‘I have the right, and so do you: The power of Indigenous women in governance’

[Introduction in Bunuba]

Jalangurru lanygu wiyi yani gurama yani.

I want to pay my respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land we meet on today, and to their elders both past and present.

My sincere condolences to family, countrymen, friends and colleagues as we have heard of the passing of one of our Indigenous leaders.

Well, there are some wonderful women in the audience, I am sure many of you could be speakers in your own right, telling us all stories of your achievements.

I want to acknowledge each and every one of you for all that you have done to advance the rights of women and in particular the first women, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women of this nation.

What a wonderful opportunity to come together and to share the breadth and depth of our knowledge. Through sharing we can only get stronger.

I want to thank Michelle Deshong, CEO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and a champion of hearing and acting on Indigenous women’s voices from the community to the United Nations. Thank you for organising this masterclass today. It is no easy feat bringing everyone together for a full day event.

I also want to acknowledge a woman who I admire greatly, I have stood by her side on many occasions recently, Dr Jackie Huggins, Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. Jackie is one of our prestigious advisors on a women and girls project that I will be launching tomorrow. I’ll come to this later.

Both Jackie and Michelle are women who understand the intrinsic values that Indigenous women bring to governance. These are values of:
- Inclusiveness
- Collaboration
- Shared and collective leadership

They also appreciate that these are values not easily incorporated into western governance structures and often are counter to western values of decision making and authority. They have both worked hard to support and help grow Indigenous women’s capacity to lead in western governance settings, while not compromising on our Indigenous identity and values.

My focus today is on the full appreciation of the power, strength, intelligence, dexterity and integrity of women like Michelle and Jackie, and how those skills and characteristics do exist in varied and unique ways in all our women and girls. For so many of us they just need to be unleashed and fundamentally appreciated. When unleashed our collective potential as women is unimaginable. I want to impress today that these characteristics belong to us all, are informed and enhanced by our Indigenous knowledge and culture and can form more compassionate, and passionate, caring and productive workspaces, and effective structures of decision making.

We hear time and again the enhanced productivity and job-satisfaction that women can engender in organisation when they are better represented in leadership and managerial roles. There is a persistent encouragement to break the glass ceiling. This is good, but what about hearing what Indigenous women can bring to the work force, to leadership and to governance? How about breaking all those glass walls?

It always fills me with great pride when I stand strong with our mob knowing what we are capable of doing. To stand with other women who have shown great courage in fighting for our rights makes me know that we never have to sit back in silence. We can speak, we have a right to speak, to be heard and to act on what we believe in.

It has certainly helped me on my journey to get to where I am today. This year, 2017, has been momentous in many ways, and it has been a big one for me. I moved from Fitzroy Crossing, on my homelands, Bunuba country, in the heart of the beautiful, remote and hot Kimberley, and set up home and life here, in Eora Nation and Gadigal country, in this bustling metropolis of Sydney!

This move happened because I was appointed to the role of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. I am the first Aboriginal woman to hold this position. It is my privilege to take on this national role.

The Australian, in a weekend special a couple of weeks back, wrote that ‘I am one of the up-and-coming stars’, of Indigenous leaders in the nation. Apparently, I am one to watch out for! In all seriousness, what I believe most strongly is that we are all stars and we have risen. Like Jackie and Michelle and many others, our leadership as Indigenous women has been burning brightly and consistently for millennia.

The position I now hold bestows on me a great responsibility to make our stars seen from the depth of time to today. There are many remarkable women whose names are lost to the obscurity of the past, but their actions from one generation to the next has ensured our survival and existence. Today, in our names and our capacity to lead, all women across time are remembered. In ensuring the vibrancy of our culture and society is never forgotten and continues to thrive, it is my obligation to raise the voices, and the human rights of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia, and to provide guidance to government on how to promote and protect these rights.

Since being in this position I have heard people applaud the journey I have taken from community to the top. I am, of course, appreciative and humbled in the face of this recognition, as it is no easy road to travel – there are many hurdles, just as there are triumphs along the way. In travelling this path, it has always been my commitment and determination to bring issues of social justice to the national policy arena and to bring to the ground the mechanisms to recognise, enhance and protect our human rights. I see the relationship between these arenas of decision-making as entwined.

What connects these spaces, and ensures we are always sharing our experiences and ideas between the ground, advocacy, policy and legislation is good governance structures and mechanisms. This unity between women, enhanced by a unique Indigenous governance approach, forms a sisterhood of diverse leaders, essential to making the meaningful and lasting changes we all want to see. A network like this, across families, communities and cities will shatter the seemingly insurmountable glass walls that has blocked recognition of our leadership in a modern Australia.

For leaders like myself in high profiled positions, I want to emphasise the equal worth of women’s leadership in multiple and diverse settings.

Whether it be a mother growing her children up, a grandmother passing on customary knowledge, and stories about plants and food, educators, women in small businesses and enterprises, artists, CEO’s, the Chair of boards, women negotiating arrangements and investments for PBCs, the list of female leaders and their positions is endless.

These women’s actions are unfolding in manifold ways, in quiet everyday achievements and on public platforms, and within loud international arenas. I am in the process of writing a PhD about this nature of leadership from the intimate and local, to the national and profiled. It is the story of my grandmother, mother and me. They are my forbearers, remarkable tenacious leaders, whose names are unknown to the public. My story is the story of so many of us. We are here today, because of women who fought for us, before we came into existence. Warrior women, survivors, and thrivers.

Decision making in any of these forums, at any moment of our history, is an exercise in our rights to self-determination, a determination that makes our lives better today and for generations to come.

As my predecessor Mick Gooda wrote and spoke on, effective governance is crucial to realising this self-determination. Core to my role is advocating for the full realisation and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, of which self-determination is a primary focus.

The Declaration is underpinned by four guiding principles: self-determination; participation in decision making and free, prior and informed consent; respect for and protection of culture; and non-discrimination and equality. These principles provide the most comprehensive framework to construct the form of Indigenous governance I have described, a governance which respects and elevates all women, their families and communities into their rightful positions of leadership.

On 13 September 2017, we commemorated the Declarations 10-year anniversary.  The Australian Government formally adopted this incredibly meaningful Declaration in 2009. Over recent weeks I have been speaking on the importance of symbolism versus substance. Adopting the Declaration is a fundamental first step to appreciating the rights of Indigenous people, but there are many steps required, and a long way to go to incorporating all the Declarations articles into the policy and legislative frameworks of this nation. It is a challenge of Australia’s leadership to make this happen, and to realise our rights in full.

What must be understood by all governments is that an effective Indigenous governance built with the principles of UNDRIP, is not just a way for us to sit at somebody else’s decision-making table. It is a way for us to construct a table that enshrines an equality in the Indigenous voice alongside others. UNDRIP is also a tool that can construct a meaningful relationship between Indigenous people, with all stakeholders, and governments. We must always be determined in our voices and identity, but we do not walk alone, our partners and friends are essential to our recognition and success.

Of course, the rejection, at this stage, of the Uluru Statement, and more specifically a constitutionally-enshrined voice to Parliament, can seem like there is no political will to hear our voices at any table. As I have said leadership occurs in many forums, it may not be present in the Parliament at this point, but I know it is in the Australian public. We all saw it with the ‘Yes Vote’. The citizens of this country, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, all want a strong, just and equal nation and because of this, we can and should continue to call for the Parliament to work with us; to recognise us as the first peoples of this land, and the enormous value we contribute to the ongoing leadership of our nation. There are always new pathways to explore and tread together to get the outcome we want.

There are other critical points in the Uluru Statement. I feel it is necessary to draw these points out now when considering the ongoing importance of our decision-making that does not stop and never falters with a constitutional roadblock.

One, is the need for structural reform so none of us are condemned to a life trajectory of incarceration and criminality, and then silencing the pain of our powerlessness with alcohol, and other substances.

The second, is the Makarrata Commission, a Commission to enable the building of just and self-determining relationships with an Australian Government driven by a process of truth-telling. This truth-telling would allow an honest and full understanding of our entire Indigenous history, colonisation and the building of this nation. The process would be healing, restorative and reconciling.

A Commission such as this can set our governance agendas. By encouraging truth to be told, at every table, we will be better placed to respond to people’s traumas, and needs, identify and overcome structural barriers while truthfully living out our dynamic and enlivening contemporary realities.

This truth-telling is as exciting and real in what it can achieve, as it is hard, painful, and disturbing. It forces us to look at all dimensions of our strengths as well as all our powerlessness.

We do not have to look too far to see the reality of what many Indigenous women live with today. As the Uluru Statement articulated, a life of incarceration, sadly, is all too likely. Our children are in detention at appallingly high rates, but their nurturers, their mothers and parents are there too. As the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory  final report made very clear, no child should be in detention, they should be with the supports and care of their family. For that to be a reality families must be present.

Right now, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia. Currently, they comprise 34 percent of women behind bars but only 2 percent of the adult female population in Australia. Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, who I had the pleasure of meeting on my first day in the job, and Ms Dubravka Šimonović, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, both commented in their end of mission statements after visiting Australia this year; that it is structural dimensions and complex entrenched harms related to trauma that are seeing our women end up behind bars.

They saw domestic and family violence, and punitive and tougher legislation as having a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal women, where persistent violence at home and things such as fine defaulting, amongst other small crimes, is seeing them end up in jail. For these reasons, they commented on a vicious cycle taking hold where women are systematically disempowered. As women move in and out of incarceration their trauma is compounded, it becomes harder to nurture, care and parent children, to build resilience and reconnect. All too often children are taken away leaving women in deeper anguish.

I support the recommendation of Ms Šimonović that violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has to be understood in line with gender equality where national measures are taken to accelerate the advancement of women, to break a cycle of incarceration amongst other traumas. Women need to be in their communities as active participants, as nurturers, educators and leaders.

Violence, against women, which can too often inhibit their ability to sit on governance structures and curtails too many freedoms is a destructive form of discrimination. All women have the right to live a life free of violence, exercise their voice and cultural expression, own initiatives to improve their law and justice outcomes, and live the full respect and dignity of personhood that gender equality brings.

These rights are outlined in UNDRIP and the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), signed by Australia in 1983.

For so many of us we have experienced structural discrimination, disenfranchisement and marginalisation first hand, in the form of racism, physical and verbal abuse, poverty, poor housing, a lack of qualifications which lock us out of employment and the many traumas and harms which manifest as a result.

It is this lived experience which means we are best at confronting and overcoming these structural barriers and entrenched discrimination.

At Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre, in Fitzroy Crossing, where I was CEO for almost 10 years I encountered women doing this all the time and right from the organisations conception.

Marninwarntikura was formed in the mid-1980s by women acknowledging their invisibility in local community governance structures and in formal dialogue with government. They did not have a platform to advocate for their rights, to speak up and out about the scourge of domestic and family violence that had remained hidden and denied. However, the women were determined through their voices to create equitable governance for the regions communities, and shape a healthier society around wellbeing and care.

In effect Marninwarntikura is an example of a women’s Indigenous governance structure and body. It was designed to act on multiple levels simultaneously; to respond to crisis in women’s lives, while improving their confidence and self-esteem. The decision makers of Marninwarntikura were the experts. They were women who had experienced trauma in the first instance, could speak the truth about what had happened to them, so together they could share their knowledge to create programs of recovery and healing, and in turn produce better health and life-outcomes for the entire community.

Many of those founding mothers are now in key leadership roles, and their daughters are following in their footsteps.

This form of governance is uniquely Indigenous. It is structured around the inherent values of Indigenous women. This includes:
- Culture
- Care and support
- Self-care and communal and familial nurture
- Obligation and responsibility
- Leadership

These are critical supporting pillars for women in work, governance and leadership spaces, particularly given the highly complex, pressured and sometimes harmful environments that Indigenous women can come from.

When I left Marninwarntikura we were calling this governance, operations and strategic development of the organisation trauma and healing informed.

This approach to governance, which can respond effectively to trauma, through truth-telling and healing, to then revitalise cultural strengths and societal vibrancy, is taking off. The NT Royal Commission stressed how a great number of submissions from Aboriginal controlled organisations insisted on the need for trauma-informed workforces and decision-making processes. The National Healing Foundation are working to highlight how Indigenous organisations are doing this work across the country.

It is through these approaches that we can make governance exciting and meaningful to our young, instead of feeling the burden, tedium and conflict that Western governance so often presents us with.

Western governance often structured around competition and individualism fails to provide our women, and all people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, with the care and support necessary to reduce anxiety, and stress and increase productivity. As Western governance begins to acknowledge some of its structural inequities and the values it lacks, glass walls start to come down, and our Indigenous knowledge, voices and skills are heard and celebrated!

I am excited talking to you all about this today, as I feel it is us that can make this transformation to a new form of governance a reality. Tomorrow, as I mentioned, I will be launching a national engagement process with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. The purpose of which is to enable them to exercise their right to be heard and for us to listen and develop pathways to act on clear priorities to protect and advance their rights, now and into the future. This project is part of a legacy that has been left quiet for too long.

Jackie Huggins played a significant role in the landmark Women’s Business Report handed down in 1986.

30 years on since we acknowledged the important space of Women’s Business, it is certainly time that we bring our voices together and get on with some more business. We need to say again to all our women and girls, nothing that you feel or dream is unspeakable. Your strengths must be recognised by others and by yourself.

I want to leave you all with this challenge today. If we are really going to live an Indigenous governance then how are we, in this room, going to incorporate our values into our lives and work daily? How can we offer our hand to other women, to share our leadership space, and not feel threatened, but inclusive, caring and collaborative?

The truth is governance is our power. Effective governance has a remarkable capacity to unite diverse people with a common purpose. We need to start recognising governance as this, and actively practising it. We can create a network of strong Indigenous women, connecting communities across the rural, remote and urban, for our voices to be heard, for meaningful decisions to be made, and effective action taken. What we could unleash, and what we could achieve, through the strengths, power and talents of our women, is unimaginable. The future of our governance, is ours to make today.

Thank you all.
Yaninyja.


1. Australian Human Right’s Commission, Women in Leadership (2010) Australian Human Rights Commission. At http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/women-leadership (viewed 23 November 2017).
2. Matt Chamber et al, ‘Challenge and change at the top’, The Australian (online), 17 November 2017. At http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/womenwork/news-story/5085d61e9f... (viewed 17 November 2017).
3. Mick Gooda, Social Justice Report 2012, (Australian Human Rights Commission, 1st, 2012) 88.
4. United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295. At http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf (viewed 15 November 2017).
5. Referendum Council 2017, Uluru Statement from the Heart, (26 May 2017), National Convention, Uluru. At https://www.referendumcouncil.org.au/sites/default/files/2017-05/Uluru_S... (viewed 17 November 2017).
6. Phoebe Wearne, ‘West embraces equality with a big Yes all over’, West Australian (online), 16 November 2017. At https://readnow.isentia.com/Temp/56094/874539366.pdf (viewed 16 November 2017).
7. Northern Territory, Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, Final Report, (2017).
8. Adriane Walters and Shannon Longhurst, “Over-represented and overlooked: the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s growing over-imprisonment”, (Human Rights Law Centre, 1st, 2017) 11.
9. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, End of mission Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on her visit to Australia, 20 March – 3 April 2017. At http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21473&L... (viewed 21 November).
10. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, End of mission statement by Dubravka Šimonović, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences, on her visit to Australia from 13 to 27 February 2017. At http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21243&L... (viewed 21 November 2017).
11. United Nations Women, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): Adopted by the General Assembly, 1979. At http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm. (viewed 21 November 2017).