Podcast: Indigenous issues and consultation in the Family Violence Inquiry

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Professor Rosalind Croucher, President of the ALRC, speaks about some of the ways in which the Final Report for the Family Violence Inquiry, Family Violence – A National Legal Response (ALRC Report 114) addresses Indigenous issues.


In this podcast I’d like to tell you about the Family Violence report and our approach to issues that affect, in particular, Indigenous women and children. My name’s Rosalind Croucher and I’m the President of the Australian Law Reform Commission and also I was the Commissioner in Charge of the Inquiry jointly with the New South Wales Law Reform Commissioner, Hilary Astor. I’m making this podcast to give something back. I was very struck during the Inquiry in meeting many Indigenous organisations and individuals about the responsibility of a government body, such as the Law Reform Commission, to give feedback on what we do with the information and stories that we’ve heard and so I thought I would do a podcast as a way of beginning that conversation. I see it also as facilitating not just me talking to you like this but rather as a beginning of a conversation that we can continue over many of our inquiries and hopefully of a long enduring kind.

I’d like to begin by talking about the Indigenous strategy that we used in this Inquiry—the kinds of people that we spoke with and why we did so—because we recognised that it was really important especially in an inquiry concerning family violence which is of particular significance to women and children right across the country, and with an extraordinary detrimental impact on Indigenous women and children, we recognised that whatever we were going to do could not be done in a token way but had to be done seriously and with the people who knew exactly where the problems were happening and how best that we could respond. So we decided the best way of approaching obtaining feedback was to integrate the concerns rather than just have a separate chapter dealing with issues about Indigenous women and children. We integrated our approach so that we weren’t creating a sense of being ‘other’ but rather part of an overall problem. But we know too, that did create some issues with our Indigenous stakeholders because where we did deal with Indigenous issues they were spread throughout the report and weren’t separately and easily able to be found.

We were also conscience about what we heard called as ‘consultation fatigue’ and a certain frustration in Indigenous communities about more government bodies coming and obtaining information and disappearing, the fly-in-fly-out sense, and we wanted to make sure that whatever we did would be done sensitively and in a responsible way. We thought it best rather than try to go into community, which was very difficult for us with a small team and in a limited timeframe, that we should work with those who worked with communities, especially the Indigenous organisations and legal services that represented women and children and especially in the context of family violence.

So I thought now what I should do is perhaps tell you about some of the key issues that we heard about when we spoke to the many groups that we consulted over the country, and I should say that we did approach this nationally. We spent quite a few days in the Northern Territory and in Western Australia and in regional areas in New South Wales and Victoria and we had fantastic contributions from many, many Indigenous organisations and I want once again to publicly acknowledge the fabulous and dedicated input that we got so graciously from the many women’s organisations and Indigenous organisations more generally with whom we consulted. During NAIDOC week we published on our website a tribute to all of the organisations and people that we spoke to, and rather than going through all of those groups again, may I just once more say thank you very much for that fantastic participation.

So, what were some of the issues that we heard about? We heard about many, many concerns: some of them we could deal with, some of them we couldn’t. We are a law reform body and our Terms of Reference, which is our writing instructions, our mandate in this Inquiry was limited to legal frameworks. So while we heard about lots of problems we obviously couldn’t provide recommendations about all of the things we heard. But what we did get from our stakeholders was incredibly valuable information and extraordinary insights and they certainly shaped our thinking in the recommendations that we developed. Perhaps I can give just a few examples of the sorts of things we heard and how they found their way into the recommendations that we ultimately made.

One is in relation to the form and definition of family violence itself. Obviously that was a fundamental issue for us throughout the Inquiry because we were looking at family violence as it appears in legislation in states and territories and at the federal level, so the definition was a really important thing. Some of the examples we heard from our Indigenous stakeholder groups were things like how widespread is economic abuse in the form of ‘humbugging’ and also the power of emotional abuse including threats of suicide. Another one was of kidnapping or deprivation of liberty, forcing women to move to different communities, isolating them from their family networks. Now all of those examples, economic abuse, emotional abuse and kidnapping, each of those found their way into our recommended definitions of family violence in the report. So while they’re expressed in general terms they were things that we heard from the conversations we had, particularly in the Northern Territory, and you can see then how the things that we heard actually found their way through.

Another example is in relation to court proceedings, that the difficulty of giving evidence when you’ve got geographical issues, logistical problems where, for example, in the context of sexual assault, just getting a woman who alleges that she’s been sexually assaulted to give the relevant information to police and to obtain the medical examination that she needs, she might have to stay unwashed for hours and hours and hours before she is able to give that information, her evidence, in an appropriate way. So in making recommendations for, for example, pre-recording evidence and being able to use that pre-recorded evidence obtained, also we recommended by appropriately trained people sensitive to Indigenous concerns, that the information and evidence might be captured much, much earlier and in a way that can be used throughout the proceeding without that woman having to repeat her story over and over again.

Another example is in relation to Indigenous concepts of family and community. We heard, for example that there are great problems where many Indigenous families or an extended Indigenous family group may share the same premises. In the context of family violence and dealing with issues of somebody leaving because of family violence, well in the Indigenous context, who should leave? Who can leave and where can they go? All of these issues are obviously of great relevance, so when we were making suggestions about family violence legislation we suggested that the legislation should include, in terms of defining family relations, those who fall within the Indigenous concepts of family and that should be a core group in any protective family violence legislation.

Another example that we could give is in relation to bail conditions. We were concerned that if a perpetrator was released on bail, that the victim should know about the conditions of that bail and we were thinking about making sure that there was an obligation to tell the victims what those bail conditions were. But when we were in Alice Springs we heard, particularly from the NPY Women’s Council, of the difficulty sometimes of contacting women in communities that range across the NPY lands, and that if we were to recommend a condition that bail conditions were to be communicated to victims that would be very difficult to implement. While a good idea, it would be very difficult to implement in those contexts. So we included in the recommendation that was about bail, that it could be appropriate to send bail conditions to family violence legal and service providers with whom a victim is known to have regular contact and that element in that recommendation specifically responds to the kinds of concerns that the NPY Women’s Council raised with us.

So that’s just a handful of examples of the insights that we obtained and how they made their way through into the final recommendations that appear in fairly general terms in the report.

And so now I thought maybe what I should talk about is what happens next. Our report was a very big one, it was 1,500 pages and we had 187 recommendations, so it was pretty big. We also provided a summary report which just included the recommendations themselves and an executive type summary capturing the ideas at a more general level. But what happens then with all of those recommendations? Well when our job as a law reform body, when … we officially finish our work once we hand our reports to the Attorney-General and then the Attorney-General presents it to Parliament and officially that’s the end of our job and then it is up to Government. Parliament and government agencies will be looking at all of those recommendations and deciding what to do with them, but we do keep an interest even though our job’s officially finished. We track the implementation of our work and every year we publish what’s been happening with our reports over many years, we publish it in our Annual Report and so you will be able to see exactly what happens with all of those recommendations in our Family Violence report through our Annual Reports each year.

But I must say both of the Attorney-Generals took the trouble to come to the Australian Law Reform Commission offices in Sydney on 11th November this year, 2010, and by virtue of their presence and their appearance officially launching the report, it demonstrates a clear commitment at government level to do something about the insidious problems of family violence and we hope to carry forward our work into implementing the reforms.

To conclude I’d like to say that we learnt so much during this inquiry from the Indigenous individuals and organisations who took the trouble and time to share with us their work, their stories and their information and we want to make sure that that conversation continues. We consider that we started well and we want to continue well to ensure that Indigenous concerns and interests find a voice throughout all our work. There are many ways to help and to be involved, our website and e-newsletters provide many channels through which you can communicate with us. Please do get in touch, it’s very important for us that we hear as many insights and experiences that are relevant to each inquiry so that our recommendations that ultimately go to Government can be as informed as possible and never overlook the key role that Indigenous concerns should play in all of our work. We look forward very much to continuing the conversation with you and I appreciate your listening to this, our first podcast of feedback specifically on the Indigenous perspectives and participation in our Family Violence inquiry.