It starts with the recognition that ‘business as usual’ isn’t working. Despite huge government expenditure, the gap isn’t closing. There have been some great individual successes, and individual programs, but they don’t add up to development. We need to try something different. Our philosophy is ‘Indigenous lives, Indigenous led.’ It’s about Indigenous leaders stepping up, taking charge, and taking responsibility for our own communities. The true goal is development, the path to get there is empowerment.
The main change is Indigenous leaders taking responsibility for Indigenous communities, at a local level, rather than decisions being made by people who are far removed from the issues and challenges facing Indigenous people.
Empowered Communities came about when Indigenous leaders from eight different regions came together, and made a commitment to reform, and changing the status quo.
Empowered Communities is not a new idea. But we feel that it’s an idea whose time has finally come, because we have unity amongst ourselves, and strong leadership in place – leaders who can make it happen.
We self-selected. Initially, leaders from the eight regions came together through collaborating with Jawun, but we soon discovered a shared commitment to reform. This has evolved in to Empowered Communities.
Jawun is an organisation which helps build leadership capability through facilitating relationships with corporate Australia. With Jawun’s support, each of the Empowered Communities leaders have spent time with companies such as BCG, Westpac, Allens, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Herbert Smith Freehills, KPMG and Leighton Contractors.
We believe there is general support for the concept that we need to take charge of our own destinies. It’s about empowerment, it’s about taking more responsibility, it’s about us making choices about our own lives. The current leaders have a track record of delivering success in their own regions. But Empowered Communities is an opt-in model, so there’s no pressure on anyone to sign up. It’s up to Indigenous communities themselves to make their own decision on that.
The key to Empowered Communities is that it has been developed by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people. It’s not a government proposal that has Indigenous support. We have not been ‘consulted’. This is ours; we have owned this from the beginning. This is about strong leaders, across the regions, who have the support of their communities, and are driving real change, and partnering with government to bring it to fruition.
Yes, there are some key areas of alignment to the Creating Parity Report – especially with regard to education and employment. However, it will be up to Indigenous people in those regions to decide which recommendations to adopt or not, according to their own priorities.
We are rolling up our sleeves and get on with implementation. Our timeframe for implementation is 3 years. That may sound cautious, but we have learned from experience that a considered approach is required, when negotiating reform agendas at a regional level – and that takes time.
Obviously, in the ‘start-up’ implementation phase a lot of energy is going into establishing the framework that needs to be put into place to deliver Empowered Communities. But our first few years won’t be just bureaucracy-building, by any means. We are focusing on action, not admin. We want to effect real change in people’s lives, not just in institutions.
Our ‘first priorities’ will focus on five key areas:
We are asking that the Commonwealth, state and territory governments back our reform package. Our most critical ask is a commitment to shift the balance of responsibility and authority from governments to Indigenous people.
The Commonwealth government has agreed to the regional part of our reforms and is working on shifting its role to become an enabler of our reforms. We are continuing discussions with the government about our proposals for institutional reform at the national level to ensure that the gains that we make at the regional level are sustainable.
Our aim is to ensure that Empowered Communities is cost-neutral. Fundamentally, this is not about putting more money in, it’s about getting better outcomes for the same money. A key objective is that, over time, our communities will be moving away from welfare towards responsibility, productivity, and enterprise. Our goal is not just that our communities survive – we want to see them thrive. And that will happen because we have more independence, not more welfare-dependence.
Empowered Communities has enjoyed bi-partisan support since we first proposed the idea to the then Labor government just prior to the 2013 election. Both major parties have continued to support Empowered Communities and the current government has shown an ongoing commitment to our work.
The Commonwealth government has agreed to the regional part of our reforms. This has enabled us to set up backbone organisations to support regional Indigenous leaders to implement our reforms. We are continuing discussions with government about our proposals for institutional reforms at the national level to ensure that the gains that we make at the regional level are sustainable.
Our proposal is the only current comprehensive package of reforms that has Indigenous leadership ready and willing to take action on it. However, we need the Commonwealth Government’s support to bring this program to fruition. But if the Government should turn us down, our efforts in the direction of empowerment will go on. We are already making progress with reform efforts on the ground.
Empowered Communities will give Indigenous people the power to make their own choices, in their own communities. Because we’re operating at a local level, we’ll be better placed to design and deliver services that more closely match the needs of our people. We hope they will notice a big difference, in a short period of time.
Empowered Communities is designed to complement the existing Indigenous structures in place, not compete with them.
Empowered Communities is an important practical reform, but it is not a panacea. It won’t by itself solve for all of the challenges facing Indigenous people. It’s just one part – an important part – of the overall picture. For example, Indigenous constitutional recognition is a crucial agenda that goes to the unanswered question of Indigenous Australians’ rightful and proper place in our national identity. Empowered Communities is a practical reform that complements the broader national conversation that constitutional recognition will bring.