Australia’s new social justice commissioner June Oscar will become the first indigenous woman to fill the role when she begins her five-year term in April.
Ms Oscar, a Bunuba leader from Western Australia whose appointment was announced yesterday, led the fight for Kimberley indigenous women to clamp down on grog sales and pioneered world-first research into fetal alcohol prevention.
She told colleagues at Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre, where she is the chief executive, that her new job will require the same collaborative approach as the one used to tackle social ills in her home town of Fitzroy Crossing: “As I go forward within this role, we will continue to work together to empower women, their children and families to have the life they deserve, while remaining safe and cared for by each other, and demanding that this journey has the full support of our nation.”
Ms Oscar will move to Sydney to fill the role vacated in August by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda, now co-chairman of the Northern Territory royal commission into youth detention.
Ms Oscar said her decades working in Kimberley communities was “challenging and at times daunting, but because we do it together, it is possible”.
In 2007, she faced physical threats from community and family members and legal opposition from local hoteliers when leading the fight to achieve Western Australia’s toughest grog restrictions.
It led to a ban on full-strength takeaway alcohol in Fitzroy Crossing, but locals had already realised that many children were displaying signs of alcohol-related disability, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
In 2009, Ms Oscar helped initiate Australia’s first research partnership into FASD, which revealed that as many as one in five children in the Fitzroy Valley had permanent brain damage as a result of their mother’s drinking while pregnant.
Her Order of Australia in 2013 for services to her people was followed in May last year by the Desmond Tutu Global Reconciliation Fellowship Award.
She said yesterday that she was apprehensive but excited to be taking up her role as social justice commissioner.
“It makes a real and positive difference to people’s lives today and over the long term,” Ms Oscar said.
Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs said she was delighted that an indigenous woman had been appointed to the role for the first time.