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The Aboriginal Australians and Conflict Resolution

 Bethanne Black

Brenau University

Abstract

The Aboriginal Australians have many diverse communities and sub-cultures that comprise their culture. For the purposes of this paper, I will discuss some of the subcultures within the Torres Strait Islander community and their methods surrounding the dispute resolution process.

Conflict resolution processes and political practices vary considerably throughout Australia. The practices have been adapted and changed over several years due to colonization (Conflict, Murri Way citation). Fortunately, Aboriginal Australian people work diligently to maintain peace and solve conflicts by utilizing their traditions. Many Aboriginal Australian communities draw on the wisdom of Elders and other community officials who have taken leadership roles within their mob (family).

Who are the Indigenous Australians?

In the 1980s, the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs proposed that individuals of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent are considered to be Aboriginal 1) Provided he or she is accepted as an Aboriginal person by the community in which that person resides, and 2) Provided the person also self-identifies as a Aboriginal person (https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/questions-and-answers-about-aboriginal-torres-strait-islander-peoples). According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), this classification system is still in use by some government departments within Australia.

Although the term, ‘Indigenous Australian’ is occasionally used to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not like the term ‘indigenous’ as they believe the term is too generic (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies citation). The term, ‘Aborigines’ is also considered pejorative and should be avoided (Amnesty.org citation). Torres Strait Islander people originate from Melanesia in the Western Pacific and have their own distinct culture, identity, history, and traditions. Many Torres Strait Islander people live on mainland Australia.

Torres Strait Islander People and Conflict

As in most cultures, a variety of conflicts exist in Aboriginal Australian communities. Conflicts in these communities include domestic violence, community violence in general, land ownership and frontier conflicts, poverty, child custody, spirituality, and conflicts caused by language and cultural barriers. Land is considered a specific and privileged status within Australian Aboriginal subcultures (Brigg, Morgan, Bleiker, et al, 2011). In Indigenous Australia, where a conflict occurs is just as important as what happens (Brigg, Morgan, Bleiker, et al, 2011). That is, the concept of ‘place’ has a deeply symbolic meaning to Australian Aboriginals.

Lateral violence is the all-encompassing term that describes community in-fighting for Australian Aboriginals. At its core, lateral violence is related to basic human rights. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind when describing the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. These basic rights include the ability to remain safe, have shelter, have access to education, high standards of physical and mental health, and the right to take part in decision-making processes. Many Aboriginal Australians did not have their most basic needs met, including their safety needs, shelter or a place to live, and the resources to survive. These unmet physiological and physical needs often set the stage for infighting, family conflict, and community violence (citation).

As stated by the Australian Human Rights Commission, “Ask any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person and they will tell you stories of the back stabbing, bullying and even physical violence perpetrated by community members against each other.” (https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/chapter-2-lateral-violence-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-communities-social).

Mediation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Because conflict in Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities affects everyone within the community, the problems and conflicts tend to be complex and require flexible and creative methods of dispute resolution.

The goal of mediation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people includes the parties taking ownership of their disputes, using components of customary laws and practices, and reaching solutions that align with their cultural values (Queensland Government https://www.quid.gov.au/law/legal-mediation-and-justice-of-the-peace).  

Before examining conflict resolution in Indigenous Australians, it is important to note that in 2004, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee declared that Indigenous Australians are typically viewed as the ‘most disadvantaged group in the Australian justice system” (https://www.mediate.com/articles/kirschnersbl20171215.cfm). Even recently, Aboriginal Australian people experience a very high rate of violence when compared to the larger Australian community. What’s more, Aboriginal Australians are underprivileged. They are deprived basic health care, education, and financial independence, which has left many of them without hope (No Justice Without Healing: Australian Aboriginal People and Family Violence citation).  Government officials also viewed Aboriginal Australian people as troublemakers. These people were denied land ownership and use of their traditional lore when Western culture was enforced in their communities. This caused a great deal of destruction and fighting within Aboriginal communities.

Many legal experts believe that the civil and criminal justice system needs to develop more effective methods of engaging with the Indigenous Australian people. Due to problems such as language barriers and lack of resources, the Indigenous Australian people face several barriers in using traditional alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services. As such, customary ADR services are not always utilized by Indigenous communities (cite the same mediate.com article).

Perhaps what is most conspicuous about the Aboriginal Australian community is the realization by some scholars that, “Providing equitable service entails identifying and addressing the barriers. When doing this, Aboriginal culture must not be seen as the ‘problem.’ Instead, it must be valued and respected as Western culture is.” (No Justice Without Healing: Australian Aboriginal People and Family Violence citation).  It is the same empathy, understanding, and respect that is practiced by Western mediators that is even more important for Aboriginal Australian mediators to keep in mind during peacekeeping efforts.

In general, Indigenous Australian people perceive conflict resolution differently from cultures who have a more traditional understanding of dispute resolution. Some Indigenous mediators view conflict resolution as peacemaking versus solving tangible problem. Other community members view dispute resolution as an opportunity for hope, healing, and renewed relationships between the disputants.  

Dispute Resolution in Torres Strait People

As reported by author Shari Kirschner (https://www.mediate.com/articles/kirschnersbl20171215.cfm), Western styles of conflict resolution can be culturally alienating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, because Western dispute resolution techniques do not meet their unique needs. Some of the challenges associated with Western conflict resolution processes include language and communication barriers (difficulty accessing mail, phone, and Internet services), financial and transportation barriers, and limited comprehension of the concepts of time and place for dispute resolution. All of these challenges may be intimidating or confusing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Torres Strait people have several options when it comes to resolving conflicts and disputes within their communities. First, the parties involved in a dispute have the option of discussing the issue between themselves to attempt to reach agreement. Secondly, an independent party such as a mediator may step in to help Torres Strait people to resolve their dispute. Mediators are often used when people are in conflict with each other or when large family conflicts or fights ensue (https://www.nativetitle.org.au/learn/pbcs-making-it-work/dispute-management). Finally, the disputants may also present the matter to an independent person who makes a binding decision. The parties in the dispute are bound by that decision, as it is final.

Dispute Management in Aboriginal Australia (Mediating Across Difference citation)

1) The Role of Elders in Mediation and Peacekeeping

Aboriginal Elders have the authority guide community members through their grief and anger, but they do not have the power to control people or their actions (Mediating Across Difference: Oceanic and Asian Approaches to Conflict Resolution citation). In some communities, the Elders are often viewed as having special privileges or positions within a family. However, the depth of authority that an Elder has depends on their knowledge and skills, including how well they interact with people and how effective they are in enforcing order within their communities.

Within a conflict resolution context, the Aboriginal Elders also allow the family to experience a full expression of their emotions, provided that nobody gets hurt in the process. If appropriate, the Elders will find a safe place for the feuding parties to vent their feelings and will establish clear boundaries on what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

2) Ali Curung (Solid Work You Mob Are Doing citation)

The Ali Curung community was established in the mid 1950s, and currently there are approximately 450 to 500 Aboriginal people living in Ali Curung. The main conflict originated in the 1990s and was caused by a poor relationship that had developed between the community police and the residents of the Ali Curung community.  

Due to ongoing complaints between these two parties, several consultations took place with community members to create a better understanding between the residents and the local police. The results of the consultations suggested that the social and cultural problems within the community needed to be clearly defined and addressed. In particular, crisis services, preventative, and educational measures needed to be more cohesive. The need was identified to create a more participative, inclusive planning process between the authorities and the Ali-Curung residents.

The results of this process were encouraging, because an agreement, the Ali Curung Law and Order Plan, was signed. The goal of this Law and Order Plan was three-fold: 1) To reduce community and family violence and other concerns related to law and order, 2) To encourage greater participation by Aboriginal people in legal and justice processes; and 3) To encourage increased responsibility for local law and order matters by Aboriginal people.

Three Way Go, aka Three Tier Problem Solving

      The Ali Curung residents created and implemented a local dispute resolution process which they referred to as ‘three way go’ or ‘three tier problem solving.’

      This three-step process is initiated by the family and their extended family members calling a meeting to discuss a specific problem or conflict. If the issue cannot be resolved, it moved to the next ‘tier’ or level. This tier involves Elders coming together for a community meeting.  

If the community meeting with the Elders was ineffective, the conflict is referred to the traditional community owners, known as the Kaiditch. The Ali-Curung dispute resolution process defers to the Kaiditch as the ultimate authority and final decision-makers for problems that affect their community.

3) Mornington Island Restorative Justice Project Report

The Mornington Island Restorative Justice project intended was created to respond to the needs of extended families in the remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland. The Elders in this community were concerned about the future of the growing youth population and their ability to continue with their cultural traditions (Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2018). In addition, the Elders felt that their authority was diminishing, and they were extremely concerned about their youth and how much trouble they were causing within the criminal justice system.

An integral goal of the restorative justice project was to work with families to establish a community-based mediation service which served two different goals. The mediation process must honor the Island culture and must also meet the requirements of the criminal justice system. The project officers referred to the mediation efforts in this restorative justice project by calling it ‘indigenous mediation.’ The Mornington Island process of dealing with feuding in the community involved mediation techniques that were both traditional and, in some cases, non-traditional when contrasted with Western culture. For example, the indigenous mediation program includes mediators that are not independent parties, unlike the United States mediation process. Instead, mediators are closely related to the disputants and the mediators also tend to be well-known for their authority and community ranking.  

Mediation Attendees

Another quality of indigenous mediation which differs from Western mediation practices is the number of attendees. Mediation in indigenous communities often involves large or very large groups, because mediation in Aboriginal Australia lends itself more to peacekeeping efforts which affects a large community of people. Therefore, indigenous mediation does not use a two or three-person approach when disputants meet in the mediation setting. In addition to large groups being allowed in the indigenous mediation process, other parties are allowed to attend the mediation who are invested in the conflict having a positive outcome.

Mediation Venue

In Aboriginal Australian mediations, the venue may vary. A mediation may be held in an individual’s home or the home of a large family. Some disputants may meet at a community center or other public venue for the mediation. In rarer cases, the mediation may be held at the courthouse. This was the case for a mediation that took place in Halls Creek. Mediation officials involved in the Halls Creek dispute believed that the best setting for the mediation was a neutral building, a place of respect that does not allow violent or otherwise unacceptable behavior.

In the Hall Creek mediation mentioned above, other organizations and public meeting places were considered. However, in this case, the courthouse was deemed to be the most neutral and natural setting. The rationale rejected the idea of having the mediation at a person’s workplace or other location at which the parties may have received other services was not neutral enough, nor did it afford the disputants much-needed privacy in which to conduct the mediation.

Some officials believed courthouse was an unusual choice because it was a very formal setting for an informal meeting. However, after considering other public venue options, officials believed the courthouse was the best option to keep the mediation peaceful and neutral, while providing the most privacy to the disputants.  

Step 1: Entry Points to Peacekeeping/Mediation

The first step in the Mornington Island mediation process occurs when an official or family member contacts an Elder to resolve a conflict. The person making contact with the Elder may be a police officer, probation officer, or other community official.  For example, a police officer may ask an Elder to intervene in a conflict if the official believes that mediation and peacekeeping would be better than arresting the people involved in the conflict. Court officials may also refer community members to peacekeeping attempts or mediation as a requirement before the sentencing occurs. Finally, if a person is being released from prison and the police are concerned for the community’s safety, police may ask an Elder to help with a mediation attempt.

Step 2: Elders Meet with Families

The next step is for the Elder and a mediation coordinator to meet with both disputants and their families. The Elders explain to each party why they have been called upon to manage the conflict and discuss how the conflict may be successfully addressed with peacekeeping efforts. Peacekeeping in this context means that Elders talk with both disputants and help them speak in a respectful manner to each other so that the conflict can be addressed in a safe, controlled context. Like mediation, the goal of peacekeeping is to heal negative feelings and restore healthy, trusting relationships between family members or disputants. Peacekeeping is used for all types of conflicts other than domestic violence or other times of violent behavior. Any domestic or other violence is addressed through the court system and is not addressed with peacekeeping measures. For the purposes of this paper, the words ‘mediation’ and ‘peacekeeping’ will be used interchangeably. During the development of the Mornington Island Restorative Justice program, the Elders used words such as peacekeeping, conflict resolution, dispute resolution, squaring up, and ‘sorting out a problem’ to describe what Americans consider to be mediation efforts.

The Elders then ask the family members what factors they need in place to feel safe enough to proceed with mediation. Family members are also asked if they are interested in peacekeeping measures, and they are typically offered some time to think about this option if they are emotionally upset.

Step 3: Determine Mediation Readiness

The third step in the mediation process is to determine whether or not the family is ready for a peacekeeping or mediation meeting. The mediation meeting is usually held unless the parties cannot agree to the rules, if a disputant is attending the mediation only to avoid an arrest, if a disputant is being forced to attend, or if disputants are still placing blame with each other. If the Elders determine that the disputants are ready to speak with each other respectfully and in a civil manner, the mediation meeting will take place. However, if the mediation does not take place and the police or Magistrate are involved, these officials are informed that the mediation has been canceled. If the mediation was ordered as a condition for avoiding going to court, the disputant may have to report to court instead.

Step 4: Arrange the Mediation

If community officials or other people involved in the conflict are involved, they are also invited to the mediation meeting. The Elders will work with each family member to determine the speaking order for each disputant. Uncles and other family members are asked to ensure that the disputants show up to the mediation meeting on time. In general, the disputants are not the only attendees; that is, mediation is a much more communal process in Aboriginal Australian communities compared to Western mediations.

Step 5: Mediation Meeting Process

Once the mediation coordinator and the Elders feel that the disputants are ready for mediation and their motivation for mediation is sincere, the actual mediation meeting is held. Police offers may be available if there are concerns about violence and maintaining safe conditions.

The meeting is started by the Elders, and the mediation coordinator reads any pertinent information from the police or the court. The Elders invite a member of each family to speak, and each side of the family is given an opportunity to speak. After each person discusses their side of the story, the Elders ask each party what needs to happen in order to improve or stop the conflict. The family members have time to discuss their thoughts and feelings. At the conclusion of these discussions, one or two outcomes may happen. An apology might be made, amends may be offered, and specific damages related to the conflict may be reimbursed to the requesting party. If alcohol or drugs are involved, the person charged may agree to get treatment or go to an alcoholism center, and people may be asked to agree to live in their outstation for the time being. An outstation is usually a remote outpost, away from the person’s usual family members and community. The Elders and the mediation coordinator help each disputant discuss matters until they reach an agreement.

Finally, an agreement is made, and a document which outlines the agreement is signed by the Elders and mediation coordinator. Each of the disputants involved in the peacekeeping effort must also sign the agreement to show their willingness to resolve the problem. Similar to our caucus process in Western mediations, the Elders always ask the family members to share which part of the agreement and circumstances, if any, can be shared with community members not involved in the conflict. Confidentiality is also rigorously enforced in U.S. mediations, and this need for privacy and discretion is similar in Aboriginal communities. Although caucus is not always a part of Aboriginal peacekeeping efforts, it is sometimes used and depends on the discretion of the Elders and mediation coordinator. These individual caucus meetings may take place before or during the actual mediation meeting.

Step 6: Learn from the Conflict

The next step in this mediation process is a discussion of how the mediation went for both parties. Discussion includes what went well in the mediation and which factors could have been improved. The Elders realize that discussion may provoke further arguments, but the main idea of this final step is to allow all parties to have the opportunity to debrief and for Elders to take valuable lessons from the meeting and continue improving peacekeeping and mediation efforts.   

Step 7: Adhere to Agreements Made

If policemen or other officials were involved in the conflict, they are notified of the agreement and the outcome of the mediation. In addition, it is the responsibility of the Elders to enforce the terms of any agreements that were reached during the meeting. Finally, families are informed that if no police or other officials were involved in the mediation, they are not obligated to share any outcomes or terms of the agreement reached during the meeting. Once confidentiality is discussed, the Elders and mediation coordinator shake hands with each of the disputants and thank them for their efforts. They are also congratulated for their work in trying to keep the family and community intact.

Banbaji Student Service

For Mornington Island community members, adults are not the only people who experience fighting and conflict. Conflicts and other disagreements between students in the community often become a threat to the larger community and families that live on Mornington Island. Some themes that students encounter which create large-scale conflict include bullying, family issues, name calling, and excluding certain students at school and at other community events.

To combat this problem, the Banbaji Student Service is forming a program to address conflicts and unrest between students and families in the educational setting. This student service organization is creating policies as part of a larger school effort to keep the students’ safety as a high priority. In addition, the Mornington Island State School and the Junkuri Laka Justice Group are working together to create conflict resolution and peacekeeping programs that will address problems encountered by students and their families.

All staff members involved in the Banbaji Student Service are positive role models for students and their families. An ad campaign called, “We’re all Family” is used to promote future cooperation and peacekeeping efforts for students and community members. Also available to students are seminars to help them manage aggressive behavior and anti-bullying activities to give the students an alternative environment to express their emotions in a safer and more productive manner.  

Interestingly, the student service organization also created a program to monitor social media platforms and online chats to ensure that students interact in an ethical and peaceful manner. A social media task force created at Banbaji Student Service found that cyber-bullying and other social media behaviors in Aboriginal Australian communities created a need for social media monitoring to improve relationships between Aboriginal Australian students and their peer group. Monitoring is done openly so that community members are aware that their comments are being viewed.

In the mediation setting, students are encouraged to share their story and take turns discussing their concerns without being interrupted. A community elder or member of the student service organization attends the meeting to facilitate a productive discussion. In this program, police officers are also qualified to act as an Elder or community mediator.

During the peacekeeping effort, the potential solutions offered are based on the community needs and cultural traditions of the disputants. Once an agreement is reached, the agreement is usually recorded in writing, as it is done in mediation meetings for adults. School staff members, police officers, and other officials are also consulted to ensure they are satisfied with the manner in which the conflict was addressed. Additional discussion between these parties is focused on whether or not the agreement reached is realistic so that it can be managed in the future.

One major difference in mediation efforts involving Mornington Island students is that the Elders or community members provide a period of mentoring to the student(s) involved in the conflict to ensure ongoing productive relationships and successful conflict management between the disputants. In Western mediation processes, provisions are not typically made for follow-up mentoring or conflict management in U.S. mediations. The mentoring process for students in Aboriginal Australian communities is unique. A mentor not only benefits the students involved and the community by suppressing future violence; it also helps Elders enforce the conditions and provisions set forth in the agreement that was reached during mediation.

One example of how the Banbaji student service helps students in conflicts at school is their supervised chatroom program. For example, one student made a mean comment during a chat and two high school students decided to engage in a fight. It didn’t take long for the dispute to spread to other students in the classroom, and sides were immediately taken in the dispute. After the school principal and the staff members reviewed the recent chat, they isolated the two people involved and asked their family members to attend a mediation session at the courthouse. Fortunately, the two students were able to have a peaceful mediation session because the authorities and the school intervened so quickly. The parents of each of the students were very happy with the outcome and made positive statements to the other disputant and her family members. Both of the students were asked to stop feuding, and everyone agreed to treat each other with respect. At the end of the mediation session, the heads of both families shook hands with each other, and the conflict ended with positively due to the proactive actions by the school and the authorities.

Parents of the students in this community have embraced and supported the social media cyber monitoring and mediation efforts offered by the community. The main goal of this grassroots community-based effort by is to ‘go back in order to move forward.’ That is, the community believes that peacekeeping efforts can only occur when young people can look back at their own heritage, have self-confidence, a strong identity, and feel pride about their roots and cultural heritage.

At the time this report was published in 2012, The Banbaji Student Service was only in its early implementation phase. Because the program was still being formed and evaluated in 2012, community authorities believed that time and patience would make the program more adaptable and open to the needs of Mornington Island residents. Because students of the Mornington Island State School provided ongoing positive feedback, community officials remain optimistic about the program’s impact upon the community. In addition to plenty of anecdotal evidence that the program is contributing positively, the most promising feedback has been the continued participation by the students and other community members who actively work within the program’s structure and guidelines.

In conclusion, Aboriginal Australian conflict resolution processes share some similarities with U.S. conflict resolution practices. That said, there are also significant and distinct differences between the U.S. and the Aboriginal Australian conflict resolution practices.

References

Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. (2018). Mornington Island Restorative Justice Project Evaluation. [online] Available at: https://www.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/indigenous/Mornington-Island-Restorative-Justice-Project-Evaluation/pdf/MIRJ_Project_Evaluation_PDF.pdf [Accessed 11 Nov. 2018].

Department of Justice and Attorney General (2012). Mornington Island Restorative Justice Program Project Report [online] Available at: (link) .

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