

Between 2005 and 2015, the NT recorded the second highest increase in crude imprisonment rates of all Australian jurisdictions at 56%, compared with a 19% increase nationally. The most common type of offence for which sentenced adults are imprisoned in the NT is ‘Assault’, which related to 43% of the NT sentenced prisoner population on 30 June 2015. The next most common offence was ‘Sexual assault’ at 10% of the sentenced prison population.

Domestic and community violence is not a recent phenomenon or the result of a racist system. There has been a mistaken tendency in recent times for Aboriginal leaders and others to deny that violence has always been a part of Aboriginal culture or customary law in part to discourage that kind of destructive violence from re-occurring. This has been stated to me in many forums as some kind of justification for this violence, but the historical evidence undeniably refutes their claim — a claim I should say, that should have no standing in the community or in the courts.

Laws differ for Indigenous communities

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 Australian laws.

Anglo-Saxon traditions have evolved over the last 200 years so that children and women are no longer a form of property or legally subject to abuse. For example, after Federation in 1901, the age of consent for sexual intercourse was lifted to 12 years old after heated debates with many dissenting politicians. So why are some Indigenous leaders and commentators promoting a different standard for Indigenous communities? We need the rule of law to be applied in Indigenous communities in the same measure as everywhere else.

'As soon as Mary was the temporary guardian of this child, her brother — let’s call him Bob — started to stalk her and threatened to chop her up into pieces.'

Last week, I received a number of distressed calls from my niece who lives in an Indigenous community in Victoria. For the purpose of this speech and to protect her, I will call her Mary. Mary is 32 years old and lives in an Aboriginal Trust area with her partner. I will call him Gary. She took on her older brother’s child — let’s call him Sam — after he was taken into the care of child protection for serious matters including negligence, and being found with child pornography in a room with a much younger sibling.

As soon as Mary was the temporary guardian of this child, her brother — let’s call him Bob — started to stalk her and threatened to chop her up into pieces. Bob uses the illegal drug “ice” and does not contribute in any way to the care, food and needs of his four other children. His current partner and the mother of many of these children is terrified of him. He has bashed her in front of the children on repeated occasions. They never have any food. Bob spends all their money on drugs. He moves around the community daily, standing over the elderly and other community members for food. He has been reported to child protection, yet he remains in the community — a menace to all those around him including his own children. Mary obtained an intervention order from the police.

'Bob has stabbed people before, including his uncle, and has hit their father with an iron pole. He has bashed his sisters. He is a very violent person and, yet, since this last incident, he has been released on bail.'

Earlier this year, Bob followed Mary, Gary and Sam down a long road leading to the Trust office. He started yelling abuse at Mary. She yelled back to Bob and asked him leave them alone. He replied saying, ‘I will bash your head in’. Later that day, Bob was outside the Trust’s administration building. Mary walked towards the phone box while Gary walked to the work shed. Mary could hear Bob yelling. She was scared and decided to ring the police. Bob was carrying a large black-handled knife. He was holding the knife in his right hand, holding it by the handle, and was pumping both arms as he ran after Gary. Bob threw the knife at Gary’s head. Then Bob started running towards Mary saying, ‘I am going to kill you, you little slut’. Finally, more than 30 minutes later, the police arrived and Bob was arrested.

Police response 'took my breath away'

Bob has stabbed people before, including his uncle, and has hit their father with an iron pole. He has bashed his sisters. He is a very violent person and, yet, since this last incident, he has been released on bail. Two weeks ago he organised a group of youths on ice to attack Gary — a vicious attack in the shadow of the night. They repeatedly jumped on his head and, as a result, he suffered a blood clot on his brain. This frenzied attack only stopped when they were spotted by concerned family members. These youths gathered behind Bob’s house after the attack, yelling and laughing while consuming copious amounts of ice. Mary called me five days after this attack. I called the local police duty manager. I asked the police why they had not breached Bob’s bail for the repeated threats of violence. She said 'we can’t be there all the time', and also that ‘it takes 20 minutes for the police to drive to this community’. This comment took my breath away, but it got worse.

The police explained that there was really nothing they could do, as it was ‘one’s word against another’s’, she said. I then asked, ‘Have you taken statements from this incident?’. She said, ‘No’. She went on to explain that she is meeting with the Elders tomorrow and will drop in to see Mary. The police can and should take statements as soon after such an incident as possible. Otherwise, it many effect court evidence concerning the witnesses’ recollections and their reliability.

Community living in fear

I am told by Mary that the community lives in fear of her brother, Bob, and is engulfed in an ice epidemic. I am concerned that the police seem to not take this matter seriously enough to warrant a permanent presence. Maybe they lack resources and training, or are overwhelmed by the situation and too frightened to enforce the rule of law for fear of being called racists or politically incorrect.

'How can we get kids to school if people live in fear, and how can we encourage economic development when people like Mary live in fear everyday?'

How valid is the constant claim from some Indigenous leaders that the imprisonment rates reflect a racist system of justice, when there is no justice for victims like Mary and her family? What about Mary? What happens to her? Is she forced to move away and become homeless, or stay and run the risk of being stabbed to death? The culture wars are preventing the rule of law being applied equally. This is where a sick culture war is preventing the protection of Aboriginal victims. How can we get kids to school if people live in fear, and how can we encourage economic development when people like Mary live in fear everyday?

Culture being eroded

Although there are beautiful aspects about Indigenous culture, including family, art and ceremony, these are being eroded in many communities by a lack of law and order, and the rule of law being applied inequitably. This is also true for many new Australians, who come from countries where women do not have rights. Should we also water down the rule of law for these women? This high level of tolerance for violence does not end in Indigenous communities. Australian women’s refuges are full of women who do not speak English and are subjected to different standards than other Australian women.

The Australian’s Alice Thomson reported on the British High Court judge, Justice Pauffley, who last year said that police and social workers should make allowances when immigrants physically abuse family members. She suggested that within ‘many communities newly arrived’ in Britain, children were slapped in a way that ‘at first excites the interest of child protection professionals’, but warned that their concerns failed to take into account ‘what is almost certainly a different cultural context’. So British-born boys and girls, she implied, must not be hit, while foreign-born children can.

No room for making allowances

Alice’s stance raises the question that, if that was the case, does this also mean that honour killings among newly arrived brides should be ignored? Should the 1400 children in Rotherham subjected to serial abuse by offenders of mainly Pakistani heritage understand that this was just a cultural misunderstanding on the part of men who see 13-year-old brides as normal? An inquiry found that frontline staff were afraid of raising such ‘ethnic issues ... for fear of being thought racist’.

Prime Minister David Cameron was responding to these dangerous double standards in left-leaning publications when he suggested targeting English-language classes at the 190,000 British Muslim women who are denied the right to be educated, speak English, and participate in society by traditions from their countries of origin. Being unable to speak English means that many women are totally dependent on their men. The suicide rate of British Asian women is twice that of Anglo-Saxon women in Britain.

There are direct parallels with Indigenous women to newly-arrived women in the UK. For instance, 19% of the Northern Territory Indigenous population also have much higher suicide, murder and victimisation rates, and also have very high rates of people do not speak English as a first language and disturbingly low literacy rates.

'We will stand up to these bullies. Because who is listening to Mary, or the dead who have never received justice?'

Yet, many Aboriginal women leaders who speak out against violence are regularly attacked in Indigenous publications. We are ready for this. We will stand up to these bullies. Because who is listening to Mary, or the dead who have never received justice? Can we assist in ending this death and misery? I think all Australians should be outraged that this is happening in our beautiful country, and do whatever they can in their own personal and professional lives to bring this injustice to an end. Who is listening to Minister Price with all her wisdom and personal understanding of these issues, instead of simply grabbing for sensational headlines that drag down people who are trying to help victims of violence?

Speaking out and moving forward

I am the Chair of the Safe Communities subcommittee on the Prime Ministers Indigenous Advisory Council, and I too have been subjected to much bullying and labelling, including receiving a text message from a very senior Prime Minster and Cabinet public servant who accidentally sent me a text message that said I was ‘hyped up and need[ed] to calm down’. As Chair, I have organised roundtables with experts and community members to generate recommendations that have received no formal response. With Professor Marcia Langton and a network of other women, I have researched and written papers about these issues. I put aside at least one day a week, all unpaid, to work as Chair of the Safe Communities Subcommittee with the goal of solving the problem of very high rates of violence against Indigenous women. I will not calm down, not while women like Mary remain silent and in fear, and nor should you.

We need a massive shift to end the violence and cultural games to ensure all communities in Australia come under the same rule of law. Let us not forget those suffering in silence. They need to know Australia cares.

For more information on this issue, see tonight's episode of The Point at 9pm on NITV.