A woman's place ...
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 24: Participation Society
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Megan Davis
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Megan Davis' biography and other articles by this writer
The federal government's commitment to establish a new Indigenous national representative body provides Indigenous Australia with a unique opportunity to galvanise the potential of liberal democracy to reshape the way we do business, both with the state and with each other.
We know that establishing a representative body for Indigenous Australia is aimed at ameliorating the tendencies inherent in ballot box democracies, where politics are dictated according to the greatest good for the greatest number. But the task of designing a new representative structure is a rare opportunity to reshape Indigenous politics. This presents a chance to reflect upon the successes and flaws of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), and allows us to reassess the way we do business and make decisions, especially in relation to women.
Indigenous women comprise just over half the population; within their communities, women are the primary nurturers and caregivers, and they hold important cultural and leadership roles. Yet for decades they have borne the brunt of violence. The evidence-based crisis of endemic violence committed against Aboriginal women in urban, regional and remote communities undercuts the claim that women are valued members of Aboriginal society. We must move beyond the rhetoric of the ‘separate but equal' idealism in traditional communities and focus on how communities that routinely commit and permit violence against women will work to respect them and their children.
One way is to ensure that the unique experiences and needs of women are addressed in an institutional way by equal representation on the new body. The opportunity to design a new organisation is a time to consider how we can push the envelope on democratic representation. The report on the new national representative body produced by Mick Dodson and prefaced by Tom Calma noted that no particular structure or design had been contemplated. As this essay argues, this is why women's representation is so important.
Regardless of one's view of the motivations or impact of the Northern Territory intervention, the reality is that it has profoundly shifted the way in which Indigenous affairs are conducted. An unexpected consequence is that the absence of a national representative body has opened up a space for the voices of Aboriginal women. The challenge facing those designing the new national representative body is whether this will continue or cease.
The idea of equal mandated representation provides us with an opportunity to create a new inclusive narrative of who we are. Most importantly, it could be a narrative unconstrained by the fear of abuse – the type of lateral violence Marcia Langton discussed in Griffith REVIEW 22: MoneySexPower and that Bess Price described at the Indigenous Family Violence Forum – the bullying that many Indigenous women receive when they speak out.
While a universal Indigenous narrative has been crucial to political advocacy and strategy, it has in effect stifled Aboriginal women's voices and advocacy. Women may feel less inclined to voice opinions perceived as being in conflict with the central political message of organised advocacy – land rights and racial discrimination. But respect for critique and dissent is crucial to developing a more sophisticated conception of Indigenous concerns, one that fights tooth and nail in Australia and all the way to the United Nations for women and children's rights in the way that we do for land rights.
THE IDEA OF A SEPARATE REPRESENTATIVE BODY FOR Indigenous peoples is not novel. Most liberal democracies have tinkered with the structures of their public institutions to accommodate Indigenous peoples permanently within their constitutional system. Canada has included Indigenous rights in its constitution and is currently engaged in belated ‘post-colonial' agreement-making with its First Peoples. New Zealand has the Treaty of Waitangi which, for all its flaws, provides Maori with a legitimate and sustained legal and political place.
In Australia, Indigenous interests have been accommodated in the most temporary way, by statute. What the state gives, the state can take away, as has happened with ATSIC, the Racial Discrimination Act and native title. ATSIC was a statutory body which had its flaws. Like most public institutions it would have benefited from improved design and processes; this much was suggested by the ATSIC Review panel. Instead, it was simply repealed by the Howard government. Its evidence-based knowledge of what works in Indigenous governance and its Indigenous public servants with expertise have all been lost.
A national representative body is vital to navigating the complexities of Australian federalism and achieving national commitment to closing the gap. Michael Dillon and Neil Westbury, in their excellent book Beyond Humbug (Seaview Press, 2007) identify the inertia of governments when it comes to law and policy reform in Indigenous communities. They argue that the vastly varied conditions and needs of Indigenous communities across the nation confound policy-makers. Indigenous communities clearly defy the preferred one-size-fits-all approach.
Having said that, a new national representative body must recognise the way Indigenous politics has adopted its own one-size-fits-all approach to gender. In doing so, we fail to recognise that in the context of self-determination, ‘self' for Indigenous women is not always the same as ‘self' for men. The right to self-determination is not only about the way we collectively exercise control over the economic, social and cultural aspects of our community life; it is also about the right of every individual to have the opportunity to participate actively and equally in those decisions.
The unsophisticated mainstream discussion about the strengths and flaws of ATSIC means that we cannot engage in an open and serious debate about how we can best learn from its mistakes. Yet the experience of ATSIC provides us with important signposts for improving Indigenous women's participation in decision-making and policy formulation. Originally ATSIC was to have equal representation of men and women, but this was absent from the final design. It was a hybrid institution of administrative functions and democratic representation with regional elections from which the national board was elected. A study conducted by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research found that ‘women do not seem to be successful in being elected ... nor in attaining higher elected ATSIC office'. Although women participated more at a regional level, there was a gradual decline of their participation. When Geoff Clark was re-elected chair in 2002 he declared ‘a victory for the Aboriginal community' and thanked ‘all those Aboriginal females' who had voted, saying, ‘You've given us a mandate, you've returned the traditional role to Aboriginal men.'
The low level of participation could be explained because ATSIC elections were not compulsory and therefore not representative of women. Anyone who identifies as being Indigenous and is recognised as such by his or her community could vote or stand for election. There were many structural deficiencies and limitations that had the practical effect of limiting women's participation. These deficiencies included isolation and marginalisation of women as leaders and decision-makers; the impact of traditional beliefs and values about the role of women on their confidence; the absence of female role models; and a lack of access to training and education. Yet these structural barriers were overlooked; the lack of women's representation was dismissed as a simple issue of choice. The former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Philip Ruddock, reinforced this by supporting Geoff Clark's statement: ‘Indigenous people [were] given the opportunity to choose whom they wanted to represent them in a free ballot. [They] chose to elect sixteen men and
Ruddock was echoing the great mythology of liberal claims to neutrality and equality of institutions. It is important for us to continually scrutinise the impact of Western liberal democratic structures on our communities and our attitudes. Some activists would spurn the application of any model based on Western democracy. But we have a chance to temper the distortion created by male-dominated institutions by choosing a new direction. There is nothing wrong with allowing people to say who represents their interests. And, given the large urban population, I would expect there is an expectation of legitimacy manifest in a ballot box. It is fair, it is open and it is transparent.
Improving women's representation by mandated equal representation should not be viewed as a discriminatory act towards men, but rather a temporary form of substantive equality to help women achieve political representation. Whatever the outcome of discussions about a national representative body, decision-makers must be cognisant of the fact that any institution will have a different impact upon Indigenous men and women. ATSIC prioritised the advancement of the ‘rights agenda' as a major platform which masked the gendered effects on women's already disadvantaged position. One example is the conflict between the right to sustain a customary practice and the right of women and children to live free from violence.