Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar has told Australia’s female leaders they are the greatest agents for change and empowerment in this country.
Speaking at the Chief Executive Women’s annual dinner on 19 September, Commissioner Oscar drew on her own experience as a leader in the outback town of Fitzroy Crossing, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
“I note that your speaker at last year’s dinner was Chua Sock Koong, the CEO of international telecommunications company SingTel. Before becoming a Commissioner, I too was a CEO for twelve years, but my organisation, the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre was as different from SingTel as Fitzroy Crossing is from Sydney or Singapore.
“Fitzroy Crossing is an open town, but very much an Aboriginal town. It is the centre of the Fitzroy Valley, a region with a population of 3,500 containing forty communities, and five major language groups. It is historically a centre of Aboriginal activism, Indigenous enterprise and inter-community collaboration.
“But it also suffers from all the scourges that afflict remote Indigenous Australia.
“When I started at Marninwarntikura, the Valley was experiencing an epidemic of funerals for people dying too young, and an awful spate of youth suicides.
“We were just starting to become aware of the scale of the Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) amongst our children, and to understand the pernicious, life-destroying effects of FASD on these kids and their families.
“In 2007 at our annual bush meeting, the women of the Valley made a momentous decision. We set out to have the sale of takeaway full-strength alcohol banned in Fitzroy Crossing.
“As most of you probably know by now, we were successful.
"We were the first community-led initiative to do so. Let me assure you it was not easy, but as women we stood strong in the face of threatening and abusive criticism towards our actions. We were forming the breathing space to free our children from harm. We sought to achieve a sense of relative social calm so we could begin to rethink the future.”
Commissioner Oscar attributed her community’s capacity to address youth suicide, FASD and alcohol abuse to a belief in the power of partnerships.
“My belief, the belief of the inspiring women who were my board members, co-workers and colleagues, is that community reconstruction– for that is what we are engaged in – must be led by the community and not imposed by government.
“The basis for successful and sustained outcomes is to build on the existing cultural and social capital and the resilience within the community.
“And the key to how we have gone about doing it, every step of the way, is partnerships.”
Commissioner Oscar urged her audience to listen to the voices of Indigenous people on the question of constitutional reform.
“I was fortunate to attend and participate in the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru this May. Now is not the time for a detailed discussion of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but let me just say to you, read it and think about it.
“Above all, try to grasp the sentiment at its core. Symbolism is important. Acknowledgement and remembrance are important. But they are not enough.
“It is time to give us a real voice at the table. When we become stakeholders not recipients in the political realm, participants not mendicants, the game can change.
“And I think we can all agree that the game does need to change. Let us proceed as partners.”