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Sustainable options for Australia’s new national Indigenous representative body

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Sustainable options for Australia’s new national
Indigenous representative body

Speech by Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Justice Commissioner, HREOC

Native Title Conference 2008

4 June 2008, Perth

I begin by paying my respects to the Noongar peoples, the traditional owners
of the land where we gather today. I pay my respects to your elders, to the
ancestors and to those who have come before us.

To the Noongar peoples, I acknowledge your continuing obligations to these
lands and the continued exercise of your culture. I join with many others in
expressing my disappointment at the limitations of the native title system and
its failure to support the reality of your continued exercise and enjoyment of

Can I thank AIATSIS for the invitation to address this conference on issues
relating to the establishment of a national Indigenous representative body. I
look forward to engaging with you over the next two days on the role of
traditional owners and their representatives in such a body.

Discussions about a national Indigenous representative body are not a
theoretical debate. Nor is it something that is disconnected from the critical
issues facing our communities, as some people would have you believe. A
national Indigenous representative body has to be a fundamental component of the
Indigenous policy landscape if we are to make lasting progress in improving the
conditions of Indigenous people and our communities.

Today I want to call for us to be ambitious and to be focused on achieving
the goal of a national Indigenous representative body.

As Indigenous peoples, we should have the following firm expectation of the
federal government as well as of ourselves:

That by the time of the next national native title conference (in June 2009),
we will have an agreed model for a new national Indigenous representative body.
Such a body should be funded and should begin operating by July next year.

There is a lot of work to be done if we are to achieve this, and to do so in
a manner that ensures a deep engagement with the Indigenous population to ensure
that a representative body is truly representative and is therefore
capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of our communities.

As I am sure you are aware, the new federal government is committed to
supporting a national Indigenous representative body. In the budget portfolio
statement for Indigenous Affairs released as part of the federal budget in May,
the Minister for Indigenous Affairs has stated that:

The Government went to the election with a commitment to set up a national
representative body to provide an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice
within government. We will soon begin formal discussions with Indigenous people
about the role, status and composition of this body.

So this is a significant discussion that we – as Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples – need to be engaged in over the coming twelve

This debate will become much more intensive over the next month – for
reasons that I will outline later on. But today I want to set out some of the
challenges that I see in the establishment of a new national representative

So let me start by discussing why we need a national Indigenous
representative body in the first place and the policy environment in which such
a body will operate.

We have clearly reached a crossroads in Indigenous policy and service

Issues of Indigenous disadvantage and dysfunction are before our eyes more
frequently and more prominently than ever before.

Barely a day goes by without another chilling and heartbreaking story of
abuse, violence or neglect; or of demonstrations of the impact of entrenched
poverty and despair among our communities. This creates a momentum for change
and for action.

The new Australian government has stated the challenge facing us as

The Australian Government’s reform agenda... in Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander affairs... is to address the structural and systemic problems
that are producing appalling outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

A generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children —
Australian children — is at stake. Time is fast running out. This fact
is acknowledged by Indigenous elders and leaders, as well as by government. [1]

For some time now there has
been a growing despair and a growing sense of urgency for governments to get it
right when it comes to Indigenous affairs. This is particularly in relation to
dealing with the hardest and most damaging issues in our communities - child
abuse and family violence.

This has led to a clear clarion call for change and a determination to do
things differently. As Prime Minister Rudd stated in his apology speech:
‘a business as usual approach towards Indigenous Australians is not
working. We need a new beginning’.

When you combine the sense of despair, the growing sense of urgency with a
determination to do things differently, you can see how something as radical, as
intensive and as divisive as the NT intervention can emerge as a new policy

Regardless of your views on the appropriateness of the approach adopted in
the Northern Territory, it has blown out of the water once and for all the status quo in Indigenous policy making.

This status quo is the fallacy that if governments continue on their
existing path, eventually the substantial issues facing our Indigenous
communities will be resolved.

It is the fallacy that governments have been doing everything within their
power and resources to address the gross disparities experienced by Indigenous
peoples across all areas of life.

And it is the fallacy that government efforts are sufficiently targeted to
achieve their desired outcomes – namely, addressing these life disparities
experienced by Indigenous peoples.

Through their actions in introducing the NT intervention, the former
government admitted three key things.

First, that governments were not providing Indigenous peoples with basic
services that other Australians take for granted – such as policing and
law and order; health and education services; and adequate infrastructure to
name but three areas.

Second, it admitted to the fact that the scale of investment in our
Indigenous communities to date has not been sufficient to enable real change
– sustainable, long term gains that can turn communities and peoples lives

And third, it admitted that the change needed is not going to be achieved
quickly and will require long term investments.

So what do we learn from these admissions? Down what path do they lead us?

Ultimately, they tell us that Indigenous affairs has for too long been
treated as if it is immune from good policy development processes. Lofty
aspirations, repeated often, without a snowball’s chance in hell of ever
being realised because of the stubborn refusal (or possibly even the convenient
blind eye being turned) to the fact that there is a clear lack of capacity to
deliver - both in human terms and in terms of the financial inputs.

These admissions also reveal how simplistic it is to draw a line under all
past efforts as failed and to strive for newness. In many ways, past approaches
didn’t work because they never had a chance to work.

Ultimately, the commitment of the previous government to make a real
difference cannot be questioned. But in the context of this discussion, I think
that they got it wrong – seriously wrong - on two fronts.

First, they didn’t seek to learn from the past, and even from their
very recent efforts. The NT intervention bares little resemblance to the
so-called ‘bold experiment’ of the post-ATSIC new arrangements
– such as the COAG trials, SRAs and whole of government coordination.

These were largely implemented from 2004, so they were hardly the distant

The system for administering Indigenous affairs that was created in the ashes
of ATSIC is simply not working and has serious shortcomings that will limit the
ability to implement any new agenda.

That is the lesson of successive Social Justice Reports to the federal
Parliament, and that is the lesson of the Australian National Audit
Office’s audit, released in late 2007, of the whole of government
arrangements for delivering services to Indigenous people.

There remains a pressing need to ensure that the federal government has the
ability to work on a whole of government basis, where the life circumstances of
Indigenous people are not divided into smaller bureaucratic responsibilities
that inevitably do not fit together or cover the whole.

This has not been grappled with by the Rudd government and remains a pressing
structural problem as we move forward.

There is also a clear challenge to ensure that this system has the ability to
respond to the circumstances of Indigenous people wherever they live – be
it in an urban or a rural or remote setting – and to do so through both
Indigenous specific initiatives and through unlocking mainstream programs so
that they are accessible to Indigenous peoples.

Second, and related to this, the previous government didn’t appreciate
the importance of undertaking action in partnership with Indigenous communities.
In fact, since the abolition of ATSIC they had moved further and further away
from the systemic involvement of Indigenous peoples in policy making processes.

The previous government had moved further to processes that treat Indigenous
peoples as passive recipients of policy rather than active agents for change.

Now these issues are inter-connected.

The absence of a grounded, rigorous process that assures the participation of
Indigenous peoples in determining the policy settings and ensuring that they are
being implemented, and where government’s are held accountable for their
performance, contributes to the lack of achievement and lack of focus of the
whole of government system. It leads to an imbalanced system that does not
recognise the necessity for partnership and mutual respect in order to achieve
the end goal.

Already the new government has made some bold announcements for reforming
Indigenous affairs, including through the establishment of a Working Group on
Indigenous Reform at the level of the Council of Australian Governments; and
explicit commitments to a new partnership to close the gap in life expectancy,
maternal and child health, and literacy and numeracy.

As part of the apology speech on 13 February 2008, the Prime Minister

Our challenge for the future is to embrace a new partnership between
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The core of this partnership for
the future is closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities. This
new partnership on closing the gap will set concrete targets for the future:
within a decade to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment
outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous children, within a decade to halve the
appalling gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
children and, within a generation, to close the equally appalling 17-year life
gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous when it comes to overall life

In furtherance of this commitment, the government signed a Statement of
Intent to work in partnership with Indigenous people and their representative
organisations to achieve equality in health status and life expectancy
between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous
Australians by the year 2030. This statement was signed at the National
Indigenous Health Equality Summit that my office convened in partnership with a
series of non-government and indigenous organisations in March this year.

That Statement sets out the challenge as follows.
It commits the
federal government:

  • To developing a comprehensive, long-term plan of action, that is targeted to
    need, evidence-based and capable of addressing the existing inequities in health
    services, in order to achieve equality of health status and life expectancy
    between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non- Indigenous
    Australians by 2030.

  • To ensuring the full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    peoples and their representative bodies in all aspects of addressing their
    health needs.

  • To building on the evidence base and supporting what works in Aboriginal and
    Torres Strait Islander health, and relevant international experience.

  • To respect and promote the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    peoples, including by ensuring that health services are available, appropriate,
    accessible, affordable, and of good quality.

  • To measure, monitor, and report on our joint efforts, in accordance with
    benchmarks and targets, to ensure that we are progressively realising our shared

The intention should be clear – genuine partnership with
Indigenous people. These are welcome commitments and ‘first steps’
to a new approach for Indigenous affairs.

It is now time for us to flesh out these commitments to ensure the full
participation of Indigenous peoples in policy making processes.

We need to address the existing disconnect between policy making at the
national level and its implementation at the local and regional level.

Much of the failure of service delivery to Indigenous people and communities,
and the lack of sustainable outcomes, is a direct result of the failure to
engage appropriately with Indigenous people and of the failure to support and
build the capacity of indigenous communities. It is the result of a failure to
develop priorities and programs in full participation with Indigenous

Put simply, governments risk failure – and will continue to risk to do
so - if they develop and implement policies about Indigenous issues without
engaging with the intended recipients of those services. Bureaucrats and
governments can have the best intentions in the world, but if their ideas have
not been subject to the “reality test” of the life experience of the
local Indigenous peoples who are intended to benefit from this, then government
efforts will fail.

This need for participation exists at the local, regional and national
levels. Processes are needed to ensure Indigenous input in a systemic manner at
the regional level, and linked up to the state and national levels.

With the recent demise of the National Indigenous Council, the need at the
national level is particularly pressing. The NIC was not intended to be a
representative organisation, and it did not adopt a consultative approach to its
work during its existence.

But now that it is gone there is no systemic structure in place for
Indigenous input into government decision making at the national level.

And this, ultimately, is what the discussion about a new national Indigenous
representative body is about.

It is about our place at the table in making the decisions that impact on our
communities and on our children.

It is about creating a genuine partnership.

With shared ambition, so we are all working towards the same goals and not at
cross purposes.

With mutual respect, so we are part of the solutions to the needs of our
communities instead of being treated solely as the problem.

With joint responsibility, so that we can proceed with an honesty and an
integrity where both governments and Indigenous people accept that we each have
a role to play, and where we each accept our responsibilities to achieve the
change needed to ensure that our children have an equal life chance to those of
other Australians.

To this end, some of you may have heard that my office has initiated research
to identify the key considerations that will need to be addressed in
establishing a national Indigenous representative body.

This research follows extensive commentary on the need for improved
participation of Indigenous peoples in policy processes that was included in Social Justice Reports to the federal Parliament between 2003 and 2006.

The Social Justice Report 2006, for example, made the following

That the Ministerial Taskforce on Indigenous Affairs acknowledge that the
absence of mechanisms at the regional level for engagement of Indigenous peoples
contradicts and undermines the purposes of the federal whole of government
service delivery arrangements.

Further, that the Ministerial Taskforce
direct the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination to address this deficiency
as an urgent priority, including by:

  • consulting with Indigenous communities and organisations as to suitable
    structures, including by considering those proposals submitted to the government
    for regional structures;
  • utilising the Expert Panels and Multi-use List of community facilitators/
    coordinators to prioritise consideration of this issue; and
  • funding interim mechanisms to coordinate Indigenous input within regions and
    with a view to developing culturally appropriate models of engagement.

The Social Justice Report 2006 also identified that I would
follow this issue up by undertaking the following action in 2007 - 08:

The Social Justice Commissioner will work with Indigenous organisations and
communities to identify sustainable options for establishing a national
Indigenous representative body.

The Commissioner will conduct research
and consultations with non-government organisations domestically and
internationally to establish existing models for representative structures that
might be able to be adapted to the cultural situation of Indigenous Australians,
as well as methods for expediting the establishment of such a body given the
urgent and compelling need for such a representative body.

This is, of course, material that was tabled in the federal Parliament in
2007. It has been on the public record for some time, as have my views about
the need for a new representative body and the significant problems that have
emerged in its absence.

So it is unfortunate that the reporting of this in the national media in the
past month has been wildly inaccurate. It is also unfortunate that some
commentators have seen fit to attack the research team and myself without having
any factual materials about the nature of the research work.

Nonetheless, very shortly I will release the research in order to inform
debate among Indigenous people and communities about the history of national
representative bodies in Australia and the types of issues that we will have to
grapple with in deciding what type of body will best meet our needs.

The research is being done by the National Centre for Indigenous Studies
(NCIS) at the Australian National University, with the project team led by
Professor Mick Dodson. The NCIS won the project through a competitive tender

The research addresses the following three questions:

  • First, what lessons can be learnt from mechanisms for representing
    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the national level that have
    previously existed?

  • Second, what options are there for ensuring that a national Indigenous
    representative body is sustainable?

  • And third, what lessons can be learned from mechanisms for representing
    Indigenous peoples that have been established in other countries?

The research does not substitute for broad-based consultation with
Indigenous communities. Indeed, the research does not state a preference for a
particular model for a representative body – it merely identifies the many
and varied issues that need to be considered in the formulation of a new
representative body.

As the research is in the final stages of completion I will not be talking
about it specifically today. I can, however, tell you that it will be publicly
released in the coming month and there will be opportunities for you to consider
it then.

I anticipate that it will provide useful information for government and
Indigenous people to work with when discussing options for a representative

In the remaining time though, let me discuss some of the challenges that
exist in establishing a new Indigenous representative body.

For government I think there are two main challenges at this point of time.

Something that is very striking about the Indigenous representative bodies
that have existed in Australia since the 1970s is that the government of the day
has always had an ambivalent relationship with those bodies.

It is fascinating to observe that every major review of national
representative bodies has resulted in a series of recommendations for reform of
those representative bodies to make them more effective. And the
recommendations of every single review has been ignored and not implemented by
the government of the day.

As we embark on a process for a new national Indigenous representative body,
this highlights one of the most significant challenges for the federal
government: articulate what you are prepared to support and what you are not
prepared to support.

I see no point in engaging in extensive consultations with Indigenous peoples
about issues on which the government may already have a fixed view, particularly
if that view is that they are not prepared to support a representative body
undertaking certain functions or roles.

Why, for example, consult with Indigenous people about what type of service
delivery functions a new national Indigenous representative body should have if
the government has no intention of supporting such a role?

I encourage the Minister for Indigenous Affairs to articulate what the
government sees as the major benefits of a national representative body and
accordingly, what purposes they hope it will fulfil.

Now I am not suggesting that the government should be prescriptive and close
off debates that may need to be had. But ultimately, we need to minimise the
differences between what the indigenous community expects of its representative
body and what government is prepared to support.

If we don’t ‘close this gap’ between the expectations of
government and the indigenous community, then a new body will face enormous
credibility difficulties and may lack the influence that it needs to be
persuasive and an effective agent for change for the Indigenous community.

There is a second challenge for the federal government.

At present there are a number of regional representative bodies that are in
existence. These are receiving variable levels of support. The Torres Strait
Regional Authority is legislatively based and secure. But mechanisms such as
the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly are not secure.

At present, the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly operates under a Regional
Partnership Agreement that is due to expire at the end of this month. Very
little information has been provided as to whether the RPA or some other
partnership agreement will continue to operate just four weeks from now.

The Regional Authority is one of the models that might be considered for
regional mechanisms to form part of a new national representative structure.

So the federal government needs to clearly communicate its position on the
existence of regional mechanisms such as the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly and
then to act consistently with its position.

In my view, the current uncertain situation faced by the Regional Assembly is
regrettable and entirely avoidable. There is no transparency on the
government’s position on the existence and level of support that this new
government is prepared to provide to such regional mechanisms.

And this is a matter that concerns me greatly – both specifically in
terms of the future for the Regional Assembly in the Murdi Paaki region but also
for how the government might engage in the debate for establishing a new
national Indigenous representative body.

For Indigenous people, the challenge that exists is much broader. Recent
media in the wake of the 2020 Summit has shown an antipathy and aggression
towards the existence of a national Indigenous representative body by some.

Our challenge as Indigenous people is to stay focused on the challenges
facing our people. It is essential that we have a seat at the table and are
involved in the big debates that affect our communities. It is not credible to
suggest that we should not have such involvement.

So while we may disagree on details from time to time amongst ourselves we
need to rise above personality politics and remember that there is a broader
purpose. That I speak about the need for a representative body today does not
mean that I am not concerned about the challenges that will emerge for our
communities through climate change, or the threat to our children through sexual
abuse and the prevalence of violence.

As I have articulated here, the issues ultimately are connected. I hope that
we will realise a national representative body that engages with different
sections of the pan-Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander community –
be it women, our youth and children, communities in different geographical
locations, traditional owners or stolen generations members. And I hope that a
representative body will operate in such a way as to inspire and support our
people, while also holding governments accountable for their efforts, so we may
ultimately enjoy equal life chances to all other Australians.

These are big hopes and they are going to be hard to realise – but we
will only achieve it if we are prepared to engage seriously with the issues
instead of playing petty politics and being pawns of division for the national
media to play off each other. We have to be strong and supportive of each other
and have faith in our Indigenous brothers and sister, wherever they may come
from and irrespective of their background as long as they are working for the
betterment of us, as the First Australians.

So let me conclude.

The new government may not yet have fully realised it, but they have been
left with a system for delivering on the government’s commitments to
Indigenous affairs and reconciliation that is severely limited in its capacity;
that has developed and mutated out of an urgent desire to do better, but which
has ignored or manipulated the evidence in adopting change; and which has become
disconnected from the very people it is meant to service.

This creates serious challenges for the government. Reform is necessary to
ensure appropriate standards of accountability are upheld; that a clear,
consistent vision is applied; and that the capacity exists to deliver.

Unless this is addressed within a learning framework, with an eye to detail
and basic standards of good policy practice being applied, the government may
find that it becomes frustrated at the lack of achievement and the intractable
nature of the existing disparities in life circumstances experienced by many
Indigenous peoples.

The first step on this road is mutual respect and a partnership. A national
Indigenous representative body is an essential component of achieving the long
overdue commitments to closing the gap.

Please remember, from self respect comes dignity, and from dignity comes

Thank you

[1] Federal Budget 2008-09 –
Indigenous Affairs Portfolio Statement by Minister Macklin.