1.2 Indigenous governance
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always had their own governance. It is an ancient jurisdiction made up of a system of cultural geographies (‘country’), culture-based laws, traditions, rules, values, processes and structures that has been effective for tens of thousands of years, and which nations, clans and families continue to adapt and use to collectively organise themselves to achieve the things that are important to them.
As Mick Gooda, the Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner (Social Justice report 2012, p.90) said:
“While Indigenous peoples have governed ourselves since time immemorial in accordance with our traditional laws and customs, when we speak of Indigenous governance we are not referring to the pre-colonial state. Rather, we are referring to contemporary Indigenous governance: the more recent melding of our traditional governance with the requirement to effectively respond to the wider governance environment.”
In many parts of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance systems were disrupted and changed because of British colonisation. Often people were forcibly relocated to settlements that were run according to western governance structures, rules and values.
Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have many forms of governance based on their diverse histories, environments and cultures.
Indigenous governance is not the same thing as organisational governance. While governance is a critical part of the operation and effectiveness of legally formalised and registered incorporated organisations, it can also be seen at work every day:
- in the way people own and care for their country, arrange a ceremony, manage and share their resources, and pass on their knowledge
- in networks of extended families who have a form of internal governance
- in the way people arrange a community football match or an art festival, informally coordinate the activities of a night patrol and develop alliances across regions
- in the voluntary work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women within their own communities, and as governing members on a multitude of informal local committees and advisory groups.
What makes it Indigenous governance is the role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and philosophical systems, cultural values, traditions, rules and beliefs play in the governance of:
- processes—how things are done
- structures—the ways people organise themselves and relate to each other
- institutions—the rules for how things should be done.
In other words, just like all other societies around the world, the practice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance cannot be separated from its traditions and culture.
Today, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are working to rebuild and strengthen their contemporary governance arrangements. The challenge in doing this is to ensure that governance solutions continue to reflect cultural norms, values and traditions, while remaining practically effective.
Developing a shared vision within your nation or group about your approach to these issues will be critical right from the beginning. You will find more information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures of governance in Topic 2.
What community-controlled governance means at IUIH
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Adrian Carson and Director of Operations and Communications Jody Currie describe the 'vibe' of community-controlled governance at IUIH.
Snapshot: Similarities and differences between community and corporate governance
Indigenous community governance happens outside as well as inside corporations and organisations. This table summarises some of the important similarities and differences between their governance.
1.2.1 What are Indigenous communities?
What an Indigenous community shares
A community might share many features.
“The concept of a ‘community’ is complex. Who and what makes a community and what it does, generally depend upon those who live in it and, most importantly, its history. The Walgett Shire communities of north-west New South Wales are remarkable on both accounts. They have a unique multicultural history which is rarely understood by people living outside of regional Australia and who often believe that multiculturalism only exists in urban Australia. United by a common bond of attachment they feel towards each other and towards their community. They express their sense of belonging in many different ways.”
(Frances Peters-Little, presentation to ‘History Through a Lens, Unsettling Histories: Visual Modes of Historical Practice’ forum, 30 June–1 July 2005, Canberra)
Definition: A community is a network of people and organisations linked together by webs of personal relationships, cultural identities, political connections, traditions and rules, shared histories, social and economic conditions and/or common understandings and interests.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are extremely diverse in their cultures, histories, locations, size and local conditions. They are also subject to different national, state and territory government laws.
These different kinds of communities can include:
- discrete geographic communities—such as remote settlements, towns, outstations, pastoral stations—there are over 1,300 located in urban, rural and remote locations in Australia. The residents of these places may be a mix of different families, clans, language and ceremonial groups, or they may come from the same cultural group (e.g. an outstation community or island).
- dispersed communities of identity—sometimes the members of nations, clans or tribes are spread across several different locations in a region. But they share a cultural identity and so consider themselves to be a single community of identity.
- a community of interest—people who do not necessarily share a common cultural identity, but who come together voluntarily because they have the same goals or interests (such as a sporting or artistic community, a political lobby group or alliance) can be said to form a community of interest.
This means that often there are different Indigenous ‘communities’ living within a single place. But everywhere, the shared characteristic of all these different kinds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities is their extensive networks and overlapping relationships, strong extended family ties, multiple ties to ‘country’ and valued cultural identities.
1.2.2 Diverse communities, diverse community governance
The diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has given rise to diverse governance arrangements. For example:
- families and clans within a single settlement may each have their own traditional leaders and governance networks
- some groups may be traditional landowners with related governance rights to the land on which a settlement has been established; others are not
- some groups that have been historically resettled together may be opposed to each other
- some local leaders may represent a whole geographic community, or several linked communities of identity
- some ‘community’ organisations may look after the rights and interests of all the residents; others may focus on a particular group in a community or region.
Your governance culture and environment
This diagram shows the layers of your governance environment.
So the governance of communities is characterised by complex layers of social relationships, extended families, networks of leaders (male and female), organisational relationships and political networks.
Given this historical and cultural complexity, it is not surprising that conflict or confusion often arises about who has the authority to make particular decisions, and who has the right to represent or ‘talk for’ a particular group of people.
As your community changes over time, your governance arrangements may also need to adapt and change. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.
Communities operate within a wider ‘governance environment’ of surrounding communities, nations, agencies, organisations, businesses, governments, networks, laws, leaders, politicians and resources. To govern effectively you need to know this wider environment and understand how you can strategically operate within it.
Today, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are working to rebuild their governance and are crafting innovative solutions to address their varied community conditions and cultural traditions.
How MG Corporation’s governance works
In this video Helen Gerrard, MG Director explains the governance structure of the MG Corporation. She talks about how it has changed over time and represents different groups through the Dawang Council.
Snapshot: Different models of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander models of nation, community and regional governance are often based on sophisticated networks. These can be made up of interconnected layers of extended families, clans and leaders, and their land-ownership rights and interests. These cultural networks form the foundations for a wide variety of different governing structures, depending on what suits the particular nation, community or group. Sometimes these structures are legally incorporated; sometimes they remain informal and flexible.
1.2.3 Building on community strengths
The Marruk Project on community governance
The Marruk Project was awarded First Place in Category B of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here Project Manager Angela Frost describes Marruk’s governance structure and the sense of community ownership.
What can we do? Strengthening community governance
This resource outlines some important questions to think about before you go about strengthening your community governance.
To get governance right for your group, make sure you consult and inform the right people in a community, and that the right people make the decisions about particular issues. Different, and often competing, interests in a community need to be recognised and managed.
It pays to look back at your community and its governance history to better understand how you got to where you are now.
It also pays to look at the things you value about your governance in the past, and what you want to keep, protect and strengthen.
Too often external governments and stakeholders focus on a ‘deficit’ view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and governance.
It’s important to understand the governance challenges and gaps in your community; however, focusing entirely on problems only conveys negative images, and residents can come to depend on ‘outside’ help to ‘fix’ their problems.
A ‘community development’ approach to rebuilding governance starts with what is present in the community, not what is problematic or absent. It’s a positive, strengths-based strategy.
To get started on this approach, identify your nation or community’s assets and strengths.
‘Mapping’ or drawing the assets of your community is one of the first steps towards harnessing the strengths and support of people and organisations, so that work can begin on rebuilding or changing your particular community’s governance arrangements.
What can we do? Mapping community assets for governance
You can use this resource to map out the strengths in your community which you can use to build your governance.
Governing well needs the support of your whole community to work properly. Once you do your mapping, you’ll be better able to keep all your community members involved and informed, and create shared solutions that they support.