2018 5th National Indigenous STOP Domestic Violence Conference

Josephine Cashman, Executive Director, Big River Impact FoundaitonI wish to acknowledge the custodians of this land, the Turrbal clan of the Jagera people and their Elders past and present. I acknowledge their continuing culture, especially their contribution to Australian life. I recognise we are working on their traditional country. I respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land and I appreciate the strength, resilience and capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island nations. I am honoured to be standing on the ancestral lands of the Turrbal clan of the Jagera people. I value the First Australians as the traditional custodians of our continent. We are one of the oldest living cultures in human history. I pay my respect to the Elders of this community and extend my gratitude to their descendants who are present.

I have been invited to offer long-term approaches to stop violence in our communities and I accept some of you may be surprised to hear my recommendations. I believe that if we are to be successful it must start with us. I know we can overcome obstacles if we believe in ourselves because I am confident we possess the determination, instinct and strength needed to achieve our goals despite the injustices our people have been subjected to historically.

We are advised to set goals and it is critical we shape our own future. I am going to be frank.  I think some of us choose to live as victims.  Many of us believe the system is against us, therefore, there is no point in doing anything. This is dangerous. It is true some of us have internalised the racism we have been subjected to and it presents in our way of being. This in turn lowers our standards and expectations to the point where sadly, the victim has become our identity!

It is a fact we are grieving and it has not been of our making. We are suffering from intergenerational trauma, the loss of our land, the suppression of our ancient culture, from feeling disconnected from our unique spiritual base and our relationship to country. This has had a genuine impact on all of us. Nonetheless, the pain and loss should not be allowed to define our identity, our destiny and most critically, it must not shape our future. It is therefore not advisable to hand the reigns to the government to solve our problems. It is wise to address the systemic problems reflected in government policies and our social infrastructure. Blaming the past will never spawn the breakthrough we need to move forward and reclaim our power.

It is true our land has been stolen and our children have not been compensated for their losses. Therefore it is vital we demand truthful storytelling as we work towards negotiating a Treaty with the Australian people. I know we possess the will to make it happen and we are more likely to achieve it when we are in control of our lives. Self-determination will strengthen our outcomes.

There has been a lack of evidence-based policies monitoring and evaluating Indigenous funding programs. Indigenous people have been turned into scapegoats. It has been systemic incompetence and I accept it has sometimes been corruption. The time has come to insist that funding goes towards generating solutions that impact positively on our social and economic future.  

Some business people have functioned like pigs in a trough lapping up a lack of accountability in Indigenous affairs and offering overpriced services for housing and other essential services. Many have profited from negotiating lucrative contracts for the procurement of our essential services and not delivering them.  We have witnessed failure and incompetence. Houses have been built that resemble dog boxes with no verandas and constructed using the cheapest, inadequate materials. It has cost the government millions.  The time has come to demand accountability and reform moving forward.

There are industries built around our so called welfare. An Elder described it to me as the Aboriginal Gravy Train. Right wing commentators have been simplistic blaming Indigenous Australians for lack of results. This is false. On the other hand, leftist commentators tend to perpetuate the victim fantasy.  For example, I have attended meetings where colonisation has been blamed for child sex offences! This, in turn, has given these offenders an excuse not to be made accountable. There is no excuse for it in any culture and it has fed racist ideologies. Our communities are vulnerable and offenders are often not caught and in some instances have been protected by their families.

We are advised to admit governments cannot solve our problems and governments will never be perfect. They come and go.  Nonetheless, it is imperative we maintain vigilance in supporting and constraining governments by demanding improved outcomes. Democracy is like a muscle that must be exercised if it is to maintain tip top shape. We must complain and demand justice when we are treated unfairly. Remember democracy is fluid and we are entitled to expect integral conduct. We must be brave to hold to account those with the power and be willing to keep going when it is tough. In my view, we have also been too quick to judge one another and to engage in family and lateral violence. Many of our leaders have suffered and consequently burn out and they are often not appreciated or acknowledged for their achievements. It is impossible to be dynamic that way.

At the same time, I acknowledge our people have been groomed into dependence. It is therefore understandable some of us feel the need to wait for the government to intervene before taking action. It is true we have been controlled and split apart in the past, therefore, it is urgent we commit to working our way out of the mindset that has trained us to wait to be told what to do!

I congratulate the NADICO committee. The slogan, ‘because of her we can’ has started the conversation emphasising the importance of mothers and family. It is already successful. I do not intend to underestimate the injustices of the past, rather I advocate it is in the best interest of our people to aspire to live in the present and thus generate reform from a position of future presence.

US-born Opera Winfrey is a powerful example.  As some of you know, Oprah is a black American media proprietor, actor, producer, and philanthropist. You might know her from her television talk show. Oprah was born to teenage parents and soon after her father left. Oprah and her mother lived in poverty and Oprah was bullied because she wore dresses made from potato sacks. This was obviously because her mother could not afford proper clothing. Oprah was moved back and forth between family members.

When she was nine years old Oprah was sexually abused by her cousin, uncle and family friend and it continued for many years. It was obviously a terrifying experience. She ran away from home at 14, fell pregnant and gave birth to a son who died shortly after. She then continued to struggle with poverty until her mother sent her to live permanently with family. She was placed in a school where she had access to a good education. This opportunity supported Oprah to go on to become the admirable human being she is today.  

Oprah Winfrey broke away from poverty and social exclusion by taking responsibility for the choices she made.  Oprah could have chosen to be a victim of her circumstances and no one could blame her given the context. Instead, her message has been that positive thinking and challenging work generates success. I quote, ‘get your rewards and if you don’t get those rewards, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough, or you weren’t deserving” and “if you believe it, it will come true”.

Those of us who blame circumstances will never breakthrough. The past cannot be changed but we can transform the present. Everyone is likely to encounter restrictive circumstances sooner or later and fulfilment is a moment to moment choice. When we look backwards we cannot aspire, we cannot dream and we cannot plan. We are advised to be mindful of our past at the same time be determined to lift our standards by setting our expectations high making it possible for our dreams to come true. Life is full of possibility and life is precious.

Unfortunately, some communities are dysfunctional where children are raped and commit suicide. This is obviously unacceptable. We have failed these children and the time has come to change it. Progress will always be inhibited by the belief that another is responsible for our problems. I challenge all of us to work on our personal sphere of influence by concentrating on transforming our families and our communities. Some of us live in fear choosing to take drugs, misuse alcohol and spend our pay at the TAB or on the pokies, all recognised triggers of domestic violence. I remind you, no one can make anyone to do anything because each of us possesses the power of choice.

I have found the worst victims to be the most violent offenders and they occur as sooks and cowards. I quote, ‘She made me do it, she flirted with men, she made me jealous, she nagged me, she made me angry, she wanted it, she led me on, my childhood is to blame’. These offenders take no responsibility for personal control and the worst offenders gain power from abusing others. I have worked with them as a Prosecution and Defence lawyer. I learned quickly that I needed to establish myself and present myself as being unafraid of their intimidation tactics. My resistance broke some of them. It often occurred to me I was the first female who had challenged them. Most offenders obviously had significant women in their lives: mothers, aunties and girlfriends who were their co-dependents. These women had not demanded appropriate behaviour from them and had given in to their demands and blamed others. According to the experts taking responsibility is the only way violent offenders will ever change. This is applicable across all cultures.

I have met many wonderful Aboriginal women who have inadvertently created low expectations resulting in the bad behaviour of their sons. One of these sons was sentenced to Life Imprisonment for a violent rape. As a result of a traumatic past, this lovely old Aunty failed to set boundaries. She consequently overcompensated and failed to apply discipline when it was needed. Those of us who have been neglected, subjected to abuse, violence and family dysfunction as a child will suffer from low self-esteem as adults. This young man started demanding lolly money at six, Cannabis money at 12, Heroin money at 14, then money for gambling at 18 and progressed to bullying others. Unfortunately, his family failed to call the police. The strangers who were his next victims reported him to the police and it was the first of many prison sentences until one day he went too far. He writes abusive messages from gaol to his mother who is old and sick. I assured Aunty she deserves peace and I have advised her to block him. If she does not, she will die feeling abused by her son. How sad. It is impossible to lead a healthy life when fighting one another and failing to set boundaries.  It is vital to acknowledge the bad patterns we pass to our children. It is time to choose transformation and live into our unique inheritance.

I believe our people possess the power to drive political and economic reform in our communities, in our families and in our country. I also believe our people possess the determination to end family violence. It starts and ends with us. Ask yourself this: Do I choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Our people possess unique wisdom and cultural knowledge and our contribution to Australian life is in demand. Remember we are the First Australians and our heritage is one of the oldest living cultures in the world.

Thank you for listening.

Speech delivered at the 2018 5th National Indigenous STOP Domestic Violence Conference in Brisbane, Australia by Josephine Cashman.

© Big River Impact Foundation 2018.