An article by journalist Elizabeth Farrelly, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 11 titled “Protecting a cultural right to abuse”, starts by posing the question, “At what point does autonomy slide into apartheid?”
It argues that a policy of self-determination for Aboriginal people will lead to violence in Aboriginal communities, based on the claim that violence was endemic to pre-contact Aboriginal culture.
As a Kairi and Gubbi Gubbi woman, I question at what point is a non-Aboriginal person, with a PhD in architecture, qualified to publish and profit from the issue of violence in Aboriginal communities or to push an ideological agenda against Aboriginal self-determination?
Farrelly draws on the writing of equally ideologically motivated non-Aboriginal writers to support her position, such as Stephanie Jarrett who wrote Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Jarrett told Quadrant this year: “Aboriginal self-determination is a key causal factor in the persistent, high levels of violence against Aboriginal women.”
In her book, Jarrett accuses policy makers of persisting in “the separatist self-determination model [that] maintains customs that are dangerous”.
Farrelly also relies on the writing of Louis Nowra and says his question — about whether Indigenous male violence was intrinsic to pre-contact tribal culture — “is core and should shape our entire policy approach to Indigenous development.”
Farrelly then asserts that if there was pre-contact violence then “self-determination emerges as an error of tragic proportions”.
By that standard we should judge the vast majority of the Australian community as unable to determine their own policies. British and European history of violence is undeniable, as is the relatively recent history of violence perpetrated against Aboriginal people post-invasion, where whole tribes were massacred, shot, poisoned and forced off cliffs and where babies were buried up to their necks and their heads kicked off.
Aboriginal communities were decimated by the brutal violence of invasion. This was the reality of the “civilising” impact of non-Aboriginal Australia on Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal people that survived were rounded up and held in the concentration camps of their day, the Aboriginal missions and reserves. White patriarchal values and structures were then imposed that directly disempowered women’s business and the value of women’s role in traditional Aboriginal society.
We don’t need to look far to see the devastating impact of assimilationist policies, such as those espoused by Farrelly and Jarrett, with the impact of the stolen generation being well documented.
The devastating results of forcibly removing Aboriginal connection to our culture and our lands, that hold the stories and histories of our ancestors, has been clearly linked to increased alcohol consumption, self-harm and rising levels of violence.
These arguments have been used as the basis of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) and intervention, the removal of the permit system and of community managers, and their replacement with non-Aboriginal government business managers. These policies have stripped what little control Aboriginal people held.
What has not been implemented is self-determination. What Aboriginal communities are struggling to overcome is decades of concerted neglect, where basic housing, services and education are not provided to Aboriginal communities at a standard equal to the remotest non-Aboriginal town.
Aboriginal people have spent decades pleading with governments to support community initiatives to deal with violence and its causal factors. It is an issue that has been raised by Aboriginal people, such as Mick Dodson in his 2003 National Press Club address, and is outlined in innumerable reports.
The Little Children are Sacred report that led to the NTER and the report of the review board of the NTER made recommendations that emphasised the need to work with Aboriginal communities and respect community decision making.
Contrary to Farrelly’s distorted reasoning, the rate of violence in Aboriginal communities has been found to be significantly less in Aboriginal communities with a high level of cultural attachment, according to the independent analysis of Don Weatherburn.
He found increased rates of violence were associated with social deprivation, alcohol use, financial stress, overcrowding and being a member of the stolen generation.
The high rate of violence in Aboriginal communities is the result of the internalising of trauma. It is the result of the marginalisation experienced through the breakdown of communities and the associated high rate of alcohol and drug use, where self-harm is also expressed through violence towards those close family and community members.
Identification with tradition and culture, its connection and continuity. and adaptive to change determined by those communities, is the basis to solutions to violence in our communities. It is those Aboriginal communities that know best what their communities need and how best to deal with the complexity and deprivation that ongoing government neglect has instilled.
Aboriginal people need access to some of the wealth drawn from this country to adequately service their communities, and enable them to develop initiatives that meet their needs, while living in the lands of their ancestors, where their cultural ties connect them to the soil, waterways and living environment to which they are the custodians.
This does not mean ghettoising remote Aboriginal communities but resourcing them to enact self-determination, to decide for themselves how they breach the cultural divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society.
These attacks on self-determination and remote communities’ connection to their lands is nothing more than neoliberal attempts to strip the land rights from Aboriginal people, to free up access to community-held land for mining industries and other free-market forces to exploit. It is an ongoing fight and it is a fight where Aboriginal people will need the support of an informed Australian community.