RESPECT for Women seminar - Kerrynne Liddle

RESPECT for Women seminar

Thursday 9 September 2004

National Perspectives Panel

Presentation by Ms Kerrynne Liddle, Journalist and Chair of Tandanya Aboriginal Arts Centre

I would like to pay my respects to the Kaurna peoples, special guests, my indigenous sisters and everyone here today. I was fortunate to hear the speech of Ms Irene Kahn last night, and thought it was particularly skilful in raising the plight of indigenous Australians in a way that did not see people, as unfortunately we often see, switch off. She talked about being safe and about fairness.

I support the view of Professor Lowitja O'Donohue that we must understand our history in order to understand why we are at the point we are today, and we also have to understand history in order to deal with whose responsibility it is to make it better. I think it can be argued that Aboriginal people have never been particularly safe in this country. There was colonisation, and we all know that story. There was also assimilation and the dreadful policies that removed Aboriginal children from their families, from their very rocks.

Today we continue to fear Government policy, and, although there are many doing good work, we continue to still fear police, and we see the outcome of that in our gaols. We also see grandparents who fear the future for their grandchildren and for their grandchildren's grandchildren. Linda Matthews comments about covert racism that affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. We don't need statistics to tell us that is still happening: we actually experience it every day.

There are Aboriginal women who have pioneered a number of firsts. Lowitja O'Donohue, the first Aboriginal nurse to be trained at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which in those days had a policy of not allowing or not accepting indigenous nurses. My younger sister was South Australia's first Aboriginal female police officer and was there for a decade. The discrimination and harassment she endured led her to eventually leave the police force. She was devastated that she could no longer be a police officer.

She went on to study parks and wildlife management, and now has a law degree. She thought originally that she would eventually go into criminal law, because she thought that was the best way to contribute to Aboriginal communities. But she has since told me that is not the case. She sees that the biggest issue for us now will be through the Family Courts. It is there where she believes she can be the most useful to our people.

When you know that we are disadvantaged across every social indicator, then her predictions make a whole lot of sense. Domestic violence is a symptom of a whole lot of things. While we need to respond to that by immediate strategies that provide safe homes and havens for our women and families, it is equally important to also look at the cause.

My area of particular interest is in the role of the media. The Australian media often supports the notion that the situation is hopeless and that violence is part of Aboriginal communities. It has no place in aboriginal communities and never has: it is a consequence of the history and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As a journalist, who is also indigenous, earlier this year I was involved in writing a feature story in an indigenous newspaper about domestic violence and the effect on our children.

It was not an easy task to get the information. Although it was for an indigenous newspaper, people were not comfortable providing information or about raising the issue in the media. But, because it was an indigenous newspaper, they were a little more comfortable with talking about it. But they wanted it done in such a way that didn't portray them as victims, and they wanted to instead not talk about statistics and have them reeled off (I mean, they are appalling, but we've seen them time and time again), they wanted to talk more about solutions.

What was also apparent was the impact of violence on children. What those people who work in the area of domestic violence were seeing was the impact on children who were not directly affected by physical violence, but who actually observed physical violence in their communities. They talked about children being numb to the fact that this was unacceptable and it wasn't part of a normal relationship, and they feared the consequences of those exposures on future generations. And that should alarm everyone.

The State Government is to be applauded for it approach or its attention to the APY lands, but it must recognise also that the problem has been boiling away for many, many years. This is not a recent problem. Aboriginal women still say that it is they who are not being listened to by Governments in working through solutions. Instead, they are still having solutions imposed on them, and that approach, I believe, will surely fail.

I just want to tell you a story about my grandmother, who has now passed away. She was a linguist, a diplomat and a scientist. Although she had very little education, she could speak three languages. She was a diplomat in that she faced racism constantly, and she worked through it. As a scientist, I remember as children - and my grandmother had 11 children so there were lots and lots of grandchildren - we used to all pile into a car every single weekend and we would go bush.

Every weekend we would go off to a dry creek bed; we would go miles and miles, we would drive for hours. And every time we went bush, she would make us dig a hole in a dry creek bed and make her a bath. As kids, we used to actually say, "Oh, Nana's coming. We've got to go with her and dig a bath," and we would tease each other on the way about who actually had to start digging.

In a completely dry creek bed, she would make us dig a bath, and every single time we would find water. She would sit in that hole in the ground and have a bath, with her towel and her soap right next to her. At the time we used to growl and whinge about it, but when I actually look back, what she was actually doing was teaching us about topography, she was teaching us about where to find water, she was teaching us about respect for other people regardless of how you felt about the situation.

I did learn a lot from her - I think she was an extraordinary woman - and she did so in a way that never growled when we did things that were wrong, in a way that we always felt frightened to get back into the car and go again with her. So she had a particular skill at having to work with people and do so with respect, and I think that is a very important lesson for us all.

Aboriginal people are tired of seeing report after report and recommendation after recommendation. They know the problems, and they want to be part of the solution. Why I spoke about my grandmother is that they have the skill and they have the experience to be part of the solution. They shouldn't be on the outside and just be delivered what other people think are the answers. We must respect their right to be part of the answer, and to do that in partnerships with Governments at all levels. 

Thank you