Northern Territory Supreme Court Justice Judith Kelly is not afraid to cause a stir by speaking the truth. The latest waves started with her June interview in the Weekend Australian and followed up with her speech about domestic violence at the recent 2022 Women Lawyers’ Drinks.
The reason Justice Kelly’s interview and speech have caused such a stir is because she did what few people have the courage to do: speak honestly about domestic violence against Aboriginal women in the NT. It was a harrowing account, backed up with facts and figures, of the treatment of many Aboriginal women in parts of the NT by their predominantly Aboriginal partners.
I’ll point out here that not all Aboriginal women face this violence, just as it is not all Aboriginal men causing this violence. But we can’t get away from the statistical facts that the number of Aboriginal Australian women — yes, they are also Australian — who are assaulted is 10 times higher than non-Aboriginal women; and that Aboriginal women are more than 30 times more likely to be hospitalised from these assaults than non-Aboriginal women.
Justice Kelly said: “It is an epidemic of extreme domestic violence, and I’m certainly not the only one to point it out. Between 2000 and 2022, two Aboriginal men were shot by police both times followed by massive press coverage, calls for enquiries etc. In that same period, 65 Aboriginal women were killed by their partners (I am quoting from Libby Armitage’s report in a recent coronial inquiry) and in each case you would have been flat out seeing a small report on page 5 or 7 of a local newspaper – nothing nationally.”
But speaking publicly about violence against Aboriginal women has become taboo. The problem is encased in denial and silence.
In part, this denial and silence in the communities come from families and community members. Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, in a 2016 lecture for the Centre for Independent Studies, said “unrelenting support from perpetrators’ families is what – enables these sorts of atrocities to continue. … Because if perpetrators and victims are of the same community, you can guarantee there exists far more support for the perpetrators than the victims. The cycle continues and the victims are silenced one way or another.” Justice Kelly discussed this in her speech too as well as the fact that violence to ‘discipline’ wives and for punishment is allowed, at times obligatory, under customary law.
But it is also on the heads of Australia’s educated and elite — most in the media, academia, corporates, the legal profession, politics, and the well-heeled suburbs of the major cities — who are simply unwilling to speak about violence against Aboriginal women at the hands of Aboriginal men. And when they do, their comments are laden with excuses, caveats, and weasel words. Amy McQuire lashed out at me in 2016 for discussing it in an opinion piece in The Guardian. She claimed Aboriginal family violence is “complicated” and “very different from domestic violence within non-Indigenous communities”, warned of “demonising Aboriginal men in the media” and suggested that putting Aboriginal offenders in gaol wasn’t a solution and only made things worse.
Justice Kelly directly spoke of the difficulty in talking about Aboriginal family violence due to “… an ideology of supposed ‘antiracism’ which is beginning to assume the dimensions of a religion or a cult under the influence of which people and institutions are casually and inaccurately labelled as ‘racist’ without any evidentiary basis for the charge. I say an ideology of ‘supposed antiracism’ because the underlying assumption of this ideology appears to be that Aboriginal people must exist in a permanent state of victimhood, an assumption that is in fact deeply racist.”
She is correct. The notion of Aboriginal people in a permanent state of victimhood was evident in McQuire’s article, where she suggests Aboriginal family violence could be blamed on colonisation, intergenerational trauma, and the stripping away of “agency”. If historical injustices and atrocities condemn a people to generations of dysfunction and misery, then the Jewish people post World War 2 would be forever curled up in a foetal position on the floor.
My parents and my extended family taught us to never be victims. To take responsibility for our lives and not make excuses.
Justice Kelly’s words are powerful. Yes, she’s talking about all those in the media, academia, corporates, legal profession, politics and the well-heeled suburbs of the major cities — and anyone else the wider Australian community — who cherry-pick stories or ignore an epidemic of violence or throw their hands up in the air saying it’s ‘just a blackfella problem’.
Well, these people who are being assaulted and killed are also humans and Australians. Don’t these Black Lives Matter?
If a police officer shoots an Aboriginal Australian, it’s front page news, as it should be. If a non-Aboriginal Australian woman is murdered or brutally assaulted it’s front page news, as it should be.
But the killings and brutal assaults of Aboriginal Australian women are overwhelmingly ignored.Why this silence? Are Aboriginal women not worthy of our attention?
Justice Kelly challenges us to talk honestly about the violence in these communities. Because not talking about them leaves Aboriginal women as the forgotten people.
Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is Director, Indigenous Forum, Centre for Independent Studies