Aboriginal people need their own local and regional plans to reduce violence against women because national initiatives are not working and “lives are at stake”, respected anthropologist and Indigenous leader Prof Marcia Langton says.
Prof Langton delivered the call to action on the first day of the Morrison government’s National Summit on Women’s Safety – an event convened to help inform a new national plan to reduce violence against women and children.
She told the summit she agreed with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, June Oscar, that the current national plan did not work for First Nations people.
“The real problem here – and I’m going to say it out loud – the national plan and its iterations has led to unintended consequences in our communities and in our populations,” Prof Langton said.
“Let me be very clear about this,” she said. “Nobody listens to us.”
“They talk over the top of us. They tell us what we are going to have in our communities and no one listens to the women in the communities, the women in the towns, the women in the suburbs who have to deal with all the young women, and older women and children fleeing from violence.
“They are ignored, and that is because, in many respects, the women’s safety program across the country has become a bit of an industry. If you go to a typical country town, what you’ll see is the main services are all run by white people and all the Aboriginal leaders are marginalised. They not even invited to the table.
“We absolutely need our own Indigenous plan for ending violence against women and children and we absolutely need local and regional initiatives joined up with all the mainstream services, our representatives at the table, designing the local interventions and stopping the stupidity that goes on in the institutional environment when people think they are doing the right thing to us, not with us, they make terrible mistakes and lives are at stake.
“I mean this. Lives are at stake. Lives are being lost because people who think they know better than us will not listen to us and will not act on our advice.”
Prof Langton was part of a panel canvassing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences of family, domestic and sexual violence that also included Oscar and Fiona Cornforth, the chief executive of the Healing Foundation. The prominent academic said the next iteration of harm reduction policies needed to be led by Oscar, the Healing Foundation and Indigenous family violence prevention services.
Later in the day, on a separate panel, prominent Australian company director Sam Mostyn also urged the Morrison government to implement all the major recommendations of the landmark Respect@Work report undertaken by Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins.
Jenkins and a number of other women’s advocates have expressed significant disappointment the Morrison government has thus far failed to impose a duty on Australian employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, which was the key recommendation of the inquiry.
Mostyn told the summit Jenkins had undertaken a comprehensive survey of Australian workplaces across the country, and found that harassment was commonplace. She said the positive duty should be legislated “to take real measures to eliminate sexual discrimination and victimisation in workplaces”.
Mostyn said proceeding with that central recommendation would make it clear employers had a duty to provide safe spaces for employees. “I think it would be helpful, because rather than seeing it as another overlay of governance, or governments stepping in, it actually opens up a conversation”.
“We can fix it,” Mostyn said. “I do feel for a smaller business, but that shouldn’t be a reason we don’t as a community say that we all have a duty to provide safe and thriving environments for women and girls, and we know those environments are good for men and boys.”
The Coalition passed legislation last week giving effect to some of the recommendations from the inquiry, but not the positive duty. It says it will consult on the proposals it has not yet legislated.
The prime minister opened the first day of the virtual summit, delivering the keynote address. Scott Morrison said too many Australian women were not safe, so “we have to do better and strive to be better”.
“Australia does have a problem,” the prime minister said. “While much has changed over the years, too much has stayed the same.
“There is still an attitude, a culture that excuses, justifies, ignores or condones gender inequality that drives, ultimately, violence against women – and that is on all of us.”
On the opening day of the summit, Morrison faced criticism from sexual assault survivor and Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, and from the former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who says the government failed to invite her to the summit, even though the prime minister acknowledged on Monday she had been an important figure in starting a national conversation about safety.
Tame will participate in the summit on Tuesday. Higgins is also a delegate at the event, having been invited to participate by the ACT Victims of Crime Commission.