Skip to main content

Kimberley Remote Community Leaders Forum

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Bunuba yani U. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngirranggu thangani.  Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

I acknowledge the Yawuru people of the land we gather on today and I pay my deep respects to elder’s past, present and emerging.

I’d like to thank the Department of Communities of the Western Australian Government and Barry Louvel for bringing this important Forum together, and for hosting a lovely evening last night. Thank you also to Alan Stewart for facilitating what I know will be an excellent few days of connecting and learning from one another.

And of course, I would like to acknowledge all of you here today—the Kimberley leadership, and representatives from the WA Government and other service providers. I know many of you very well. I always love being able to see familiar faces in the audience who I know carry the same values and commitment to social and economic community development. It is a timely occasion to have this leadership group assembled here from a cross-section of our communities in the Kimberley region, and to be joined by a strong cohort of non-community representatives—and it is my pleasure to open this forum.

I want to start by acknowledging the incredible work you all do. In particular, I want to acknowledge the power of your strengths, skills and capabilities in the last 12 months. In times when you are struggling, just remember—you managed the threat of a global pandemic, protecting our communities, and making the Kimberley region one of the safest places to see it out. Not one person in our remote communities contracted COVID-19. In a year where a pandemic has ravaged the world, that really is a remarkable result.

While we seem to have escaped, in the immediate, the worst impact of COVID because of our leadership, now, in many ways we confront an even greater and more pressing challenge—how do we move forward into a healthier, fairer and sustainable future and not return to a ‘normal’ that was never acceptable before COVID?

In that regard I want to acknowledge the ongoing challenges many of you face—challenges that you all have in common and those I know well from my experience from working in community administration and coordination in Junjuwa in my early years, just starting off in my professional life and also as the former CEO of Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing.

The hats we wear between managing communities and being heavily involved in our community organisations and the delivery of vital services, are often the same. I know in those early years, when we established many of our remote communities and family outstations we had much more support from the Commonwealth and large programs like CDEP were integral to sustaining investment into employment opportunities and the infrastructure of our communities.

As we all well know, policies shift and change year on year. Over the years it has become harder and harder to access the necessary resources to maintain the governance of our communities and to ensure that the decisions we make on the ground, that we know work, also influence how services are designed and delivered. More and more over the years programs and service delivery has been designed from the top down, detached from us and the lives that we want to live in community.

Many of us know this first-hand from a community service delivery perspective. Our community organisations are overloaded and under-resourced yet there remains an expectation that we are to be responsible for almost all aspects of community life. Organisational funding is almost always precarious and yet we are burdened with unrealistic reporting requirements to KPIs that are never co-designed or culturally appropriate, and that only contribute to the burden and trauma. Too often, as a result, our capabilities are overlooked, and funding is given to non-Indigenous organisations to provide services to our communities—undermining community authority and undoing the significant work of our Indigenous organisations. Not only does this lead to ineffective service delivery and reduced capacity, it delivers poor outcomes, and this is incredibly dangerous to communities already in cycles of crisis.

In addition to the wide-ranging organisational challenges, as CEOs and Chairpersons, we are juggling the responsibilities of organisations, with those of our communities—and in both cases we do not have the resources and supports we need to be truly self-governing and self-determining. This should never be the case.

As CEOs and Chairpersons, you are leaders in your communities and the lives of your families. You do wear multiple hats. You walk in multiple worlds simultaneously—always thinking about how communities should function, running organisations, sitting on so many boards, managing finances, maintaining cultural obligations to kin, ceremony and law.

For women, this is even more so. Throughout recent engagements with First Nations women and girls from across the country as part of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Project, there was a clear message: Women are the backbone of our communities—they are the primary carers for our children, our elderly and people with disability. Women lead the work in trauma recovery and are filling the gaps where supports are lacking—they open their homes to those in need and provide counsel to family, kin and friends through hardships and perpetual cycles of grief and loss. And then we go to work, we manage staff, programs, and critical frontline services, on minimal resources—frequently overworked and underpaid.

This breadth of work that women do is largely unseen and undervalued. As such the structures and mechanisms are not in place to support them, and to support us all. I really want to stress that when I talk about supporting women, I am not just talking about women—I am talking about lifting all our peoples up, men included. Because women see everyone, supporting them is about supporting everyone.

It is for this reason that I want to take the opportunity to remind us all of the importance of equality in representation and participation in decision-making in our communities and organisations, at all levels, from frontline staff to our leadership teams and boards. Women are the key to breaking the cycles of crisis we are seeing in our communities. As our primary nurturers, carers, and protectors, women have the solutions to maintaining the health and wellbeing of our communities—for men, women and children. Our women must have a permanent seat at the table, in all sectors, at all levels. This requires more than just making room for them at the table—it requires investing in their leadership development, capacity-building, succession planning, and it requires support from our men to take some of the load of looking after family and community so women can take up these equally-important decision-making roles, in equal numbers to our men. It is time to share the load so we can hold up our communities together. It is only together in balance and equality that we are going to create the type of communities that we all want to live in.

These are the messages that came out of the Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report. Wiyi Yani U Thangani—meaning ‘Women’s Voices’ in my Bunuba language—is the first time First Nations women and girls have been consulted as a collective in over 34 years. In 2017, when I took on the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner—the first woman to hold the position in the Commission’s then 25-year history, which is one example of the gender inequality that is pervasive across leadership and public roles—I was determined to engage with First Nations women and girls on how to respond to their rights and lives. My team and I spoke with over 2,000 women and girls of all ages, from urban, regional and remote Australia. What has resulted from these extensive engagements is a comprehensive whole-of-life report spanning five thematic parts, each containing several chapters, which provide a well overdue First Nations gender lens on critical issues and all areas of life.

We are now in our next stage of work which is focused on responding to First Nations women and girls and their overarching call for their self-determination to be guaranteed and backed up by structures of accountability and responsiveness.

That is why the major recommendations of the report are to establish a First Nations women and girls National Action Plan and a First Nations women and girls’ Advisory Body, and to hold a National Summit that brings us all together so we can ensure that everything laid out in Wiyi Yani U Thangani is responded to and implemented.

As part of enhancing women’s leadership so they can self-determine the priorities they want to pursue, here in the Kimberley region, we are working closely with a number of women in their establishment of a Kimberley Aboriginal Women’s Council—last week I was delighted to participate in their three-day conference. Some of you may have seen it on Facebook and I am really happy to talk to you more about it.

At this conference, I was reminded of the power of a network. A place where common experiences are shared, ideas and solutions are exchanged, new insights are gained, and new and old connections are made stronger. For these reasons, coming together at a forum like this Kimberley Remote Community Leaders forum, is crucial.

This forum is an opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate on solutions—to understand the challenges we have in common and learn from one another on how to respond in different and innovative ways. Not only does this build a network of leaders that we can draw on for mutual support and counsel, but we are also building a unified voice for the Kimberley region.

Together we are stronger. It is from a strong and unified position that we can reconstruct and transform government’s engagement with our communities. And we must do so starting from our strengths as Indigenous peoples. We must take strength from knowing that our peoples governed themselves for tens of thousands of years. Our skills, strengths and capabilities as leaders are too often unrecognised. As a group, we must reassert our ways of knowing, being and doing, and not accept a relationship that does not honour our unique skills and qualities as Indigenous peoples. Together we can have more autonomy.

A forum like this is an excellent step in shifting this dynamic and I commend the WA government for bringing together our community leaders and non-community representatives. To the non-community representatives, I encourage you to listen to the Kimberley leadership and learn from their lived experience as CEOs and Chairpersons of our Kimberley communities. This is a positive step in building strong relationships and shifting current power imbalances. Too often, the expectation is on our communities to attend government-initiated consultations—where we share our struggles and our solutions, only for it to be a tick-a-box exercise, and no genuine response or change comes from it. This forum instead puts our Indigenous leaders in the centre—for their challenges to be heard directly, on their terms.

This forum is also about accountability and transparency—to come together again after the 2018 Forum and to see how the issues have been responded to, as a collective. If they have not, then I encourage you all to agree to a set of principles and accountability measures to co-design the way forward. Regardless of whether priorities have been met you should do this anyway.

I’d like to encourage our non-community partners to approach this Forum with a whole-of-government approach. Too often, as our community leaders know too well, the issues we are working to address are siloed into government departments that don’t talk to one another, and success looks like incremental, programmatic changes instead of a whole-of-system, holistic and interrelated approach. The issues our communities face are not separated into housing, economic development, health or justice. They are interconnected and as such, they require an interconnected response. This is about structural change and it starts with Forums like this that centre our knowledges and our leadership, and that build on the models, programs and approaches that we know work on the ground.

Recently with the management of COVID-19, we got a taste for the impact we can have when governments put their trust in our communities—We stopped COVID-19 in its tracks. One of the most urgent threats to face global humanity in a generation has not taken hold in any of our communities. It was our leadership that did this. We must acknowledge the positive impacts that occur when we truly put trust in our community organisations and its leaders. They are the knowledge holders.

I want to end with a reminder that at the end of the month is Reconciliation week. The theme for this year is “More than a word” – for me this is about taking action to translate good intentions into meaningful change. I hope you will make this potential for change real in this room today. You have the expertise and you have the resources. This is a hub of innovation. Take advantage of it. Listen to each other, support each other and design together to build together new and better ways of working for the benefit of all people and all communities in our Kimberley region.


Thank you

Commission logo

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice