Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
Thursday 27 September 2012
Thank you Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien for the warm welcome to your country.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that we sit on the lands of the Kaurna people, and I thank the Traditional Owners for allowing us to do so.
My people are the Gangulu from the Dawson Valley in Central Queensland.
Uncle Lewis, on behalf of my Elders I pass on our respects to your Elders, both past and present, for their continued struggle for their country and their culture.
Today as we talk about addressing disadvantage within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities I think it is especially important that we acknowledge the central role that culture, kinship and country plays in the resilience of our peoples.
There are the sources of our strength.
And as I was told last year when I was at Uluru, our cultures are a big part of what makes Australia unique and are something in which all Australians should share and of which they should be proud. The welcome and acknowledgment of country protocols are but one way the broader Australian community can share in these cultures.
I would also like to acknowledge:
- Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University, Professor Michael N Barber
- Professor Paul Worley, Dean, School of Medicine
- Professor Fran Baum, Director, Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity
- Professor Dennis McDermott, Director, Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and Well-Being
- Ms Gill Troup, Vice-President (Strategy and Planning)
- Other senior members of staff at Flinders University.
Finally, can I acknowledge the family of Associate Professor Deane Southgate, as represented by his daughters Kathy and Mary, his grandaughter Sara and son-in-law Kevin.
It is a privilege to be invited here for the fourth Southgate Oration.
Dr Southgate was heavily involved in public health, health promotion and community medicine.
He was passionate about general practice and particularly valued community- based preventative medicine.
Dr Southgate was also committed to public health and health promotion and disease prevention in particular.
He also placed great emphasis on the need to support people to make safe choices and take control of their lives.
My only hope for today is that I can live up to the standard of previous Souhtgate Orations given by people like Sir Michael Marmot.
From time to time I begin speeches reciting a poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, or Kath Walker. She is a hero of the struggle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples rights. In my mind this poem captures the essence of the challenges confronting us here in Australia in pursuit of a reconciled nation and overcoming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage.
My son, your troubled eyes search mine
Puzzled and hurt by colour line
Your black skin as soft as velvet shine
What can I tell you son of mine
I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind
I could tell of crimes that shame mankind
Of brutal wrongs and deeds malign
Of rape and murder son of mine
But instead I will tell of brave and fine
When lives of black and white entwine
When men, in brotherhood combine
This I would tell you son of mine.
In Australia today there is still too much heartbreak and misunderstanding. After more than 200 years together, we still long for a time ‘when men in brotherhood combine’ in a truly reconciled and equal Australia.
This poem is an apt introduction to this address. I am going to talk about how positive relationships can be harnessed to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage. I believe that we need to build and strengthen relationships between:
- between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian Community
- between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments; and
- within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities themselves.
Today I will focus on the relationships within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and with governments.
I want to look at lateral violence and the damage it is doing to us, in our communities, in our organisations and in our families.
And I want to talk about how a human rights-based approach can guide our responses to lateral violence.
Flowing out of this, I examine an innovative governance structure known as the National Health Leadership Forum. This Forum demonstrates the importance of effective governance structures in improving our internal relationships. It also provides an example of how relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments can be developed if the structures are in place to facilitate a genuine partnership.
As some of you may know I have also been working on promoting the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I believe that this is an important step in improving the relationships between us and the broader Australian community.
In the 2010 Social Justice Report I provided a detailed discussion about the significance of constitutional recognition to reconciliation in this country. I also participated in national consultations as a member on the Expert Panel appointed by the Prime Minister to explore options for recognition.
I believe that both the journey towards and the goal of constitutional recognition can help build and strengthen the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. The Government has recently announced that it will not push ahead with a referendum in the life of this Parliament, but instead present an Act of Recognition in Parliament acknowledging the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It was felt that delaying the referendum was the best way to cement bipartisan political support and build community commitment necessary for a successful referendum.
I welcome this announcement but urge Parliament to remain focused on the ultimate goal, constitutional recognition.
Stronger and deeper relationships: My agenda
Before I go further I am going to outline my agenda as Social Justice Commissioner. It provides some further context to the focus on relationships.
When I first took up this role I looked at the range of human rights issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I looked at the inter-generational effects of disadvantage and trauma facing our peoples. I spoke with and listened to many individuals and communities across Australia: in urban, regional and remote settings. I heard time and again of the hurt and disempowerment of our peoples.
After hearing of these hurts I decided to focus my agenda on reframing the approach.
My overarching aim is to see United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration) fully implemented. The Declaration clearly articulates how Australia’s existing human rights obligations apply in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context. I believe the Declaration can be harnessed to address the hurt and disempowerment of our peoples. As such I believe it can be used to build and improve the relationships in the areas I mentioned earlier:
- with broader Australian community
- between our peoples and governments; and
- within our communities themselves.
If the development of these relationships are guided by human rights standards, particularly the Declaration, I believe we will see them strengthened and we will see them improved.
We must remember that human rights are not just abstract concepts that exist in documents such as treaties, conventions and declarations alone. Human rights provide governments with a set of minimum legal standards which must apply equally to all people.
A human rights framework provides parameters – universally agreed parameters – for a society to foster dignity and equality of all citizens. And I mean substantive equality – equality in outcomes, not just in writing.
The Declaration reflects the human rights standards necessary for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world. It contains a number of key principles underpinning the rights it protects. Those key principles can be summarised as:
- first, self-determination – which is also a key right protected by the major international treaties
- second, participation in decision-making, and free, prior and informed consent – this is about ensuring that we can make decisions about development that affects us
- third good faith – building trust and goes to how we engage with each other on these matters
- fourth, respect for and protection of culture and
- finally, non-discrimination and equality.
The Declaration and its key principles and rights can be viewed as a remedial instrument to build the types of relationships I talked about earlier.
It should form the foundation of a new relationship of respect and engagement between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Governments need to start hearing our voices and working with us in the development and implementation of laws, policies and programs.
I have seen that there is a lot of goodwill within governments and I believe there is a genuine intention to engage respectfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But in my view, governments lack the skills and knowledge – in particular the cultural competency – to do it properly. The Declaration is a good place to start, as it provides necessary practical guidance.
It should also be used as a tool for reconciliation generally, in building harmonious and co-operative relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, governments, and the broader Australian community, based on principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, non-discrimination and good faith.
The Declaration outlines how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be valued in the broader, non-Indigenous society, in order for our human rights to be enjoyed equally with others.
And it can be used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to guide the development of healthy, respectful and inclusive relationships within our communities. For example, we can ask, are our representative organisations obtaining our free, prior and informed consent? Or how are they ensuring their people participate in decisions that affect them?
Strengthening the relationships within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities: Lateral violence
But before we can develop effective relationships with those around us, we must have at least functional relationships among ourselves. Something that is undermining healthy relationships within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is lateral violence.
What is lateral violence
As I outlined in last year’s Social Justice and Native Title Reports, lateral violence comes from behaviours that might include bullying, gossiping, jealousy, shaming, social exclusion, family feuding and organisational conflict, which can and often does escalate into physical violence.
Lateral violence occurs in all levels of society but for oppressed peoples it is particularly acute and has a particularly sharp edge and it must be confronted if we are to see improvements in relationships within our communities.
Lateral violence can be described as 'internalised colonialism' and according to Richard Frankland includes:
[T]he organised, harmful behaviours that we do to each other collectively as part of an oppressed group: When we are consistently oppressed we live with great fear and great anger and we often turn on those who are closest to us.
The theory behind why lateral violence impacts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples differently is because it is often the result of disadvantage, discrimination and oppression, and it arises from living and working within a society that is not designed for our way of doing things.
It stems from that sense of powerlessness that comes from oppression.
Let me explain this further – in order to establish power and control, the colonising powers positioned groups being colonised as inferior to themselves, ignoring their basic humanity as well as their cultural identity, existing power structures and ways of life.
Despite often fierce resistance on the part of the colonised groups, often they internalised the values and behaviours of their oppressors, leading to a negative view of themselves and of their culture. This results in low self-esteem and in some cases the adoption of violent behaviours.
The anger and frustration about the injustice of feeling powerless perversely manifests itself in violence – not 'vertically' towards the colonisers but 'laterally' towards their own community.
This is why we have come to call it ‘lateral violence’.
Anyone familiar with this nation’s history will know that colonial authorities used Aboriginality – and the extent to which anybody claimed it – as a powerful mechanism of control. Our history of colonisation casts a dark shadow across our present. While lateral violence has its roots in our history, it thrives today because power imbalances, control by others, identity conflict, negative stereotypes and trauma continues to feed it.
I am convinced that there will be little progress in improving indicators for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples without strong, respectful relationships within our communities, as well as between them and the wider population.
When lateral violence inflicts a community it leads to victimisation and social exclusion. It attacks self-esteem and has negative effects on social and emotional wellbeing. It literally takes a community hostage. The focus is on division rather than the positive developments that might be occurring in the community.
How do we address lateral violence?
From the many discussions I have had with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country, there seems to be a considerable appetite to confront and deal with this barrier to our well-being.
To do this, we need to move beyond our weaknesses - to identifying solutions together and build upon our strengths. Many communities are already doing work that does build on our strengths and draws on our resilience: from the Yamatji communities in the mid-west region of Western Australia addressing bullying with the Solid Kids, Solid Schools project; to developing clear and transparent decision-making processes that enabled the Quandamooka peoples to successfully negotiate their native title claim over their lands and waters surrounding North Stradbroke Island in Queensland.
That is why I am enthusiastic about the amount of work already being done by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves to address lateral violence.
There are a number of options for addressing lateral violence in our communities. It could be:
- Us exerting control over lateral violence by naming it, and raising awareness of its existence and its impacts – it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone within the community is treated respectfully and with dignity.
- Governments reviewing and reforming legislative and policy frameworks to ensure that these structures promote healthy relationships within our communities and with our external stakeholders. The National Human Rights Framework; constitutional reform; and maintaining efforts to create a just and equitable native title system are three current areas of reform that provide us with an opportunity to immediately focus in this area.
- Governments, industry and communities creating environments that are culturally safe and secure; and ensuring those who work with us are culturally competent.
These options are based on the establishment of strong structural foundations and human rights principles.
The role for governments is very distinct when it comes to lateral violence.
The reality is this, governments cannot and should not intervene to fix our internal relationships.
This is not appropriate.
Rather governments must ensure their involvement in our lives through the development of policy and law does not create breeding grounds for lateral violence.
I encourage governments, NGOs and industry to work with us to make sure that your structures, policies and legislative frameworks do not contribute to disempowerment, division and mistrust which fosters lateral violence in our communities.
Finally, we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples must hold each other accountable to this type of behaviour. It is us who need to call this behaviour when it occurs. It is us who must strive to rebuild our cultural values that respect and protect our communities against lateral violence. We must become more than just bystanders sitting on the side lines.
Confronting lateral violence will take courage, foresight and leadership. It is time now, to shed the negative labels – those of the colonizer and those used by communities against each other. It is time to take back control of our rich, resilient, and varied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity.
I think when we celebrate our strengths through our own eyes and in our own words, we enable others to do the same.
Relationships and governance: The National Health Leadership Forum
I am firmly of the belief that governance structures are an integral component of combating conditions of lateral violence.
Governance can provide a foundation for empowerment, inclusive decision-making and effective dispute resolution processes.
It can also help us to achieve our aspirations. Strong governance structures can enable us to deal with the inherent tensions of living between the ‘two worlds’ in which we live and to which we, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are forced to adapt to. Effective structures can lay the foundations so that we govern ourselves in ways that enables and empowers, rather than ways that disables and disempowers.
One example of an effective governance structure at the national level is the National Health Leadership Forum. The Forum is empowering our people with a voice in the development and implementation of health policy. It is also improving our relationships with government.
In August last year 12 national peak bodies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health established themselves as the National Health Leadership Forum (the Forum). The Forum sits within Chamber 1 of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, our national representative body.
The organisations that make up the Forum have seized the initiative and established a structure to work in partnership with Government in the development and implementation of health policy and programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their communities.
Every major Aboriginal or Islander national health organisation is represented in this forum. This is the only sector where various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peaks have come together to coordinate activities as a collective and work in a truly unified manner. The members are:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation;
- Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association;
- Australian Indigenous Psychologists’ Association;
- Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses;
- Indigenous Allied Health Australia;
- Indigenous Dentists’ Association of Australia;
- The Lowitja Institute;
- National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers’ Association;
- National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO);
- National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Physiotherapists;
- National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples; and
- Torres Strait Regional Authority.
The Forum is Co-Chaired by Justin Mohamed, Chair of NACCHO and Jody Broun, Co-Chair of Congress and it has its own independent Secretariat funded by its members.
The Forum emerged from the Indigenous Leadership Group of the Close the Gap Campaign. The Campaign was founded by my predecessor, Dr Tom Calma back in 2006 and comprises Indigenous and non-Indigenous health peaks as well as human rights bodies. The collective aim of the campaign is to work together to achieve health equality by 2030.
It was the first times these various bodies came to the “same table” to discuss Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health equality.
Building relationships of trust between the various member organisations took time but it has paid big dividends. All parties have realised the strength of a unified voice campaigning for health equality.
A unique structure
The National Health Leadership Forum is a unique gathering of organisations, working on the many “front lines” in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health (be they in the community controlled sector, or in relation to our health workforces, or specific health issues such as mental health). It is recognised across government and beyond for the unique resource that it is.
The structure of the Forum provides a space for all of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health peak bodies to work together to a common goal.
In the antithesis of lateral violence these organisations have realised that working together is empowering. It harnesses collective strengths.
It is an unprecedented coalition and it provides a structure for governments to engage with and most importantly listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in relation to health matters.
The message is clear – get used to having the National Health Leadership Forum around; and recognise it as a partner that provides a ‘value add’ in policy processes and planning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. Partnership and respectful engagement is the platform upon which relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Governments can be strengthened and improved.
Without the genuine and active involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people every step of the way in our efforts to close the gap, we risk making only minuscule progress. A business as usual approach will not close the gap.
This is why the development of the Forum could not have happened at a better time. On 3 November 2011, one month after its formation, Ministers Roxon and Snowdon announced the process for the development of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan (Health Plan).
The Forum is working in partnership with the Government to develop this Health Plan to ensure our voices are heard.
The Forum has established itself as the partnership interface for governments to work with. As I have already said, it can be the instigator for better relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and governments in the health space. And it can serve as a model for other sectors as well.
The development of the Health Plan provides an acid test. It is imperative that the design, implementation and monitoring is done in partnership with us, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations and the Forum is here to be that partner at the national level.
In this presentation I have examined two ways in which changing relationships can have tangible benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
But what is the ultimate outcomes of these relationships.
I want to leave you with something my friend Glenn Pearson has said when asked what type of future he’d like to see for us. It’s a vision that I share and I want to share it with you:
“I want for me and my children – as I do for you and your children – to grow really, really old together – having led fantastic lives that have allowed us to make a lifetime contribution to the health and wellbeing of the broader community and our families.”
“I want to know that when we were tested by life’s challenges, that we pulled together to face them as a people; that we drew upon the best of what we had, to find positive solutions to the things that have tested us along the way.”
“I want to know that, purposively, we took on and changed those things that we felt do not reflect what we want in a fair, honest, respectful and harmonious society.”
“I want that we learn to hold and to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history as an essential part of the Australian story because we see ourselves as part of it – connected to it, proud of it and centered by it.”
 K Walker, My People: A Kath Walker Collection (1970), p 55.
 See M Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2010, Australian Human Rights Commission (2011), chapter 1.
 For a more detailed discussion on the key principles in the Declaration see M Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2011, Australian Human Rights Commission (2011), chapters 1 and 3.
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, preambular paragraph 19.
 M Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2011, Australian Human Rights Commission (2011); M Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Native Title Report 2011, Australian Human Rights Commission (2011).
 R Frankland and P Lewis, Presentation to Social Justice Unit staff, Australian Human Rights Commission, 14 March 2011.
 See P Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1971) and F Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963).
 See M Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Social Justice Report 2011, Australian Human Rights Commission (2011), pp 35-38; Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, Shadow Report 2012: On Australian governments’ progress towards closing
the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (2012), pp 15-19.
 The Hon Nicola Roxon MP, Minister for Health and Ageing and The Hon Warren Snowdon MP, Minister for Indigenous Health , ‘New National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan’, (Media release, 3 November 2011).