Wednesday, 12 May 2021
Statements by Senators
Kimberley Aboriginal Women's Council
I've no doubt that Senator O'Sullivan is very genuine in the comments that he makes, but the policy direction from this government on the cashless debit card is completely wrong, and it's an absolute shame that Senator O'Sullivan didn't have the privilege of attending the women's roundtable that I, along with Senator Siewert and Senator McAllister, attended last week in the Kimberley, because the kind of deficit model he's talking about—that deficit approach—was completely rejected by those women. I challenge him to contact the Kimberley Aboriginal women and ask them for a briefing, because what they put forward over the three days that we attended was completely opposite to where he was just saying the government is going.
That three-day event that Aboriginal women, on their own, put together, because they want to actually pursue a strengths based approach—we didn't hear that from the government today—was attended by over 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, including 85 from the Kimberley who gathered in Broome for this history-making roundtable meeting. Women from as far away as Halls Creek, Kununurra, Fitzroy Crossing, Balgo, Beagle Bay and Derby, as well as groups from the NPY Women's Council in Alice Springs and Waminda Aboriginal corporation in Nowra on the New South Wales coast, were there. It was such an honour—and I am sure that I speak for Senator Siewert and Senator McAllister—to be invited to attend this event and observe the historical moment where the Kimberley women decided that they needed their own council.
I want to thank Janine Dureau, a Nyikina woman from Derby; Jodie Bell, a Butchulla and Jagera woman from the south-east of Queensland who has lived most of her life in WA; Mary O'Reeri, a Nyul Nyul descendant living in the Beagle Bay community on the Dampier Peninsula; Brenda Garstone, a Jaru woman; Cissy Gore-Birch, a Jaru and Gija woman; and Kia Dowell, a Gija woman from Warmun. I thank the organisers, Bec Harnett, a long-time worker with the Straight Talk program; Vanessa Elliot, a Jaru woman; Michelle Deshong, who draws her connection to the Kuku Yalanji nation; Cherie Sibosado, a Nyikina and Bardi woman from the west Kimberley region; Vicki O'Donnell, a Nyikina Mangala woman from Derby; Emily Carter, a Gooniyandi Gija woman; Nini Mills, a Yawuru and Bunuba woman; Sheryl Carmody; Raiyana Pavan; Rene Kulitja and Nyunmiti Burton, who are directors of the NPY Women's Council; and Cleone Wellington, Lisa Wellington, Kristine Falzon and Hayley Longbottom, the executive team from Waminda.
Throughout the three days we had the privilege of hearing from June Oscar, AO, a Bunuba woman from Fitzroy Crossing and of course the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. Commissioner Oscar presented on her ground-breaking report, Wiyi Yani U Thaganiand I apologise for my pronunciation—which means 'women's voices'. That report, released in October last year, was part of a three-year initiative that saw Commissioner Oscar and her team travel the country, speaking with over 2,000 First Nation women and girls from 50 locations in urban, regional and remote Australia. This was the most inclusive consultation process of its kind, hearing from senior elders, girls who ranged in age from 12 to 17 years, women in prison, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, sister girl or brother boy. The report is an expansive whole-of-life report exploring issues through a well-overdue First Nation gender lens, ranging from justice to child protection, health, social and emotional wellbeing, service delivery, housing, disability, access to country and economic participation. It is presented from a strengths based approach, which was the theme running through the three days for the whole of the roundtable. First Nation women know what needs to change in their communities and have the experience, the knowledge and the wisdom to make it happen. This was stage 1.
Stage 2 will be the implementation of the recommendations and responding to and exploring how that can be done. Of course, the Kimberley women are now seeking funding from the state government in WA and indeed from the federal government, and what they told us very clearly was they want their own table. They don't want a seat at the table. They want their own table, and they want government to listen to them. They no longer want things done for them, which is what we heard from the last senator. They know how and they described how mainstream systems and structures have marginalised their voices for generations and how these current systems take a punitive and interventionist response to issues associated with inequalities and conditions of poverty, and if we think that government policy is benign and has no bearing, there was example after example given of how government policy directly discriminates and does damage to Aboriginal women, families and men. So we know through government policy—and the cashless debit card is a good example—that issues of social harm, trauma, rates of child removal and incarceration are actually made worse.
The resounding call from women and girls during the roundtable and Commissioner Oscar's consultation process was the need to embed First Nation gender justice and equality across all policy domains, from government to organisational levels, and that gender lens and that equality is very different when you hear those women speaking with their powerful voices about how they describe the gender lens and equality. This is the only way to combat and overcome the inequalities and intergenerational harm and trauma. It will only be achieved through real structural change and systemic reform on a large scale that is based on what First Nations women are saying.
The disappointing part of this is I haven't heard the government talk about Commissioner Oscar's report at all. It is groundbreaking. Thirty years ago was the last time anyone put a report together. It has been presented to government. I don't think there has been a response. I have had a look; I can't find one. So, just like Respect@Work, we find a significant piece of work done by a First Nations woman with First Nations women throughout this country, and what do we get from the government? Silence. No response. That is disgraceful. Yet now we have the government championing yet another new direction with the failed cashless debit card. The government has had that report for six months. I would happily put on the record if I am wrong that they have somehow responded, but I haven't seen that response.
Of course, what we saw in last night's budget was no new funding for closing the gap. Again, we had this great delivery from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mr Wyatt, saying, 'This is what we are going to do; we are going to change the landscape.' Where is the follow-through? Silence in the budget—not one cent. So if it hasn't been included in Australia's most important financial statement, what is the government's commitment to closing the gap? Where is the government's commitment to listen when women come together in such numbers to say clearly, 'This is how we want to be responded to'? It was really, again, another privilege for me to sit and see those women present to the Western Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Stephen Dawson, in such a strong and powerful way. The minister was given a very clear pathway to follow. As the women said over and over again: 'We don't want a seat at your table. You need to come to our table.' That is what we saw Minister Dawson do—come to their table, which last week was up in Broome.
One of the goals of the roundtable was to establish the Kimberley Aboriginal Women's Council, an incorporated, representative body that will work on behalf of Aboriginal women across the Kimberley. And the women got there, so stage 1 is now done, but it will need funding. It will need the government to say, 'We support this.'