The long shadow of violent predators on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership
Who are the people in this photo? Several are well-known and, in some cases, regarded as Aboriginal ‘leaders’ and ‘elders’. More about them in a moment.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political narrative is couched in ‘resetting the relationship’ with government, and lists family violence as one of the pressing social justice issues to be addressed. Following almost two weeks of consultations across Australia, with the exception of Western Australia, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Šimonović, reported on her recent tour with a dire assessment of Australia’s inadequacy in addressing this violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children, which in some communities is out of control.
Ms Šimonović’s report applauded Australia as one of the first countries to sign up to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW sets obligations for states on violence against women. In singling out the government’s third Action Plan for criticism, Ms Šimonović also noted the failure of the ‘Close the Gap’ strategy in relation to ‘gender equality and violence against women’. Her report makes specific recommendation for a National Action Plan that includes ‘temporary special measures that would accelerate the advancement of indigenous women’ .
Which brings us to the photo above. It was taken in Sydney on the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz’s, previous Australian visit*. She is with current directors, CEO and former co-chair of The Congress of Australia’s First Nations Peoples, the peak organisational representative for Aboriginal people’s advancement. Within weeks of this photo being taken, Ms Tauli Corpuz released the UN report on the human rights violations relating to Indigenous women and girls. We might well wonder at the table conversation – given the escalating and alarming statistics of abuse and sexual violence against Aboriginal women and children – taking place in the company of Geoff Clark, disgraced former chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) found guilty of rape in 2007.
On the morning of Malcolm Turnbull’s Close the Gap report on 14 February, Congress Co-Chairs Jackie Huggins and Rod Little delivered to the Prime Minister the ‘Redfern Statement’, cradled in a coolamon, in an elaborate ceremony at Parliament House. The Sydney suburb of Redfern is a potent symbolic presence in Aboriginal politics, so naming their manifesto the ‘Redfern Statement’ suggests Congress has devised and delivered it on behalf and with the consent of a majority of Australia’s First Nations people. But in the same week of its actual launch during last year’s federal election, Dr Huggins issued a media release with Mr Clark titled ‘What Australia’s First Peoples want and need from Government’ (since removed from its website). Members of the community who were shocked at what they saw as an alignment with Mr Clark complained on Congress’ Facebook page but their comments were deleted by Congress’ moderator for ‘lateral violence’ against Mr Clark.
Despite the ‘Redfern Statement’s’ weighty backing, with mainstream organisations such as Amnesty International, the Australian Council of Social Service, Australian Medical Association and the Law Council of Australia, and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s extolling of it in its 2016 Social Justice and Native Title Report, it has not gained the robust traction needed – Redfern locals say that they haven’t read it, and the federal government has not committed to re-fund Congress. Why?
One answer could well be that Congress is suffering a legitimation crisis. Two reasons could be put forward for this. First, Congress’ claim to be the nationally elected representative voice of Australia’s First Peoples is slim. It rests on a membership base of less than 10,000, at a conservative estimate this equates to 4.5% of the total national Indigenous adult population (voter turn-out is significantly less). Low membership numbers are not accounted for by its unique structure as a registered company – the NSW Aboriginal Land Council alone counts its membership in the vicinity of 20,000, and Aboriginal people in every State and Territory are familiar with membership voting procedures.
A second reason is more likely: the ways in which Congress leadership is elected and called to account. In the nationwide deliberations that created Congress, women called for equal structural status as a means of addressing the serious problem by male perpetrators that brought down ATSIC. But although Congress has this gender balance, it has not undertaken a serious program of work for advancing women’s issues. In fact, it made recommendations to the UN to ‘expand’ the definition of violence, from violence against women to a more amorphous violence against Indigenous people. In contrast, Congress’ focus in the ‘Redfern Statement’, its blueprint for its survival, is heavily planked on the social justice premise. Congress’ structure incorporated an Ethics Council, however, it appears to be inactive. Invoking a human rights framework to prop up its agenda with neither internal or external accountability measures brings these particular leadership claims into question.
The demise of ATSIC left a fundamental gap in Aboriginal affairs. Congress could and should have filled that gap. But when accountability of perpetrators is absent in organisational structures, validated by mainstream agencies who unquestioningly sign up to this ‘leadership’, a truly representative political system is unattainable.
This IWD we boldly ask: how comfortable were the people in the picture to be photographed with Geoff Clark?
* Victoria Tauli Corpuz returns to Australia on 20 March
updated 11 March 2017 10:03am