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If only gender-based violence really was unAustralian

10 Comments
Tim Robertson |  12 October 2015

At the first major policy announcement of his tenure, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's rhetoric echoed that of John Howard: violence against women, he said, needs to be seen as 'unAustralian'.

Tim Minchin as Smasher SullivanBut Australianess is a fluid concept that means different things to different people — for example, the republican Turnbull's conception of it is fundamentally different to the constitutional monarchist Howard's.

This suggests that one's sense of what it means to be Australian entails selecting only certain elements of our past. Often, it means taking the good and ignoring the bad.

For example, there is little acknowledgment from politicians of both major parties of the lived-with consequences of British imperialism. If we were honest about the values that define us, we would talk about dispossession, racism and genocidal violence. Without these elements, modern Australia would be a very different place.

And ironically, in light of the Prime Minister's words, it was often Aboriginal women who suffered the most. According to historian Dr Nicholas Clements, much of the early Aboriginal resistance was in response to widespread and frequent kidnapping, rape and murder of Indigenous women and girls.

Recently this was dramatised in the ABC's adaptation of Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River. Smasher Sullivan (played by Tim Minchin, pictured) is a murderous racist who keeps Aboriginal women as sex slaves, while killing any other men, women or children who wander onto his property.

He takes an even more sadistic view of things than Anthony Trollope, who infamously wrote that 'their doom is to be exterminated; and the sooner their doom is accomplished — so that there be no cruelty — the better it will be for civilisation'; Sullivan revels in the cruelty.

Sexual violence against women was part of the colonial experience for the Indigenous population. Yet, there's been no apology for that. No reparations have been paid.

One assumes that this doesn't figure in Howard or Turnbull's sense of what it means to be Australian. But when a culture refuses to acknowledge its past, it risks making the same mistakes again.

One of the things about colonial violence is that it's systemic — it may be carried out by individuals like Sullivan, but the imprimatur is top-down. Violence is an inevitable by-product of the original act.

The contemporary manifestation of this is Australia's Border Force. The government has taken a military response to a humanitarian problem and continues to hold refugees in squalid conditions where they risk being assaulted or killed as a deterrent to others thinking of making the journey.

In this sense, the ongoing violence committed against refugees only bolsters the government's 'stop the boats' policy by ensuring the deterrent is even greater. Violence in many forms — boat turn-backs, indefinite detention, force-feeding, water-boarding, rape and murder — is the means to an ends.

The chilling audio of the emergency phone call from a young Somali woman who'd just been raped on Nauru should not be heard in isolation. Hers is simply the plea that has been recorded. The children who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru — and there's been 67 allegations — remain voiceless.

These are not random acts of violence. Sexual violence is the inevitable consequence of Australian government policy.

To borrow a line from Thomas Paine: 'The defect lies in the system. The foundation and the superstructure of the government is bad.'

The foundation of modern Australia was built on violence against Aboriginals. The 'superstructure' of government today continues to stand idly by while the asylum seekers it has a moral and legal obligation to protect are routinely assaulted.

Contrary to what Turnbull may say, violence against women is very much 'Australian'.

It's not enough to blame individuals. The institutional violence that has defined our past must be owned. And the rape and torture that characterises treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru must be stopped. Until then, the Prime Minister's words are meaningless.


Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

 

 

 



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Alan 13 October 2015

Does anyone doubt that in fifty, a hundred, two hundred years’ time the grand children and great grand children of this generation will look back on us with the same loathing and contempt with which we regard the colonisers of this country?

Paul 13 October 2015

Let me summarise Tim's argument. The British settlement of Australia, preventing unauthorised arrivals, domestic violence are all bad things. Therefore the British Settlement and border protection have caused domestic violence. "Therefore sexual violence is the inevitable consequence of Australian government policy."

James 13 October 2015

I watched "The Secret River" and I must say Smasher Sullivan was probably the most unforgettable character. His wretchedness was palpable. His pain and rage were inflicted on the most defenceless - women. And so it continues today. I'm not sure if government policy can really eradicate peoples' inner angst but closing detention centres and upholding the rule of law would help.

Pam 13 October 2015

Thank you Tim.......a piece to be read and deeply understood by us all.

GAJ 13 October 2015

Sorry, Tim! 'UnAustralian' is a one word slogan. The word is an attempt to seduce the citizens of Australia into believing we are a unique separate independent group of people who share basic social values. In fact we don't. I remember vividly when some of my schoolmates in the 1950s said disparaging things about New Australians. I spoke up in their defence (courageously I thought). "Hey!" I said. "I'm a New Australian." "No, you're not. You're one of us. You're Irish." The Australia we have today is a complex mix of influences from ancient inhabitants, colonial settlers, loyal subjects of Imperial Britain, post WW2 migrants and in recent years Asian refugees. Any member of those groups would find it hard to say in a few words what it means to be Australian, let alone what it means to do something unAustralain.

Uncle Pat 13 October 2015

It is difficult to discern what this article is about. As James points out it seems to be a compendium of extremely flawed logical mis-argument. I do not dispute for one minute that Britain and all European colonists were extreme racists who abused the people, male or female, of every country they stole - the Spanish and Portuguese in South America, the Belgians and French in Africa and so on. But it has to be admitted that one of the characteristics of the Australian Aborigine was the appalling abuse of women that existed long before any outside influence became involved. One of the commonest causes of inter-tribal war was the raiding of neighbouring tribes to steal women. Our Aboriginal brothers were no strangers to "stealing generations" of others of their race or belting the daylights out of their own women as many continue to do to this very day. (We now blame the grog the colonists introduced). I would suggest that violence against women has existed in this country for well over 40,000 years! I suspect Turnbull meant that such violence is "un-human". The big mistake if any is that he chose to use the Howard/Abbott inanity of" un-Australian", a red-neck, nationalistic vote catcher. All manner of domestic violence is a human feature and nothing to do with any particular inanimate abstract called "my country". Like human nature it is universal regardless of tribe, belief or skin colour. I would hope that "we" are today a little more civilised and not subscribers to "disposition and genocidal violence" Unhappily, however, no matter how civilised we might think we are we will never rid ourselves deep down of the universal human trait of racism although we can control it with true civilisation.

john frawley 13 October 2015

Australia's colonisation, domestic violence, and the treatment of refugees are all linked under the immature principle that 'Might is right'. Such wrong mindsets will only be mitigated when we progress sufficiently to learn Love and Respect for others, which selfishness stifles, and is the greatest obstacle to finding the Kingdom of God. 'Where there is God, there is love', and 'Where there is Love, there is God'.

Robert Liddy 13 October 2015

Thank you Tim for articulating this national issue we as a country are so slowly beginning to confront. I agree when a culture, a people even individuals do not acknowledge its past it continues to make the same mistake. Hopefully this is changing with a new awareness. The people are once again waking . We are better then these hell holes Manus and Nauru and we know they are not illegals . The people are slowly waking up as they are also waking about the acknowledgement of our Story before Anzac .

Colleen Keating 13 October 2015

You're quite right. It's one of the reasons I so much disliked the proposed inclusion of 'mateship' in the preamble to the Constitution. Mateship is a blokey concept, and its weakness is demonstrated in its attitude towards your mate's woman.You mustn't seduce her, and you mustn't intervene if he's belting her a bit too hard. Can't come between a man and his wife....("You", of course, are always pictured as being a man).

Joan Seymour 14 October 2015

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