The annual Yothu Yindi cultural festival, Garma 2013 was the site for a glimpse of major Aboriginal land management and economic development reforms flagged in separate pre-federal election announcements from prominent Aboriginal identities, Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson.
Both spoke during their visit to Gulkulu in northeast Arnhem Land, of the potential for new bodies that would be the voice of Traditional Owners (TOs), and the interface between Indigenous communities and the Australian government. .
Elevation of Warren Mundine
The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced that if successful in a months time, under a federal government he leads, Warren Mundine would head a new super advisory group.
The advisory group would be empowered to review existing Indigenous governance structures and with input from TOs, give regular advice to the Prime Minister on the right balance of governance arrangements for managing the land, the communities and individual aspirations.
In his own words,
Warren Mundine’s speech to the Garma Festival Corporate Dinner [10 August]
Noel Pearson Launches ‘8 Empowered Communities’
Noel Pearson made Garma the site to call on support for formation of a new statutory body ‘equivalent to a productivity commission for indigenous affairs’.
“The group, headed by respected national figures Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, is urging the establishment of a new commonwealth statutory body equivalent to a productivity commission for indigenous affairs”.
In a long address, Pearson also became a face to key Macklin Indigenous policy initiatives past and present, with an account of negotiations with the Labour Government to cut through barriers to secure more funding of the Cape York welfare reform trial, when it’s future was placed in jeopardy by it’s other significant funding body, the Queensland government.
Without further detail it is difficult to know if these reform proposals – one an election promise, the other an aspiration – are mutually exclusive, or of the kind that are able to be fashioned to operate together.
Both proposals would impact on existing statutory authorities and the only national Indigenous representative advisory body, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
The list of Indigenous statutory authorities includes many familiar names: the IBA, Indigenous Hostels Limited, AIATSIS, ORIC, the TSRA and all of the Indigenous land councils.
Aboriginal land councils have histories of being under review.
In the Northern Territory from the Reeves review, to the HORCATSIA inquiry into the Reeves Report in the 1990s, up till the current government and the denial of a request from Traditional Owners within the Northern Land Council for the power to establish a break away land council in the Northern Territory. In NSW, the NSWALC is currently undergoing a 30 yr ‘generational’ review.
The Liberal party election promise of a new advisory group has taken the Indigenous community by surprise, and social media has been running hot on the choice and the selection process for the leadership of potentially the most powerful Indigenous advisory group in the country.
Along the path to achieving functional and effective Indigenous representation, lies the bodies that were established and dismantled.
Layering of committees is nothing new, with the creation of the NIC and the abolition of ATSIC still fresh in people’s minds.
Announcements of new ways of doing business come on the tail of recent elections of the second term of National Congress.
During the lives of these representative bodies, another strata of Aboriginal voice emerged, in the form of appointed advisors.
Indigenous life is ruled by committee
Boards can consist of members gained from membership votes, ministerial appointment or sponsorship. The result is committees of high profile people and some who only emerged through a committee building process.
There are also high level committees that fly underneath the Aboriginal community radar altogether, and their membership, activities and responsibilities are not common public information, and if not for public reporting obligations would operate completely beyond the Indigenous communities’ awareness. This lack of transparency is a rich pool for community suspicion and resentment.
Community members who build up a portfolio of public life and advisory roles run the risk of being considered too far removed from their community and too close to government, and need to constantly validate themselves with demonstrations of a strong cultural identity and working with communities, to others who will never have access to these forums at a senior level and demand high standards from those given the opportunity.
It’s a vexed issue for some, where being accused of self promotion takes the form of shunning in the Aboriginal community. The appropriateness of anyone putting up a hand, or accepting appointment can attract more interest than the workings of a new advisory or statutory body.
And here is the quandary with building advisory bodies. Invited to contribute off the cuff about who should be in a leadership role the Indigenous community by applying variables of selection criteria, priorities and skill sets would most likely produce tens if not hundreds of candidates.
It could include names from existing advisory groups like National Congress, and others with memberships both elected and appointed. It may also throw up new identities, in the form of Traditional Owners who believe a new structure offers better opportunities for their land rich, cash poor remote economies.
The Indigenous vote
Warren Mundine is prominent in Australian political life with a career made remarkable by the transition in a matter of years from a term as National President of the Australian Labour Party to the promise of becoming the most senior Indigenous adviser to a Liberal federal government.
Abbott has expressed the strength of his support for Mundine, explaining his decision to create a new advisory group and appoint Mundine as the head was based on his long friendship with a ‘kindred spirit’.
Another demonstration of government to community engagement is the strong and enduring support the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd continues to enjoy from Aboriginal people for his leadership on the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.
However one need only look to the stunning victory of the CLP in the 2012 Northern Territory elections for confirmation that Indigenous constituents are not rusted on ALP supporters.
A sidenote to Indigenous policy reforms: NT Chief Minister, Adam Giles campaigned hard on promises to constituents that if successful, a CLP government would revisit TOs deep dissatisfaction with the previous NT government’s amalgamation of Aboriginal community government councils into ‘mainstream’ super shires. Traditional owners have argued since amalgamation that the power to manage their communities was taken from their hands.
Four weeks out from the federal election and the details of these new reforms – one announced as part of an election campaign, the other a call for support – have yet to be made available for scrutiny. To date there have been no responses from state and territory governments or Aboriginal land councils.
Traditional Owners wait to hear of any changes to how they have a say – on a pathway they can trust – to greater economic returns from their land.
Depending on whether bipartisan support is gained for a new ‘Indigenous productivity commission’, it’s foundation in the eight signed up communities – which include the Cape York and north East Arnhem land – would form a considerable powerbase of land, culture and community, and allay some concerns that the voice of remote Australia was missing from the table.
It also remains to be seen how the needs of 80% of the Indigenous population that do not live in remote areas and yet endure the same levels of disadvantage are included alongside the remote interests.
On the face of it, any body – an advisory group or an Indigenous productivity commission – that had the ear of government and the voice of the Traditional Owner fits the ideal relationship to unlock the economic potential in Aboriginal land and native title interests.
The Indigenous community waits for more information on what seems certain to be sweeping Indigenous policy reform, and is alive with speculation as to who could or should be tapped on the shoulder next.