Not just a black problem
Author: Jo Chandler
Date: 17th March 2007
Source: Age

Playwright Louis Nowra has ventured into the dangerous territory of exploring Aboriginal male violence - what feeds it, and what must be done. His conclusions are explosive.

PLAYWRIGHT Louis Nowra says that when he sat down to write about the abuse of Aboriginal women and children by Aboriginal men, he tried to free his mind of the constraints that normally douse discussion of such taboos. The political correctness, the cultural squeamishness, the sexual propriety.

So his first paragraph includes the proud boast to him by a middle-aged Aboriginal man that he had raped a 13-year-old girl who wouldn't say yes, "so I f---ked her hard". From there Nowra launches into 20,000 often explicit, sickening words describing brutal violations and abuse of Aboriginal women and children, now and in history. In his just-published essay, Bad Dreaming, Nowra sets out to explore questions he says have preoccupied him for 20 years. How were women and children treated in traditional Aboriginal culture? Is the violence inflicted on them today a reflection of culture, or a pathological distortion of it? What have invasion and dispossession contributed to the abuse of Aboriginal women and children by Aboriginal men? Finally, in the 21st century, can culture justify or defend violence and abuse?

He concludes, citing a raft of observations from First Fleeters, colonial authorities and early anthropologists, that brutality towards women and pubescent girls was an inherent part of historic Aboriginal society. He insists he makes no moral judgement on this. The hard realities of hunter-gatherer life compelled a "consistent pattern of Aboriginal men's treatment of women that was harsh, sexually aggressive (gang-rape, for instance) and, in our terms, misogynist". On the matter of child sexual abuse, Nowra argues that there is no evidence that this was ever condoned or encouraged by custom. "As one early writer remarked, 'childhood is an untrampled one of little discipline and much affection'." The abuse of children is a post-colonial scourge, he concludes.

After a harrowing exploration of modern cases of abuse and violence, Nowra concludes that the trauma endured by Aboriginal women and children today is exaggerated by the dispossession, despair and disenfranchisement that came with whites. By booze, by welfare, by boredom. One third of 13-year-old girls in the Northern Territory are infected with chlamydia and gonorrhoea. "The gang rape of girls (now) has nothing to do with tradition or getting a wife from another clan. It's totally to do with lust," Nowra told The Age yesterday, and - he writes - sometimes with alcohol, idleness and disaffection.

Nowra - of bog Irish extraction, raised in a sometimes violent home in a housing commission estate in Fawkner by a thrice-married mother and now, as a successful writer, a member of the cultural elite - concedes he is an unlikely man to write this book. But he is as qualified as anyone to write it, he argues - quoting Aboriginal elder Mick Dodson: "This is everyone's problem."

The book's genesis came, Nowra says, when his long latent interest in the issues, in part the product of his long creative association with Aboriginal artists, was prodded by a hospital stay in Alice Springs. He saw brutalised Aboriginal women and girls. He saw women whose "faces looked as though an incompetent butcher had conducted plastic surgery with a hammer and saw. The fear in their eyes reminded me of dogs whipped into cringing submission."

He says he hopes his words will build a platform for discussion of what he portrays as an urgent, disgraceful humanitarian crisis within Australian society. "The violence and abuse are getting worse. The more I wrote and researched, the more horrified I became about what would happen to the next generation of children." He admits he wanted to stir things up - to upset the usual daily news cycle of sex crime followed by shock followed by silence and, inevitably, the same all over again.

Stir things up, he has. As his arguments filter through the ranks of indigenous elders, commentators and experts, they provoke a range of reactions. None of those contacted by The Age for comment disagreed with Nowra's assertion that violence is abhorrent, endemic, epidemic and indefensible. But his thesis of what has fed the emergency, and what has and should be done about it, provokes everything from sadness to outrage.

"When I read this document I was fractured. Not so much angry as despairing that the work that had been done over the years meant nothing," said Professor Judy Atkinson, an expert on violence and trauma, an Aboriginal woman, and a senior adviser to state and federal governments. Her work is acknowledged and drawn on by Nowra. Atkinson, of Southern Cross University in NSW, says she is sickened by the "ethno-pornography" of his vivid account; distressed at the blinkered parameters of his thesis, which she says ignores the assaults of white men - in particular, the harsh penal culture of young, white Australia; and angry at his failure to recognise the work of so many people to confront the issues. In common with another eminent indigenous woman and social scholar, Professor Larissa Behrendt, she is also bitter that again, it takes a white voice for the issue to be heard.

"He has one agenda - it is a black male problem - grounded in Aboriginal culture," says Professor Atkinson. "He needs to look at the sexual mores and practices of the people who colonised and came to this country." People who emerged from a penal culture with very high levels of sexual violence. "I've worked with close to 800 (Aboriginal) victims of sexual assault over a long period of time. And the higher percentage of their assailants - and this does not deny that some Aboriginal men assault - were people who had power, often white men with great privilege, sometimes white men who wormed their way into family, often church officials or school teachers or truck drivers. We are seeing the third and fourth generation effects of this now.

"Yes, we do have an epidemic (of sexual violence). I agree on that. It is sickening. Black men have to be responsible for some of that, but so should everybody else. The media who put pornography in front of our kids. And the bureaucracy, responsible for placing children in institutions where sexual violence occurred, and then denying this has happened." Professor Atkinson said she has devoted enormous effort in recent years to get government support for programs to short circuit sexual violence and trauma. But recent exchanges with some of the Federal Government's most senior bureaucrats had left her despairing.

In one consultation discussing a program to address childhood trauma, a senior adviser to Tony Abbott "looked me in the eye and said 'can't your people just get over it?' And I said yes, just like Vietnam veterans get over it, or people with cancer, or Holocaust survivors". On another occasion, Atkinson met Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough's advisers. "As we went to walk out, the senior person chairing turned to me and said 'you don't think that all this talk about child sex abuse is just false memory syndrome, do you?'.

"I said - and I want this published - well, the little child of six who drowned while she was held under the water while being anally raped doesn't have a memory. She is dead. I will never forget her, don't you forget her. That child's story is detailed in Nowra's book, but "nowhere in this document of Nowra's is this racism - the implicit racism of our society - recognised. To do nothing is tantamount to genocide."

Professor Behrendt, professor of law and indigenous studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, said she was concerned that in the litany of terrible cases assembled by Nowra, "he doesn't deal with in his thesis the enormous amount of work by Aboriginal men and women to condemn the violence.

"What you are left with is the impression, whether he means it or not, that violence is part of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal people haven't done enough to stop it. I find that insulting." She also strongly disagrees with Nowra's central theme - that violence and sexual aggression is inherent in Aboriginal culture. "I don't believe it is at all what my culture is about.

"He relies heavily on reports in The Australian, and I'm not sure that that is an objective view on these issues. While he may have had the best intentions, I think along the way his methodology has given a very flawed response. "You can take anecdotal examples, as he does - it doesn't mean that people say that is acceptable. You could do it as easily with European culture. "No one could read these stories without being horrified by them. But I am not sure how far it progresses the debate. What about the question of why communities get to such levels of dysfunction. That's where the debate needs to be had."

Fred Chaney, co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia and an Aboriginal affairs minister in the Fraser government, said the view that violence against Aboriginal women was "nobody's business" had endured long after the arrival of the First Fleet, but was clearly not acceptable today. He said he had grown increasingly despondent at the failure of society to initiate any concerted national response to the neglect and abuse of children - not just in Aboriginal communities, where the problem was plainly critical, but in marginalised communities throughout Australia.

"It is symptomatic of a really significant malaise of public administration and government involvement . . . When are we going to stop having repetitive shock horror stories, and really address this?

"Victoria was transfixed by Jaidyn (Leskie). How many more are there? In my family, there are two or three new babies every year. Each new child is precious. Each Aboriginal child is precious. And I think that as a country we need to think like that about our children - black, white or brindle. It just makes me feel like crying." Another key theme examined by Nowra is whether custom and tradition can ever provide a defence - or mitigation - against violence and abuse. Chaney says he had early training in this as a young l aw officer in Papua New Guinea in 1964, and found himself managing 24 wilful murder charges - all payback killings.

"I was confronted with the question - should these murders be defensible as culture? And I came to the conclusion that no, it could not be tolerated. If that is what culture said, then it should be interfered with."

Professor Mick Dodson, director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, said violence had clearly been a part of historic Aboriginal culture. "In particular against women, violence was used - as in many societies - as a form of regulation. But whatever justification there was in the past is no longer valid in the modern world." Dodson is concerned that Nowra's analysis, framed by a Western mindset, fails to understand Aboriginal policing systems, "where nothing is inexplicable, no injury can happen to a person without fault", as opposed to Western notions of blame or mitigation or excuse. This tradition can continue to usefully shape Aboriginal communities, justice and behaviour, even as other parts of tradition - for example, the death penalty for serious transgressions against Aboriginal law - are discarded.

"I accept the frequency of violence in indigenous communities is disproportionate. But it is also a terrible problem for the rest of society," Dodson said, echoing Chaney. "We should be careful here that we don't just see the chip in the other person's eye, when there is a bloody plank in ours."

Dodson was also concerned that the portion of Nowra's book published as an extract in The Australian last week gave the impression that child abuse was somehow condoned by Aboriginal culture or history - a theory vehemently rejected both by Dodson and Nowra. "The vast majority of Aboriginal men condemn the violence that corrodes our communities," Dodson has written in an editorial to be published by the Alternative Law Journal next week. "We share the community's outrage at acts of criminal violence perpetrated against our women and children, who have the right, like all Australians, to be safe.

"What needs to change is how Australia moves beyond serial crisis intervention to take the systematic, long-term action consistently called for by indigenous Australians living the horror of family violence."

It was a sentiment echoed by a judge in Alice Springs this week as he sentenced a man to three years' jail for getting drunk and beating his wife with an iron bar. It was one of eight similar cases of abuse by Aboriginal men affected by alcohol in the past month. Seven of the victims were women. "The problem is not one just for the Aboriginal community of central Australia," Justice Riley said. "It is not one just for the people of Alice Springs. It is not one just for the people of the Northern Territory. It must be a matter of deep concern for the nation.

This is a tragedy about which all Australians must feel embarrassed, and that all Australians should feel the need to address." Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal men's violence against women and children, by Louis Nowra, is published by Pluto Press as part of the Australia NOW series, $17.95.

Jo Chandler is a senior Age writer.