It has been said that storytelling is at the heart of Indigenous Australian culture.
Whenever I get a chance to hear accounts from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Canberra region, I love to listen. Hearing their stories is the beginning of genuinely knowing others.
Some accounts tell us about the past, but it is essential that we also hear about the present. We must never make the mistake of believing that reconciliation is only about addressing what happened years ago, or assuming that all is well in Canberra.
Data tell a different story.
For example, while Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people on the planet, those living in the ACT experience the highest incarceration ratio in Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are nearly 20 times more likely to be locked up in the nation’s capital than non-Indigenous people. Likewise, Indigenous children in Canberra are nearly 10-times more likely to be in out-of-home care than their peers – the second-highest ratio in the nation.
I remain convinced that family-based decision-making is central to reducing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their homes and the harm that can occur when removal is unavoidable. After all, as the former chief social worker from a neighbouring nation recently said to me, trying to help children without genuinely engaging their families is a colonial imposition that rarely works well.
Consequently, I have for years been advocating for Canberra families to have universal access to Family Group Conferencing (FGC) – an approach that empowers families by bringing them together to share their stories, rediscover their strengths, and then develop their own family-centred solutions to child protection matters.
When legislated in New Zealand, this approach halved the number of children in out-of-home care. It is now a policy of the ACT Government that all Indigenous families who engage with the child protection system are referred to a Family Group Conference. In principle, this is a very good thing.
Tragically, as was discussed during annual reports hearings this year, this policy is not working as intended.
According to an internal ACT Government document, poor training, overly complicated processes, and poor understanding of culturally responsive practices and family-led decision-making have created a situation where many families are simply not referred at all.
Those who are referred do not always trust the process. This distrust must be repaired, but it is a very difficult task when even the government struggles to fully implement its own policy.
New Zealand’s approach is instructive.
There, access to Family Group Conferencing is mandated by law. A well-intentioned policy that is carried out poorly does not further the cause of reconciliation. What we need in the ACT is a legal entitlement that will ensure that this commitment to First Nations families is honoured at all times. I am determined to see this reform happen.
In the meantime, I encourage all of us to listen more closely to the stories of Indigenous Australians – stories both from the past and present, stories from afar and stories from our own neighbours. True reconciliation requires that we better understand one another.
Elizabeth Kikkert MLA is a Canberra Liberals Member for Ginninderra. She is the ACT Shadow Minister for Families, Youth & Community Services, the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and Corrections.