Shortly after Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister in 2007, he announced an exciting policy initiative — an inclusive gathering of Australians to help shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future and to tackle the challenges confronting Australia in new ways. The focus of the ideas summit was on 2020, then a ‘far-away’ year but one that we now look back as a Covid-wracked annus horribilis. Planning the summit showed just how baked the old ways were. The first non-inclusive blunder was the near-absence of women on the 11-member committee choosing the 1,000 delegates—actress Cate Blanchett was the only woman named. Another howler came with the decision to hold the summit on the first two-days of Passover. Even the most secular Jewish Australians would have been celebrating with their family and community. So, a well-meaning Rudd scrambled to organise a separate Jewish 2020 summit.
The readiness of the past to swallow the future is writ large today in the overwhelming life experience of unthinkable numbers of women suffering violence as a norm in their every-day lives. It was an endemic challenge facing Australia in 2007, still without remedy in 2020, and continuing in plague proportions today. Far from abating, COVID has amplified its unabashed presence with multiple events and reports of its existence. Over the last 18 months, we have had constant reminders that women’s safety is vulnerable not only on our streets, and in our homes, but in our Parliament. The anger felt by women expressed through the Women’s Marches for Justice around the country in March was real. Its power was not only expressed in numbers, but through the participation of women from all generations and backgrounds. In response, the Morrison government set up a Women’s Cabinet taskforce, also planning to hold a National Summit on Women’s Safety.
This event, which occurred last week, is a deferred online event from an earlier planned in-person gathering, yet the same inattention to our multicultural society meant it has fallen on the Jewish New Year. Australian Jewish women have been conflicted again from participating today. The National Council of Jewish Women, a roof body participating in community consultation was not invited as a delegate, but joined an open statement seeking to remind the government that: ‘migrant and refugee women are a significant and growing part of the Australian population and that family, domestic and sexual violence—while an important and pressing issue for all women in Australia—impacts migrant and refugee women in specific ways.’
A positive aspect of the summit was the symbolic structuring of the program. After an opening statement yesterday from the Prime-Minister, the first session focussed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences of family, domestic and sexual violence. One of the presenters was June Oscar, AO, Australia’s first woman Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner. When starting that role in 2017, Oscar set out to promote ‘strengths-based community-driven approaches to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage’, advocating for the ‘enabling conditions required for women and their communities to exercise agency in decision-making, and in partnering with, and holding government and other parties to account.’
June Oscar knows this from experience. Back in March 2009, the voices of Indigenous Australian women were heard for the first time at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, when June Oscar was then CEO and Chair of the Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre. Together with Emily Carter they attended the UN summit, speaking about their work eliminating domestic violence and alcohol-related abuse in their Kimberley community. They shared their story —showing a way forward in searching for solutions to dispossession, alcohol abuse and social decay.
Alcohol is one of many factors relevant to violence and ill-health in Australia. As the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), the leading not-for-profit organisation working towards an Australia free from alcohol harms, highlighted to the current Australian Human Rights Commission’s Independent Review into Parliamentary Workplaces, the role of alcohol in creating an unsafe workplace has been highlighted in a number of recent reviews including — the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s earlier Respect@Work report, the Foster Review of the Parliamentary Workplace: Responding to Serious Incidents and the Review of Harassment in the South Australian Parliament Workplace by Emily Strickland, Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner in South Australia.
This message resonates with the public advocacy of Australian women in the 1800s! As the online encyclopedia of Women and Leadership reminds us, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Australasia (WCTUA) was formed in May 1891 in Melbourne and became a key supporter in fighting for women’s right to vote. Driving the Temperance Union was the belief that if women drew on their own life experiences, including their knowledge of the ills of alcoholism that led to violence, including sexual violence, against women and children, and to family poverty, then their representatives would develop policies to remedy these problems. The WCTU was the first national women’s organisation in the country and its prominence spanned from 1891 to the post-World War II reconstruction period, lobbying on a range of social issues throughout the 20th century. As early as 1899 the WCTU had 39 different departments, including ‘Aborigines’, factories, legislation and petitions, narcotics, peace and arbitration, prison work, pure literature and art, suffrage, unfermented wine and work among barmaids.
But the vote and indeed the growing, but not yet equal, representation of women in Parliament has not yet solved the continuing problem of women’s safety in Australia. Not only should we be working to ensure our representatives better reflect the needs of the community, it is time to be further inspired by our First Nations’ leaders’ ideas. June Oscar’s Wiyi Yani U Thangani engagement process and the report from her engagement with Indigenous women’s lived experience, is based on the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls to self-determination. It is a process of consultation that also reflects women’s leadership in the Uluru Statement from the Heart and is shown in the ongoing leadership of young women as Co-Chairs of the Uluru Youth Dialogue. A true commitment to consult with women from all backgrounds is necessary to securing all Australian women and girls’ safety, so we are not still talking about this in 2030 and women’s equality, which is foundational to women’s safety, will be embedded in all aspects of our homes, our streets and our Parliament.
Feature image: June Oscar at the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre. This photos is used under a Creative Commons license. CC BY-SA 4.0
- A modified version of this article was originally published in The Canberra Times.
Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Faculty of Business Government and Law at the University of Canberra, which has supported the production of the new podcast series It’s not just the vibe, It’s the Constitution. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.