2021 Ochre Ribbon Week speech by Leanne Liddle
Leanne Liddle speech for Ochre Ribbon Week
North Australia Aboriginal Family Legal Service
Family and domestic violence and the Aboriginal Justice Agreement
19 February 2021
My first duty is to acknowledge that we are meeting on Larrakia land. I’d also like to welcome and acknowledge the Aboriginal people here this morning, elders and leader’s past, present and emerging. I’d like to acknowledge the Judiciary, Ministers, departmental Chief Executive Officers, Members of Parliament, and people from the non-government sector. And finally, the North Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Service more commonly known as NAAFLS for the honor of presenting this year’s Ochre Ribbon breakfast address.
The Ochre Ribbon Campaign is supported by the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum and its member organisations that includes NAAFLS, host of today’s breakfast. This week is Ochre Ribbon week that runs from the 12th to the 19th of February. It’s a call to action to prevent family and domestic violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This year, NAAFLS is calling on the Northern Territory Government to invest in MORE culturally appropriate, trauma informed, holistic wrap around support services to better assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, families, and perpetrators of family and domestic violence.
This morning I’ve been asked to speak about the Northern Territory’s first Aboriginal Justice Agreement, the AJA and its potential to reduce the rates and impacts of family and domestic violence. The Agreement is in its final form currently going through government. So my presentation will focus on what we have learnt from that process, with a particular lens on how the Agreement will impact on family and domestic violence, relevant to the Northern Territory.
What I’m hoping is that you will leave this morning with knowledge of what can change when we work together in partnership with Aboriginal people to tackle the difficult and challenging elements that cause and contribute to family and domestic violence. When it is finally launched, the Agreement will be a momentous occasion. It will be an opportunity to fundamentally reset the relationships between Aboriginal Territorians and government, that will reap benefits well beyond just the justice system.
Many of you may not be aware, but Justice Agreements were a recommendation flowing from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Where all states and territories then, except the Northern Territory agreed to develop Justice Agreements. Some 30 plus years on, and only Victoria has retained their Agreement. Others have been lost in translation and election cycles or they did not even eventuate.
But I can say, with my hand on my heart, that despite the passage of time, the long overdue Aboriginal Justice Agreement for the Northern Territory has been developed, respectfully within a process that reflects its crucial importance. Three years later, 159 consultations, with interpreters and cultural brokers, supported by statisticians, demographers, and criminologists, we listened and heard from people, as to what was needed to improve the justice system for Aboriginal Territorians.
Sounds exciting, but it was anything but. And that’s because the process was physically draining, mentally exhausting and confronting. But it was not the travel, and not the consultations themselves that caused the angst and despair. Instead, it was the sense of responsibility as we listened to people who told us what they had seen and tolerated for decades. They had witnessed many people, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, all well-meaning, all well-educated, and all well-intentioned who came in to “consult”.
Too often, those consultations had resulted in little or no genuine improvement, due to a lack of skills, the lack of resources, and the lack of commitment to power-sharing and respect for Aboriginal leadership. And it was that level of responsibility that made me acutely aware of what difference a well-targeted and well-developed Justice Agreement could actually make to the lives of Aboriginal people. I owed it to the people who came to our consultations, all unpaid, who had been to so many others, who had told us that they had left far too often with nothing but promises that ended in disappointment.
I knew what they were thinking: Perhaps this woman will mean what she says?” For a start she isn’t a consultant; she has skin in the game. She had told us upfront that she and her team weren’t coming to have a cultural experience, or to build relationships with community. No, instead we had made it very clear – we were there to do a job, to work together to improve the justice system. And to do that well, she told us she had to be efficient and that’s why she had flown in, not taken days to drive in. And I knew that my job was: to listen, to capture and reflect what was said.
If I failed to capture what we needed to inform the Agreement and what those in the consultation wanted to say in the time that I had, then I was not skilled or equipped enough to perform my role. Not once did anybody complain that we had failed in this task. Because we asked for that feedback; and we were invited back at almost every consultation to talk again about the Agreement but this time the community wanted to organise it as they wanted more people to be there.
Now why was this? I think it was for these reasons: The level of empathy, but we weren’t there to sit down and hold people’s hands. We weren’t there to make promises that we could not keep. Instead, we were there to listen, and I mean really listen, and to take back the concerns of what mattered to Aboriginal people, to collect the data and evidence and to do research and find solutions to improve the justice system for Aboriginal people.
The Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Justice Agreement has three aims: 1) to reduce offending and imprisonment of Aboriginal Territorians; 2) to improve justice responses to and services for Aboriginal Territorians; and 3) to engage and support Aboriginal leadership. Under these three aims there will be specific commitments and actions that will deliver improved outcomes through a detailed Implementation plan which will be rigorously monitored and evaluated by independent parties and the communities involved throughout the seven year process. All three aims of the Agreement can address the horrendous rates of family and domestic violence, and with a highly coordinated, whole of government approach, they will significantly reduce the rates and the impacts of such violence not only for direct victims, survivors and perpetrators but their extended families and communities more broadly.
Before I explain how this can be achieved, we need to do some truth-telling about the extent of the problem. But first, a warning about the awful statistics. Ever since assisting Elliott Johnston, the Chief Commissioner of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Patrick Dodson has reminded us that behind the statistics of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody are the bodies and souls of real people and their families. Recently, he wrote: ‘My thoughts are with all the families, whose loved ones are the human beings behind these statistics.’
Equally importantly, every time we list these statistics, we can fall into the use of deficit discourses that humiliate, insult and accuse Aboriginal people of being inherently or universally deficient, dysfunctional or lacking by comparison with other Australians who are systemically privileged and protected regardless of their personal effort or capacity. We must remember that for many in this morning’s audience, these figures call to mind the deaths and damages experienced by their loved ones as Senator Dodson so powerfully reminds us.
The data shows that family and domestic violence is not a marginal issue in the Northern Territory. The incidence of family and domestic violence is closely correlated with the social determinants of poor Aboriginal health outcomes. Family and domestic violence in turn leads to major impacts on families, individuals and the social cohesion of communities. Not surprisingly, it also consumes a sizable proportion of police, court, corrections, child protection and health efforts and resources and is traumatic for first responders.
On a national front, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times more likely than non-Aboriginal people to be hospitalised due to family and domestic violence. Here in the Northern Territory, 60 per cent of all assaults committed by Northern Territory residents are family and domestic violence. This is a higher proportion than any other jurisdiction in Australia, except for Western Australia at 63 per cent. For the year ending June 2020, there were 4,029 recorded family and domestic violence related assaults. And at least 55 per cent of these assaults involved alcohol.
In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal women are: three times as likely to be assaulted than Aboriginal men, eight times as likely to be assaulted than non-Aboriginal men and 12 times more likely to be assaulted than non-Aboriginal women. Our family and domestic homicide rate is higher than any other jurisdiction at 2.04 deaths per 100,000 population. That rate is more than six times the national average and four times the next highest jurisdiction, Western Australia. And in prison, 60 per cent of Aboriginal male and 53 per cent of Aboriginal female prisoners are held for family and domestic violence. And that figure has increased for men over the past five years, but not for women.
So, to reduce the imprisonment and offending rates of Aboriginal people, it requires a commitment to address family and domestic violence. If we do, we would reduce the costs to the taxpayer by reducing the costs of imprisonment. In essence, a greater investment in addressing family and domestic violence can only have a substantial impact on reducing crime, the number of children in child protection, and the other social problems which in turn, will have a substantial impact on budgets in the longer term.
Somewhat to our surprise, family and domestic violence was rarely raised by those who came to the consultations, and certainly it was not raised as a major concern. Many raised issues of violence, jealousy, alcohol and drugs, but when it came to talk about family and domestic violence, many chose other subjects to discuss. Even where we held separate consultations for men and women at the community’s request, the conversations revolved more about the causes of family and domestic violence, and their relationship to the media platforms of TikTok, Facebook and Divas Chat.
But when I started to tell that community, that they had four people now in jail who had committed serious assaults against their own family, including children living elsewhere in the care of others, and also how many partners were not there to help ageing their grandparents who were now caring for grandchildren, and more often than not, great-grandchildren and with the local cemetery always in sight, that when, confronted with these realities, the denying and deflection created a deafening silence.
It remains possible that open, public discussion of family and domestic violence is still too sensitive and to be frank, dangerous, and more private and protected conversations will be needed to inform our support in this area. This caution is especially important when talking to children about violence they experience and witness. We heard stories of women being abused by their partners who were in prison sending messages via his relatives to punish her for complaining or because of his jealousy concerns of partner, despite the fact that we would think that she would be safe from the abuse whilst he was inside the wire.
When we asked Aboriginal people in the consultations, “How would you like to contribute to fixing this problem?”, there were many fixes suggested. Some said programs need to be delivered in the community and not in regional centres. Some said we need to fix not just the perpetrator, but the entire family and that any responsibility to get and entire community to fix it, had to take second place to their family’s own need.
But it wasn’t like we got there quickly. Many people wanted us to hear their reasons why they thought things had deteriorated and why their communities were increasingly unsafe. People told us that the Intervention had been the catalyst for many losses, that the authority and respect that children had for their leaders and elders was taken away almost overnight. For sure, many acknowledged that things weren’t perfect before the intervention, and that a new police presence was helpful, but for too many, we were told that things had never recovered since the Intervention, a finding endorsed by academic research.
I used to think that the impacts of colonisation and the intervention was somewhat abused or over-used as an excuse for community dysfunction. So too the accusations of racism by individuals and systems. But now I know better. You can’t un-see what you have seen, including the impact of policies that are rushed and ill-informed. The fundamental example is perhaps the Intervention, but don’t forget the intergenerational impacts of the Stolen Generations and other ill-informed decisions that continue to play a role in the trauma and grief experienced by many Aboriginal people that has led to some poor parenting Aboriginal children in 2021.
Community consultations also told us that family and domestic violence goes unreported as people are afraid of the consequences of reporting someone to police or reporting a breach to correctional services. So many people told us that that they couldn’t access any family and domestic violence treatment programs or other therapeutic services unless they went to a major town which was impossible given responsibilities to children, the costs and the lack of accommodation.
The consultations informed us that even when facts are known, policies remain inflexible and at times immoveable. Like the policy of a local council, told by the person running the women’s shelter who was instructed that she could not take women in who had been drinking. So, when she asked that question; just as she was required to do to the many Aboriginal women wanting to stay, if they said: “Yes I’ve been drinking”, then she had no choice but to send them away. Well, you tell me where that woman goes to now when they have been turned away with her children in tow? They go back to the very same place where that violence took place, where their children continue to witness that violence and abuse.
So, even when we know that alcohol is likely to be involved in family and domestic violence situations, the safe house won’t take them, and we knowingly return them to the very place that they were trying to get away from to keep their children safe. Some people have suggested that traditional culture is a factor causing the high levels of family and domestic violence, and that has certainly been argued as a defense in NT courts. But I have little sympathy for such excuses. I am reminded of a proud honorable man in Ramingining, who has since passed, a leader in every way, who said to me when he spoke to his son-in-law:
“When I give to you my daughter to marry, I’m not giving you my daughter to assault, for you to control, for you to hurt and make her cry. No. I gave her to you to make her happy, and to keep her happy.”
These are the stories that we need to tell loudly and proudly to others. And for those who think that alcohol and drugs are a valid excuse reducing your personal responsibility, well think again, because alcohol and marijuana have never been part of Aboriginal culture. We must be clear. Crystal clear.
The luxury of living and growing up in a safe household is not guaranteed for many. No matter how dry that community, no matter how many police there are, no matter how good the health clinic. When children witness family and domestic violence, this reinforces a pathological idea of what is normal. It shows children that violence, threats and abuse work in relationships at least in the immediate term and that those around them often will not intervene. This in itself child abuse and yet another reason why it is fundamentally important to address these complex issues and reduce the amount of family and domestic violence.
It shows that we all MUST work together to support community leadership, preventative strategies, wrap-around services that are accountable to victims, and perpetrators, and their families to break the vicious cycle of family and domestic violence. And the first step towards working effectively together is working effectively oneself. There is a lot of talk too much in my view about the need to use specific language that relates only to parties who work with Aboriginal people. I hear these words wrapped around the language of ‘culture’ but when we do that it generalises Aboriginal people as a category. And these generalisations usually contain an essentialised and deficit discourse. Often this discourse suggests that the secret is understanding the supposedly exotic or radically different values of Aboriginal people.
The attraction of this assumption is that when we fail, it is really about a miscommunication or cultural clash or the inability of Aboriginal people to capitalise on what has been provided. When we fail, WE fail. We fail to adequately ask and listen to Aboriginal people. We assume that all Aboriginal people in the NT are basically the same rather than very diverse depending not only on location (place-based) but also in terms of age, gender, educational experiences, security of land tenure, access to housing and many other things that should be included in an intersectional approach. We fail to do OUR work, often without consequences. The Justice Agreement proposes that those days of a lack of accountability should end.
To be clear, most Aboriginal people don’t want you to build up trust and relationships with us. Because we know that you are only here for a short time- you will come and go- and another will replace you. So, we just want you to do your job. To deliver on that outcome that you get paid for. Not the one you think that you need to do, like coming out bush with community to collect bush foods or even worse, take ownership of a ‘new name’ that’s hard for your friends to say that’s not the one on your birth certificate. Don’t tell me at our meetings or in your consults that you work closely with this department and that organisation when you both come out in two separate planes for no valid reason that’s not explained to me, so that I have to tell my story to both of you on the same day.
If your job is to deliver trauma informed counselling – trust me when I say that we need it. But don’t sit in the council office – and don’t sit in the health clinic. Ask the community where you need to be – and when I mean community, I mean not the few board members, but the whole community, especially those who are marginal within the social hierarchy. Because it’s the ones that don’t access your services that need it the most.
During the consultations, I recall when we talked to many Aboriginal people and asked them this question: “When you make this community safe, what will you re-purpose the women’s safety house for?” The looks were always blank. The silence deafening. Then there was the look of: “What did you say? ‘safe? What no safe house?” And then there was another silent pause, but this time, recognition and a statement:
“You know Leanne, we have never been asked that question …ever. But when we do, we would most likely use it for an arts centre, or a parenting centre, to teach the young ones how to care for their babies or where night patrol can work from.”
What I’m trying to say is that too often Aboriginal people are never asked by many in consults to look ahead in five or 10 years’ time. Why? Is there an expectation that family and domestic violence, alcohol and drug misuse, child abuse and more will continue to rise and not be addressed in Aboriginal communities? Let alone a question how do you as Aboriginal people want to participate and partner with us to work together to achieve this goal? Expectations that again reflect the dominant deficit discourse.
As I said previously, the Agreement has three aims: to reduce offending and imprisonment of Aboriginal Territorians; to improve justice responses to and services for Aboriginal Territorians; and, to engage and support Aboriginal leadership. Each of these will make a large contribution to reducing family and domestic violence.
Firstly, the Agreement will gradually reduce offending and incarceration rates as formal alternatives to custody facilities are developed in Alice Springs and Groote Eylandt. And with the expansion of the specialist family and domestic court approach in the local court in Alice Springs. Other improvements will follow from better targeted therapeutic and educative programs in prison, and for those diverted from custody. And with better diagnosis and treatment of physical and mental health within the justice system. From legislative and administrative amendments to key legislation such as the Bail Act (1982), Sentencing Act (1995) and the Domestic and Family Violence Act (2007).
Secondly, with the establishment or re-establishment of local law and justice groups, connected to community courts, that will assist in restoring leadership in the community and provide crucial guidance for the justice system. Complex social relationships, family interconnections and histories can be revealed for consideration in both determining whether an offence has been committed and by whom, and what are the best remedies available for all affected parties. Difficult challenges of language and interpretation, well beyond the capacity of fly-in fly-out legal staff and judicial officers, can be negotiated and communicated to greatly improve the understanding of all, especially those sentenced to orders but also to all those in community who want to see the fairness and justice of these proceedings.
Thirdly, if all Aboriginal Territorians can access and navigate equitably and effectively the justice system including police, courts, corrections, human rights complaint agencies and legal services, and know what their rights are, and what their expectations should be, then trust and compliance will increase. Aboriginal people will feel more secure, and be prepared to work with police, courts, child protection, and other agencies to make our communities safer for all, in a system that treats everyone fairly, respectfully and without discrimination. There is not sufficient time to provide details on these commitments today, although much of that detail is outlined in the implementation document that will accompany the Agreement itself.
But both documents are living documents that will be co-designed with Aboriginal people, will develop, grow and change over time, between specific locations and as we learn from the monitoring and evaluation processes.
I like to think that the NT Justice Agreement honours the work of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in its commitment to self-determination. As Commissioner Elliott Johnston said 30 years ago:
“The whole thrust of this report is directed towards empowerment of Aboriginal societies on the basis of their deeply held desire, their demonstrated capacity, their democratic right to exercise, according to circumstances, maximum control over their lives and that of their communities.”
And other work underway with the Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Reduction Framework 2018-2028 including the Risk Assessment and Management Framework and the review of the Domestic and Family Violence Act (2007).
So, to conclude: Without supporting Aboriginal leadership, and without a vision that delivers well the services so that Aboriginal people who have contact with the justice system are treated fairly, respectfully and without discrimination. Then the issues will remain. And if we fail to do this, then the appalling incidence and impacts of Aboriginal family and domestic violence in the Northern Territory will continue. But by adopting a new, passionate determination to really close the gap in justice systems and incarceration rates, all of us can, in our own way leave this breakfast committed to work together to support and implement the Northern Territory Aboriginal Justice Agreement, and together we can combat family and domestic violence here in the Northern Territory.
I thank you all for listening.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Institute of Family Studies (2016) Family violence prevention programs in Indigenous communities, Resource sheet no, 37, produced by the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.
 Department of the Attorney-General and Justice (2020), Prisoners held for DFV offences, Unpublished internal analysis.
Calma, T. 2009. The Northern Territory Intervention – It’s Not Our Dream. Law Context: Socio-Legal Journal, 27: 14-41.
Commonwealth of Australia. 1991. Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), National Report, Volume 1. Canberra, AGPS. Available at: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/IndigLRes/rciadic/
Cripps, K. 2008. Indigenous Family Violence at the NTER Intervention: Public Policy or Evidence. Nexus, 20 (3): 18-20.
Hollinsworth, D. 2013. Forget Cultural Competence: Ask for an Autobiography. Social Work Education. 32(8): 1048-1060.
Lea, T. 2008. Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous Health in Northern Australia. UNSW Press, Sydney.
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