Letters to Eureka Street

Indigenous women’s rights

Brian McCoy’s review of my book, A Fatal Conjunction, (Eureka Street, December 2004) contains inaccurate and misleading assertions, which seriously misrepresent my work and my beliefs.

McCoy implies that I have been isolated from Aboriginal opinion. He ignores my statement in the preface that it was my contact with Aboriginal women which led me to write this book. McCoy implies that I have not taken account of indigenous women’s research or opinions. With one exception I refer to the work and views of all the indigenous women listed by McCoy, and also, among others, Melissa Lucashenko, Lowitja O’Donoghue and Evelyn Scott. While of course there is no one indigenous voice, I only proceeded to the publication of A Fatal Conjunction after ‘checking’ the subject matter ‘out’ with authoritative indigenous opinion which I very much respected. I do discuss, and acknowledge, women’s status and authority in traditional society, and their past and present strength.

Apparently McCoy has failed to completely understand the subject of this book. A Fatal Conjunction is about how, between the 1950s and 2003, judges gradually moved from a position of cultural relativism to one of appreciating indigenous women’s rights as victims in cases where indigenous men charged with violent crimes against indigenous women have relied on a cultural ‘defence’.

Patently, a cultural defence can only be raised if these men were, or are, living in a traditional or semi-traditional life. Hence the terms ‘promised marriages’, ‘payback’, etc., are not, as McCoy alleges, ‘locating’ indigenous people ‘within fixed social (pre-colonial) spaces’. These are current issues arising in recent Northern Territory criminal cases, for instance the 1992 authoritative case of Minor on ‘payback’, and the 2003 case of Jamilmira, which concerned men’s rights in ‘promised marriage’.

McCoy wrongly asserts that I ‘firmly locate the violence in two domains’, being only indigenous society and the Western legal system. He then implies that I separate present violence ‘from the multifaceted violence of colonial history’. In making this assertion he omits considering my chapters on the terrible devastation of Aboriginal law and lore which indigenous people have suffered, and the part played by alcohol in this devastation and violence. I also quote many judicial observations to this effect.

McCoy asserts that I present indigenous society as static. He ignores my discussion of the way indigenous culture has evolved in order to meet the dreadful challenges with which it has been confronted. Or is McCoy really attempting to assert that traditional lore and law have no effect on, or meaning for, present indigenous society? If so, I do not agree with him, and indeed, as it established in the Mabo case, nor does the High Court.

A Fatal Conjunction is not a feminist treatise, as McCoy implies; it is about the conflict between competing internationally recognised human rights, indigenous rights and women’s rights to be immune from violence.

Joan Kimm
Clayton, VIC

Right of reply

I write in response to an article on the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) Victorian Branch (Eureka Street, May 2005). The article is substantially based on the views of an ex-employee who left us more than two years ago, and contains serious errors of fact.

The SDA is getting on with the job of representing its members. It is campaigning with the support of organisers and delegates on public holidays, long-service leave, occupational health and safety, WorkCover and enterprise bargaining.
Recently we negotiated a new enterprise agreement with Coles and Bi-Lo, giving members security of wage increases and working conditions for the next three years. More than 8000 employees in Victoria voted in favour of the agreement by a 90 per cent majority. Obviously they think the SDA is doing the job for them.

The article claimed poor morale amongst organisers and delegates.

Organisers heard of this article and made their own decision without my involvement, dissociating themselves from the ex-employee by voting unanimously to support me as secretary.

At our last general meeting more than 150 delegates and members attended. The handful of disgruntled members supporting the ex-employee were given 45 minutes to raise their issues at the meeting but refused to speak. When I spoke, the overwhelming majority of members gave me a standing ovation and voted to support the elected officers of the branch, approximately 150 in favour and three votes against. This shows that the overwhelming majority of members reject the negativity portrayed in your article.

The article claims that I support the view that ‘men lead, women follow’. This is false. Since I became secretary the number of women organisers has increased from only 30 per cent to over 50 per cent. The majority of state councillors (the committee of management of the branch) are women—nine out of 15. The president and two vice-presidents are women. Since I have become state secretary a woman now holds the position of administration manager for the first time. A woman now holds the position of senior organiser for the first time. The state branch now has a woman as trainer of our delegates and occupational health and safety representatives.

The article implies that the SDA uses Australian Workplace Agreements or Kennett contracts. This is false. The SDA does not and never has used
Australian Workplace Agreements or Kennett contracts.

The article claims that the SDA shut down the Women’s Bureau. This is false. The SDA has adopted the most up-to-date approach of the International Labor Organisation to equity issues called ‘gender mainstreaming’.

Consistent with the ILO approach of retaining a focal point for gender issues while moving to gender mainstreaming, we continue to have a specialist person in equity and family issues.

The article claimed we have abolished a counselling service for staff and members. This claim is false. We continue to offer the ITIM counselling service for staff and members as we have for many years.

The claim that we have abolished free self-defence courses is also false. We continue to offer free self-defence courses for women members and also for men.

The article claimed we have a high turnover of staff. This claim is false. Seventy per cent of the organisers with the branch have in excess of three years’ service as employees and many have a much longer involvement with the SDA as they were previously delegates. Staff would not stay with us if morale was as low as the author claims.

The SDA is getting on with the job of representing our members. The elected officers have the overwhelming support of organisers, state councillors, and delegates and members.

It is disappointing that a completely inaccurate picture of the SDA was painted in the article published.

Michael Donovan
State Secretary, SDA
Southbank, VIC

The place of icons

Recently sitting beside a sick daughter in the emergency department of a Catholic hospital and muttering Hail Marys under my breath, I was grateful to see a crucifix on the wall near her bed. But then I began to wonder: what is the place of religious icons in public health facilities? Would I, a practising Roman Catholic, have been equally pleased to see an image of the Hindu God Ganesh? And how would a Muslim, a Jew or a committed atheist feel about the crucifix?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and have had few conversations that might shed light. What I have learned is that we are all individuals. Knowledge of a person’s religion does not necessarily predict their attitude towards public display of the icons of another. And the recent experience in France has shown how widely disparate can be the responses to a blanket ban.

The hospital publicly espouses values of compassion, respect for human dignity and excellence. They mean it. The sense of commitment is palpable, and fidelity to the Gospel explicit. And yet I remain troubled. Australia is a multicultural society, in which Indigenous Australians, immigrants and settlers from many nations, refugees and asylum seekers all endeavour to make a life for themselves and their families. Access to health care is a basic human right. The hospital receives public funding to provide health care to all who need it.

My daughter is now well and has since started working at the hospital. I have every reason to be grateful to the hospital and staff for their dedication and expertise in the care of the sick. But I worry about that crucifix.

Professor Tim Usherwood
Warrimoo, NSW



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