Aboriginal leaders feel powerless when dealing with the government

31 Oct 2015 12:00 AM - Publication: The Australian - Sean Gordon

More than two years ago, 25 indigenous leaders gathered on the NSW central coast. As a group, we embodied the diversity of Aboriginal Australia, being that we came from and represented urban, regional and remote communities.

We were drawn together by our shared despair over the lack of progress made in improving the lot of our people. For us, this meant social, economic and cultural development: families and children living safely by a set of social values or norms; young people getting a good education and jobs and economic growth for our people. At the same time we were anxious that our culture, heritage and languages were retained and valued.

At that meeting, as the macabre exercise of comparing miseries conjured an insurmountable mountain, an insight appeared: perhaps our issues, shared and unique, might stem from the very same place. Perhaps our rivers of tears had some common headwater?

If we could find this, could we cut it off? Perhaps then the sprawling tributaries of trouble would dry up?

We found the headwater — we all toil largely in vain because we are mice doing business with elephants. Our people, being the 3 per cent mouse of the population, are fragile and weak in our dealings with the might of government elephants.

As leaders in communities and heads of organisations, we are largely powerless. As a crucial example, none of us have any sightlines into the funding that goes into our communities, funding that purports to be about solving the same issues we are seeking to find solutions for yet we are not privy to how these resources are applied.

From this blindness flows so many of our roadblocks: doubling up on some types of services; yawning gaps in other much needed services; turf wars; money and resources frittered away for no gain; efforts that are making a difference easily abandoned; efforts that are not effective remaining.

Animated by this simple insight, we set out to devise a plan. Not satisfied with simply pointing out the problem for governments to fix, we took it on ourselves to find a better way. 

So, the Empowered Communities initiative was born.

Aided by the might and wisdom of corporate Australia, through the Jawun organisation that matches corporate expertise with indigenous organisations, we built a work program to design this new and vastly improved interface.

We took this to the federal government, seeking modest funding to design a new interface between communities and governments. We were successful and benefited from bipartisan agreement that our work was worthy.

Since then, we have built this new interface from the ground up. In the eight Empowered Communities, the landscape was carefully mapped to build a realistic picture of the dynamics, people, organisations and relationships that could deliver a cohesive and truly representative community voice.

On the other side, with the assistance of current and former senior bureaucrats, the government landscape was mapped.

Then the magic happened. With these two sides of the coin understood, we designed the “power board”, an interface to take in the complexities and unique structures of different regions and convert these inputs into a balanced, cohesive and orderly process for governments. This, we strongly believe, can be the engine room for real change and better outcomes for Aboriginal people, no matter what their circumstance, and save money and time.

After all, surely we must question if there are more productive ways to deploy the considerable resources and opportunities available (more than $30 billion a year), and surely more transparency over regional funding, less duplication, less waste and more flexibility to make investment decisions closer to the ground are the answer.

After 18 months of intensive design work, we presented our Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples Design Report to the federal government in March.

We’ve seen signs recently that there may be a willingness to engage on a deeper level with the report. We have agreed to work with the government on some discrete elements in the interests of progressing implementation. Yet here we are fast approaching the end of the year and the inevitable slowdown in government activity, and we remain without a response.

That, I suggest, may be a perfect example of this mouse and elephant problem.

Of course, we accept that governments have processes. We also accept the government has not been without turbulence. Yet other things have been dealt with in the eight months since we presented our report. We have good reason to ask about this delay.

The delay speaks to an important point. During our design work, it was oft remarked that part of the problem is that the elephant is not aware that it is an elephant. In some ways, it would all be easier to understand if we thought the elephant was content being the elephant squashing the mouse.

But this does not speak to our lived experience. We can all point to ministers and bureaucrats who came to the table with goodwill and intent to find the solutions.

But they don’t realise they are the elephant. Driven by goodwill, they can be too eager to find the solutions, their solutions, and apply them to us. Like an elephant that wants to hug a mouse but ends up stepping on the mouse in its exuberance, we see government people squashing our rights to come up with our own solutions.

The inordinate delay in response to our report may well be another example of this. We have heard several positive utterances from the government. It has been declared a game changer, yet the game remains the same. As often is the case, we are left to read between the lines. A charitable theory is that the government, driven by real concern, merely wants to make sure that Empowered Communities is the right answer. That, on face value, would seem reasonable — except for one fact.

What the report represents is a deeply serious, studious and concerted effort by an unprecedented coalition of indigenous leaders and represents the pinnacle of their individual and collective thinking. The report is the apex of our thinking, the culmination of countless sleepless nights stretching back decades; it’s the premier reply from us as leaders to the enduring question that besets our nation — why can’t we close the gap?

When we compare the people who have come up with the plan and the process they have followed against the haphazard and often glib ways that indigenous policy has been formulated to date, we must see that the circumstance of the birth of Empowered Communities is superior.

Is it possible that the delayed response from government is partly about an inherent disbelief that we could come up with a superior solution to that constructed by whitefellas? If we, a significant cohort of leaders, have toiled to deliver a comprehensive plan that is now subject to such a long period of scrutiny, is it possible that an inherent scepticism is in play?

Or is it that the elephant simply does not realise that it is being an elephant?

It’s time we moved beyond the kind words and veiled statements of support and received a sincere response to our deeply considered and carefully planned report and the practical solution contained within.

Sean Gordon is chief executive of the Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council and convener of the Empowered Communities Leadership Group.

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