'No winners in the blame game' - Bess Price's portfolio

(Bess) Price advocates little other than almost blind devotion to top down government policies, whilst branding those who wish to scrutinise these polices as conspirators in the silence.

Amy McGuire Tracker 11 October 2013

Recently, NT Chief Minister Adam Giles sent Alison Anderson to the backbench - promoting Warlpiri woman Bess Price to Anderson's portfolios - including the Women's Policy ministry.

It may seem a natural fit, given Price's noted advocacy for the rights of Aboriginal women.

Price often recounts first hand accounts of the violence in her home community of Yuendemu. You certainly could never discount her experience and the depth of pain within her words.

But Price is seen as controversial because she habitually blames the progressive Left for what she perceives is a silence around the devastating levels of violence against women in Aboriginal communities.

She suggests left-leaning Aboriginal leaders, especially those in the southern states, do not care about the women who are filling the hospitals of the Northern Territory, and are instead only interested in promoting ideology at the expense of lives.

It's a preposterous, but popular, belief.

I will quote only a few paragraphs from Price's maiden speech to the NT legislative assembly, after she won the seat of Stuart. It encapsulates many of her arguments:

"For the Left and for many Aboriginal politicians on the national stage it seemed that the only issues worth talking about were the Stolen Generations and Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. These are real issues that had to be addressed.

"But they weren't the only issues. In the meantime women still died, children didn't go to school, epidemics of renal failure, diabetes, cancers and heart disease grew worse, young men went to jail.

"We kept killing each other and ourselves. Australians were not told that the death rate amongst our young men was higher outside custody than in and that more Aboriginal women died at the hands of their menfolk than Aboriginal men died in custody.

"Since then so many more women have died and been sexually assaulted and many killers and rapists have been given very short sentences. And many more men have gone to jail.

"This has come from this whitefella sense of guilt, the fear of encouraging racism and the fear of changing our culture. All of the victims in these cases were Aboriginal.

"There seems to be a very different attitude displayed in the rare cases where the victim is white and the perpetrator Aboriginal. My people now feud much more than they used to partly I believe, because they doubt that the courts will punish the guilty enough.

"The message to our young women is simple. 'Our fantasy of what your culture is about is more valuable than your lives. Our fear of racism is much greater than our respect for your lives. We ask you to sacrifice your lives for our political agenda. You will only hear from us when we can blame a whitefella for the crime'.

"The message to our young men is also simple. 'If you kill your women we understand, we will take the blame and we can guarantee you our sympathy'."

It's simplistic and sensationalistic, but these words help re-direct scrutiny from the dangerous solutions espoused by those who promote Price.

For one - the central premise that the Left are silent about violence against Aboriginal women is wrong and offensive. Aboriginal women who identify on all sides of the political spectrum are concerned about this problem.

We're not talking about violence against unknown women. We are talking about violence against our sisters, mothers, cousins and friends.

I don't believe any Aboriginal woman has ever sought to elevate concerns over culture above the safety of our women.

It's not a competition about who cares the most and I don't understand how anyone could make such a blanket accusation.

It would be inhumane to remain silent. But inciting moral panics amongst largely uninformed Australians, accustomed to viewing blackfellas as the "other", is just as insidious.

Price claims Aboriginal men are getting off lightly for violent acts against women, but then despairs over just how many Aboriginal men are being sent to prison (about 80 percent of the NT prison population is Aboriginal).

The situation is of course, more complicated than that, and Price's arguments are based on one large untruth: Aboriginal men are generally not getting off lightly for violent assaults.

In fact, criminology expert Thalia Anthony says the NT Supreme Court notes "penalties for violent crimes have increased since Wurramara was decided in 1999".

This decision stressed that the seriousness of the offense should be treated above other sentencing considerations. The court found in this decision that the harshness of the offense required a harsh punishment to protect the victim. The dysfunctional nature of the community from which the offender came was "by no means" a justification for a lighter sentence, Dr Anthony wrote in her book Indigenous People, Crime and Punishment.

Half of all jailing of Aboriginal men in the Territory is because of violent crimes. It obviously hasn't halted the stats - Aboriginal women in the NT are still 12 times more likely to be the victims of violent assault than non-Aboriginal women.

Locking up blackfellas has not been the solution at all. I would assume it simply continues the web of dysfunction, weaved by dispossession and disadvantage.

I'm not arguing that we shouldn't jail Aboriginal men for violent assaults. But we need to look at the high rates of Aboriginal incarceration, and the reasons behind it (for example, since the intervention laws were passed there has been a marked increase in Aboriginal people being jailed for driving offenses).

Jailing Aboriginal men contributes to the breakdown of the family structure, and continues the rupturing of communities.

Price believes there is an obsession with southern academics, activists and Aboriginal groups for protecting Aboriginal culture at the expense of the safety of women and children.

But she doesn't seem to acknowledge the important role of customary law in resolving disputes, or the fact Aboriginal culture does not actively promote violence against women.

Customary Law has never been a defense for violent crimes, as outlined by the Aboriginal Peak Orgnisations of the NT in a submission to Parliament last year.

"Between 1994 and 2006, the Supreme Court of the NT convicted 3976 persons of criminal offenses. Customary law was raised in 36 cases," the submission says.

" ... Of those 36 cases, a submission that moral culpability was related to customary law was made in only 13 cases. In four of these cases the court accepted the defendant committed the offense whilst acting in accordance with customary law. Only two of these cases involved 'promised brides'. In these two cases, initial sentences were inadequate and were properly increased by appellate courts."

Despite these facts, the federal government still kept in tact the intervention's provision that customary law should not be considered in sentencing and bail considerations (other than culture and heritage cases) - a provision that was even criticised by NT Senator Trish Crossin, who largely supported the laws.

I'm not denying that violence is a problem within Aboriginal communities. I'm not denying that it was probably in existence in pre-colonial times, just as it was in existence in every community in the world. Patriarchy is the norm the globe over.

But the situation in many Aboriginal communities - the distressing stories of Aboriginal women being subjected to violence that is almost unbelievable to the rest of Australia - is not a result of the Left's perceived silence or Aboriginal culture or the overbearing force of Aboriginal men.

The APO NT submission also quotes a former Chief Justice of the NT as saying:

"The constant stream of violence by Aboriginal men against Aboriginal women and children is fed by alcohol and other drugs. Rarely are these cases connected to customary law, practices or beliefs".

If it's easy to blame the Left, it's even easier to blame Aboriginal men. But demonizing Aboriginal men does not work. Why do they drink? Why don't they have jobs? Why has violence become a social norm?

These problems are the direct result of racist government policies that have left Aboriginal communities disadvantaged and in poverty. It has left them feeling disempowered.

Aboriginal women should not be marginalized in debates about how we alleviate disadvantage and make communities safer. But neither should men. It does not solve the problem. It makes it worse. It also disparages the men who are genuinely abhorrent of violence and want it to stop.

I've listened to tales of extreme violence Aboriginal women have been subjected to and have felt my heart jump out of my chest. I've also listened to it when it is an Aboriginal man who has seen it (not perpetrated it), who had felt the same sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

Gender does not govern how concerned we all are about this problem.

One hopes Ms Price begins to realise this.

If anything, she can no longer continue to blame the Left. She now has control over policy for the Territory's women and the ear of conservative legislators down south.

She has rolled the dice in the blame game, but if we continue to play it, there can be no winners.

Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist and editor of Tracker Magazine.