Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


If only gender-based violence really was unAustralian

  • 13 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'.

But 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