Towards a new National Indigenous Representative Body
A Community Guide
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Without genuine engagement with Indigenous Australians, governments will
struggle in their efforts to make lasting progress to improve the conditions of
our people and in our communities.
There is currently no transparent, rigorous process or mechanism at a
national level to engage with Indigenous communities, where policies and
priorities can be developed and which can hold governments accountable for their
We need a new National Indigenous Representative Body if we are to achieve
long-term, positive change. The new Australian Government recognised this in its
Apology speech on 13 February this year.
The Government strengthened this commitment when, along with the Federal
Opposition, it signed a Statement of Intent in March 2008. This commits the
Government to work in partnership with Indigenous people, and their
representative organisations, to ‘close the gap’ on health
inequality and life expectancy by 2030.
It is now time to give substance to these commitments so that Indigenous
Australians can participate in the decisions made by Government. This is why
discussion about a new National Indigenous Representative Body is so important.
From 2006 I have been carrying out research to identify the key issues we
need to consider in establishing such a national representative body.
The research was published in an Issues Paper that looks at the lessons we
can learn from past Australian experiences, what representative bodies are
currently in place in Australia and overseas models of representation for
It also raises some key issues we need to consider to ensure that a new
National Indigenous Representative Body is effective and sustainable. The Issues
Paper is over 100 pages, so I provide this community guide as a summary.
My hope is that we can develop a body that truly represents the interests of
all sections of the diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, no
matter what their age, sex, background or where they live.
And I hope that such a body will be able to inspire and support our people,
while also holding governments accountable for their efforts, so that we can
ultimately enjoy the same life chances as all other Australians.
I urge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work together to
make sure we have a body that we can all be proud of; and a body that will
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
TOM CALMA is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
Tom, an Aboriginal elder from the Kungarakan tribal group and a member of the
Iwaidja tribal group of the Northern Territory, commenced his five-year term in
As Commissioner he advocates for the recognition of the rights of Indigenous
Australians and seeks to promote respect and understanding of these rights among
the broader Australian community.
Tom has been involved in Indigenous affairs at a local, community, state, national
and international level and has worked in the public sector for over 35 years.
About the research project
This research project was carried out following a commitment I made in my Social Justice Report 2006. In that report I said that I would
“work with Indigenous organisations and communities to identify
sustainable options for establishing a national Indigenous representative
In 2007, I hired the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU to
conduct research. That research has been incorporated into an Issues Paper that
I released in July 2008.
The full version of the Issues Paper is available at: www.humanright.gov.au/social_justice/repbody.
Research projects such as this are an important part of the Social Justice
Commissioner’s statutory role to promote awareness and discussion of the
human rights of Indigenous Australians.
The image and text of the Barunga Statement and the painting (as featured on
the Issues Paper on the cover) are reproduced courtesy of the Central Land
Council, Northern Land Council, and the Buku Larrngay Mulka Art Centre.
Australian Parliament House, where the Barunga Statement currently resides,
provided a copy of the image for use.
Indigenous representative bodies in Australia: a short history
The experiences of the past provide valuable lessons that we can draw on when
it comes to establishing a new National Indigenous Representative Body.
Our research looked at previous representative bodies, including the Federal
Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCATSI),
the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), the National Aboriginal
Conference (NAC) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission
There are a number of reasons why these bodies did not work as effectively as
they intended, including:
their relationships with governments, Indigenous communities and
organisations, and other stakeholders, were not clearly defined
they did not always deliver what Indigenous people wanted because their
roles and functions were not clear
a lack of resources made it difficult to undertake some responsibilities,
while having too many functions – such as advocacy, policy development,
program delivery and evaluation – created conflicting responsibilities
the wide diversity of Indigenous concerns – from urban to remote
communities; women, young people, Stolen Generation members – made it
difficult to represent all groups successfully
a tension between the expectations of Indigenous Australians for a strong
organisation to represent their views and the preference of governments for them
to act as ‘advisory’ bodies.
How are Indigenous people currently represented?
There are a range of national, state/ territory and regional Indigenous
representative bodies currently operating in Australia. These include:
National peak Indigenous bodies
Land Councils and Native Title Representative Bodies
State/ territory representative and advisory bodies, and the
Torres Strait Authority.
Each category of organisation highlights different strengths and
challenges for effective representation.
However, they all provide a valuable source of ideas in shaping an effective
model for a new National Indigenous Representative Body, including their
structure, functions, membership and the processes used for determining
representatives or elections.
Indigenous representation in other countries
Our research examined models of indigenous representation in four other
countries: the United States, Canada, Sweden and New Zealand. Each example has a
different historical, cultural and legislative basis.
United States: National Congress of American Indians
a membership of tribe members, this is an independent advocacy group that talks
to government on policy development and monitors government policies. It is
Canada: Assembly of First Nations
Membership includes all
First Nations citizens who elect community representatives to the Assembly. It
operates as an independent advocacy body, although it is funded by
Sweden: Sami Parliament
A parallel indigenous Parliament,
its role is to monitor government rather than providing self-governance. It is
both a publicly elected body and a public authority funded by the Swedish
New Zealand: Māori electorates and dedicated government
Māori electorates provide indigenous
representation in the national Parliament.
There are also a range of government bodies that represent Māori
interests, such as the Ministry of Māori Development, the Māori Office
Trust, the Waitangi Treaty Tribunal and the Waitangi Treaty Fisheries
These bodies have indigenous members, but not necessarily elected
These overseas models demonstrate different strengths and weaknesses on
issues such as self-governance and the influence they have with government. It
is important to note that none of the overseas models performs a service
delivery role on behalf of government.
Establishing a sustainable National Indigenous Representative Body
A National Indigenous Representative Body should do more that simply provide
a ‘consultative mechanism’ for government. It should have a clear
vision for a positive future for all Indigenous Australians, inspiring
partnerships and action for change.
What are the key issues?
The Issues Paper I presented to the Government is not intended to raise every
possible issue that needs to be considered in establishing such a body. Instead
it simply aims to start the discussion among Indigenous people and with
Therefore, the list of key issues set out here should not be seen as
prescriptive or limiting.
Key issue 1: Guiding principles
Indigenous peoples’ vision of what they want from a National Indigenous
Representative Body, and the principles to guide its operation, will have a
fundamental impact on what the eventual body will look like.
Some foundational principles to consider include:
having legitimacy and credibility with both governments and Indigenous
‘two-way’ accountability - to government and to Indigenous
peoples and communities
transparency in its operations, membership and determining membership or
election and policy making and financial processes
being truly representative of the diverse range of Indigenous peoples
having a consistent and ‘connected’ structure that has clear
links between the national body, Indigenous peak bodies and Indigenous
organisations at the state, territory and regional levels
providing independent and robust advocacy and analysis.
To achieve its goals, a National Indigenous Representative Body
could also be expected to:
play a leading role in making a new partnership between governments and
ensure Indigenous people contribute to and lead policy development on
provide an Indigenous perspective on broader government issues, such as
climate change or homelessness
be a strong and consistent advocate for the rights of Indigenous
ensure proper mechanisms are in place to monitor the performance of
governments on Indigenous issues
ensure government commitments, such as ‘closing the gap’ on
health inequality etc, are supported by comprehensive, long-term and
evidenced-based action plans.
Some useful sources of information to identify strong foundational
principles for a National Indigenous Representative Body include:
the Themes and Ambitions from the Indigenous Stream of the 2020 Summit
the Hannaford Review of ATSIC
the objects of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 2005
Key issue 2: Roles and functions
Some of the possible functions of a new National Indigenous Representative
Body might include: delivery of government programs, advocacy, policy
formulation and critique, contributing to legal reform, review and evaluation of
government programs, being a clearing house, research, facilitation and
mediation and contributing at the international level.
Experiences of past representative bodies, however, have highlighted the
advantages, disadvantages and challenges of carrying out some functions and the
tensions that result from undertaking multiple roles and functions.
Government program delivery
The role of program delivery can be
actioned through directly engaging in service delivery or through exercising
influence over program delivery. Should the role of directly providing services
be properly left to the province of the government, a National Indigenous
Representative Body could still play a significant and important role in program
delivery by setting priorities for program delivery, contributing to planning
processes and monitoring government service delivery.
To be an effective advocate, a new National Indigenous
Representative Body needs legitimacy, sound research, professional presentation,
adequate resourcing and a relationship of trust with government, the public
service and media. It also needs to be professional and to have adequate
resources. Another crucial factor is whether the body sits within or outside of
No previous representative body has had a
predominant role in setting Indigenous policy goals, implementation and
evaluation. Rather, they have generally been seen as one element in a
consultative process. A human rights based approach, and respect for the
principle of free, prior and informed consent, requires a more open and
collaborative approach to policy development by government.
Although past Indigenous representative bodies have
supported law reform, their role in initiating legal reforms has not been
strong. A National Indigenous Representative Body could be active in initiating
law reform and cooperating with legal organisations and movements in other ways,
such as through test cases.
Review and evaluation
Scrutiny of government performance at both
the state/ territory and national level is an important role a National
Indigenous Representative Body could perform. It could work with existing
monitoring processes, as well as receive independent ‘field reports’
from regional members or bodies. To perform this role effectively, it would need
some investigative authority.
‘Clearing house’ for information
A new national body
could coordinate the sharing of information between Indigenous representative
organisations and service delivery organisations and also provide advice to the
public and private sectors.
The participation of Indigenous
Australians internationally has made an important contribution to the
development of human rights standards, as well as providing an opportunity to
learn ‘best practice’ approaches from others to inform policy
development in Australia. A new national body could coordinate international
engagement to ensure strategic and well-targeted participation.
Good research is essential to effective advocacy and
developing good policy and advocacy. A new body could have its own research
coordination arm, commission community-based research or coordinate with
existing Indigenous research centres. It could also build links between
Indigenous researchers, policy developers and service providers to share skills
Facilitation and mediation
There is a large, unmet need for
mediation services between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous interests when
one impacts on the other. A national body could support mediation training and
possibly accredit professionals in this area. As an independent body, it could
also provide negotiation, mediation and facilitation expertise on a
Key issue 3: Structure
Two important questions to consider about the structure of a new National
Indigenous Representative Body are:
how will the national leadership keep connected with the broad base of
Indigenous people and communities at the local and regional level through to the
state/ territory and national level?
what should the structure of the national body look like?
Representing Indigenous people and communities
the ways in which a new national body could engage with Indigenous people,
communities and organisations at the regional and state/ territory level,
formal mechanisms, where the national body draws its members from national,
state/ territory or regional representative bodies, holds regular state-wide
policy forums or develops other regional-level mechanisms based on boundaries
used by the previous ATSIC Regional Councils or based on Indigenous geographic
a range of approaches that engage different sectors of the Indigenous
community (such as forums at different levels or through different
representation for individuals and organisations)
informal processes where Indigenous peoples can have their say, for example
at a national congress or forums that bring people together around specific
Structure of a national body
There are a number of ways
in which a new National Indigenous Representative Body could be constituted,
delegates who are nominated by regional and state/ territory levels of the
body or by direct election
a membership-based organisation, made up of communities, organisations or
individuals who choose to join
involving Indigenous peak bodies, regional or state/ territory based
Indigenous bodies or Indigenous service delivery organisations in its activities
designating positions be allocated to the national body, or specific working
groups, to represent particular sectors of the Indigenous community, such as
women, Stolen Generation members, traditional owners, young people or Torres
a process of merit selection coordinated by a panel of eminent Indigenous
a combination of these approaches.
Consideration needs to be given to ensuring a gender balance in the
new national body, along with ensuring the participation of young people.
We also need to make sure there are appropriate opportunities for the
broad-based participation of Indigenous people in the body’s
decision-making process, while also recognising the need for the body to remain
focused, effective and capable of swift action.
Key issue 4: Relationship with federal government and Parliament
To effectively represent the interests of Indigenous Australians, a National
Indigenous Representative Body must work closely with all levels of government.
The new body could be established as a Commonwealth Government entity, such as a
statutory authority, or as a non-government organisation.
Operating as a statutory body ensures both independence and privileged access
to government. It can work to improve the quality of governance and influence
public policy, while at the same time remaining at arm’s length from
government. It would also report directly to Parliament through its annual
Whether the organisation is a governmental statutory authority or a
non-government organisation, a National Indigenous Representative Body must
build and maintain a closer relationship with government than has previously
This is particularly important for delivering two of its possible functions:
policy advice and review of government performance.
Approaches that could help build a positive, constructive relationship with
having ex-officio membership of the Cabinet Committee on Indigenous
Affairs and the Secretaries Group on Indigenous Affairs, where major decisions
on Indigenous affairs are made at federal government level; alternatively, it
could advise these bodies
participating in discussions of the Council of Australian Governments, as
well as its various relevant committees
having a formal role in the committee systems of Parliament, such as at
Budget Estimates hearings or parliamentary committees of review
establishing an exclusively Indigenous committee, with democratically chosen
representatives and the powers of Parliamentarians.
Key issue 5: Funding
How the National Indigenous Representative Body is funded is critical to its
ability to take on the roles and functions that are eventually decided.
If a national body is a statutory arm of government, it must be funded by
government. While government funds may be useful, they can come at the cost of
the independence. For instance, the organisation may be tied to certain
functions, have conditions attached to its funding and, as a result, it may be
seen as a proxy for government.
If the body is a non-government organisation, funding can still come from
government through grants. Other funds may be raised through a dedicated
foundation fund or through donations, membership fees and/ or selling products
A further option is establishing an ‘Indigenous Future Fund’ to
be funded through a direct grant from government(s) or through the allocation of
a percentage of land tax receipts annually for a fixed period.
Questions for discussion
- What principles should guide the formation of a new National Indigenous
- How could the National Indigenous Representative Body have a say in
program delivery without delivering services?
- Set priorities for service delivery?
- Contribute to planning processes?
- Monitor government service delivery?
- What should be the roles and functions of a new body?
- Forming policy and advising government?
- Law reform?
- Reviewing government programs?
- Reviewing government service delivery?
- The international arena?
- Facilitation and mediation?
- Other roles?
- Should the National Indigenous Representative Body be a national-level
structure or include state/ territory and/ or regional structures?
- How might a new body engage with Indigenous peoples at a regional level?
- Include regional representation as a formal part of its structure?
- Hold regular regional forums?
- Conduct these itself, or in partnership with
- Engage through some other process?
- How should the new body engage with Indigenous peoples at the state/
- Draw its membership from regional representative bodies?
- Link in other ways?
- What should the structure of a National Indigenous Representative Body
- Be based on a delegate model, nominated by regional and state/
territory levels of the body?
- Have a direct election model, where Indigenous peoples elect
- Involve Indigenous peak bodies and maybe others to nominate
- Have Indigenous bodies participate in an advisory capacity?
- Have positions on the national body for different Indigenous community
- Have equal numbers of Indigenous men and women?
- Allow non-Indigenous organisations to participate as advisors?
- Be chosen by a panel of eminent Indigenous peers?
- Be structured in another way?
- Should the National Indigenous Representative Body be established by
government (for example as a statutory authority) or be independent of
- How should the National Indigenous Representative Body be structured to
ensure a direct relationship with the federal government and the federal
- How should the National Indigenous Representative Body be funded to
ensure its ongoing security?
- Receive government funding?
- Gain charitable status to receive tax-free donations?
- Have an establishment fund to give the body a capital
- Charge membership fees?
- Charge for delivery of services and products?
- Be established as a future fund financed through a percentage of mining tax
- Have other ways of funding?
Starting the conversation
There is a solid foundation of experience for us to build on when it comes to
creating a new body that gives genuine voice to the rights and concerns of
This Community Guide does not endorse or promote any particular model. Its
aim is simply to identify some of the key issues that need to be considered in
establishing a new National Indigenous Representative Body: its guiding
principles, role and functions, structure, relationship with government and
It is up to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders to decide whether
there are other issues that need to be addressed in developing the shape and
direction of the new body.
The next step is to hear the views and ideas of Indigenous people,
communities and organisations. I encourage you to be involved in the upcoming
consultations and to have your say.
Find out more
The full Issues Paper – Building a Sustainable National Indigenous
Representative Body – was released on 12 July 2008.
It is available online at www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/repbody
You can also order a hard copy by phoning 1800 202 366
Have your say
On behalf of the Australian Government, the Department of Families, Housing,
Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) is currently holding
community consultations and receiving submissions on the establishment of a
National Indigenous Representative Body.
From late July and throughout August, FaHCSIA will be conducting consultation
meetings across Australia, including some remote locations. There will be a
range of other processes through which Indigenous people can have a say in the
coming months. For information about the consultations, and how to register,
phone 1800 202 366 or email: email@example.com
Submissions can be made using the online form at:
Written submissions can be sent to:
Fax: 02 6264 5069
Post: National Indigenous Representative Body Unit
Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
Canberra Business Centre ACT 2610
Closing date for submissions is 19 September 2008
Please note: For any inquiries regarding the Government's consultation
process, please contact FaHCSIA on the above contacts. The Social Justice
Commissioner is not involved in the running of the consultation