By Calita Murray
My 93-year-old mother, Agnes Harrison, is reputedly the oldest Aboriginal woman living on the coast between Sydney and Melbourne, at Wallaga Lake Aboriginal Koori Village. At least she was until last year, when she was forced to go to live with relatives in Victoria.
My mother was forced to leave her home when members of her community suffered several violent attacks. The incidents, which the local police and media have termed the "riots" at Wallaga Lake, might appear to be a small-town tale if it were not for the fact that, for many Aboriginal people across Australia, the story and its aftermath are all too familiar. At its core lies the issue of racism.
At a superficial level, it is a story of "black on black" violence. Between November 1995 and March 1996, people belonging to a large Aboriginal family living in the town of Bermagui went into the Wallaga Lake community, trashed cars and smashed windows. They threw fire bombs at houses where young children and elderly people were asleep and damaged community water tanks.
These attacks were preceded by an incident between two Aboriginal groups on November 15, 1995, when a woman from the Wallaga Lake Koori Village suffered a head injury from being stabbed with an Aboriginal clapstick.
It was not until the violence had extended to the fire bombing of houses on December 12, however, that the police moved to arrest some of the assailants of November 15.
The arrests happened only after I lobbied local politicians and the ATSIC Regional Council in Queanbeyan to push the police into action. The police's initial inaction directly contributed to the extension of violence after November 15.
Acting on behalf of some 20 victims of the attacks, I approached the NSW ombudsman's office with a list of questions and complaints:
- Why did it take so long before people were charged for the stabbing?
- Why were the victims of the attacks not spoken to by the police, who instead talked only to community elders?
- Why did the violence escalate over the four months if the Narooma and Bega police stations were, according to them, "monitoring" the situation?
- Why did it take so long for police to respond to a phone call for help from people who were tipped off that their house was to be fire-bombed? As elders of the Yuin people have pointed out, a long-standing decision of the Lands Council gives the NSW police permission to enter the village when they need to.
- Did the police charge the people who were responsible for damaging the water supply?
- What is the attitude of the local police to the recommendations contained in the NSW police's Aboriginal Strategic Plan? Two of the six objectives of the plan are to reduce the involvement of Aboriginal people in crimes and violence, and to ensure that Aboriginal communities live in a safe and secure environment.
In January 1996, the ombudsman's office suggested that the police should attempt to conciliate this matter with me. By the end of February, attempts at conciliation with an inspector of the Bateman's Bay police patrol had failed, so I continued to request action by the ombudsman's office.
In April, the ombudsman's office decided that the matters raised should be formally investigated. It informed me that the investigation would "initially be conducted by a member of the NSW police service from the Monaro district office and may take some months".
The police report reached the ombudsman's office in early July. On each of the complaints its recommendation was that they were "not sustained" and that no further action be taken in relation to them. I complained about the finding and pointed out that it was a case of local police investigating themselves.
The assistant commissioner of the south region later made some amendments: local police had taken too long to charge persons over the stabbing of the woman on November 15 and, "in hindsight, the operating procedures in place to combat the on-going feuds were inadequate".
Police and local media reported with optimism the appointment of an Aboriginal police liaison officer to a local police station. He resigned shortly afterwards. With a touch of fanfare, a local police station's status was changed to a "24-hour patrol".
More than a year later, my original complaint has produced a small mountain of official and informal interviews, statements, reports and correspondence between the victims of the attack, relatives, friends and colleagues, a former member of federal parliament, an ATSIC regional council chairperson, the NSW ombudsman's office and, of course, the NSW police force.
While in the past few decades there have been certain adjustments in Australian law to complement the rhetoric of non-discrimination, in practice for many Aboriginal people, the situation remains basically the same.
There are two main problems. First, there is the widespread racist perception that it is acceptable to be inactive, or at best extremely tardy, when responding to requests for help in relation to what is so often categorised, belittled and ultimately dismissed as "black on black" violence.
Earlier in 1996, a south coast newspaper, the Narooma News, produced dramatic stories about the tensions in the area. One editorial commended the local police for working "closely" with the Koori village residents in an attempt to unravel "the bitter, long-running dispute, apparently with some success, judging by the recent relative calm".
For this, the police "must be commended because the task has taken up a great deal of their valuable time and proved largely thankless, frustrating work". Another article quotes local member of parliament Russel Smith as suggesting that the "answer" lies in beefing up the numbers of local police.
I, on the other hand, suggest that it is far less important to increase the number of police than it is to increase the willingness of existing police to do their duty by the Aboriginal communities.
When it comes to police inaction, as well as action, the reality is that there is "one law for whites and one for blacks".
It is nothing if not ironic that local media and white society, not to mention the police, while adopting the rhetoric of "sensitivity" in relation to Aboriginal rights, are now using this as a pretext for inaction when police are called upon by the Aboriginal community to protect lives.
Secondly, complaints about the police can't be handled internally. Reports based on findings by police investigating officers, such as those from the ombudsman's office, are the result of bureaucratic investigations which, not surprisingly, show that local police have little to answer for.
My mother had lived at Wallaga Lake for most of her life. Mum has trouble with her sight, but is still very mobile. She would spend her days in the community treading the well-known village paths, visiting family and friends, sharing her knowledge and experiences of life.
Last year my mother found herself dispossessed of the right to live in a safe and secure environment at Wallaga Lake. She now confronts the daunting challenges of a vastly different existence in Victoria.
I hope that one day she will return. However, I also recognise that it will probably take more than a bit of "sensitive" rhetoric from the local police and the NSW ombudsman's office for that to become reality.