1.0 Understanding governance
1.0.1 What is governance?
“Let’s learn from what works and let’s breed that success. Good Indigenous governance and leadership need to be supported as they are the foundation for success.”
(Professor Mick Dodson, AM, Chair, Indigenous Governance Awards)
“We use a very simple definition of governance, and it means to make sure things are run well.”
(Richard Weston, Regional Director, Maari Ma Health Aboriginal Corporation, NSW Finalist 2005 Indigenous Governance Awards)
This chapter will help you understand what governance is and why it’s important. You’ll find information about different kinds of governance—Indigenous, community and organisational.
Every society has different ways of governing and their own words to describe how they govern. The meaning of the English word ‘governance’ can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who defined it as the ‘art of steering boats’.
The following definition captures the key aspects of governance.
Definition: It is useful to think of governance as being about how people choose to collectively organise themselves to manage their own affairs, share power and responsibilities, decide for themselves what kind of society they want for their future, and implement those decisions.
To do that they need to have processes, structures, traditions and rules in place so they can:
- determine who is a member of their group
- decide who has power, and over what
- ensure that power is exercised properly
- make and enforce their decisions
- hold their decision-makers accountable
- negotiate with others regarding their rights and interests
- establish the most effective and legitimate arrangements for getting those things done.
Governance gives a nation, group, community or organisation the ways and means to achieve the things that matter to them.
Governance is not the same thing as ‘government’, ‘management’, ‘corporate organisations’, ‘administration’ or ‘service delivery’. It’s also more than just ‘leadership’.
You can find plain English definitions for many of the ‘power words’ commonly used in ‘governance talk’ in the toolkit’s Glossary. Just remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have their own concepts and languages for talking about their own governance, and sometimes the meanings of those are very different to Australian English.
1.0.2 Think about how footy is played—it’s a bit like governance.
“Sports contain all the parameters of good governance. For example, what would sports be without rules, schedules and time limits? Without agreed values and discipline? What would sports be without the best of managers and coaches? Who would dream of entering a sport without being offered the opportunity to learn and develop the skills and tools to play the game? Yet, we do so routinely in the game of community governance.”
(Neil Sterritt, Gitxsan Leader, British Columbia, Canada)
What can we do? Footy and playing the governance game
Thinking about how footy is played is a good way to think about governance. For every footy team, there are a lot of different things that need to be pulled together on the day if the team wants to play its best and win the match. It's the same for governance. You can use this worksheet to think about your governance and the roles of your governance team.
1.0.3 Why is it important?
“It is only when effective governance is in place that communities and regions will have a solid foundation for making sound decisions about their overall goals and objectives, what kind of life they want to try to build, what assets they have or require, what things they want to retain, protect or change, the kind of development they want to promote or reject, and what actions they need to take to achieve those goals.” (Professor Mick Dodson and Diane Smith, 2003. ‘Governance for sustainable development: Strategic issues and principles for Indigenous Australian communities’, CAEPR Discussion Paper No. 250)
The significance of effective governance for IUIH
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Adrian Carson highlights the wider significance of governance, identifying that “good governance is fundamental to good health”.
Without governance, you won’t achieve the things that really matter to you as a group.
Governance helps ensure:
- the welfare and human rights of citizens are protected
- resources (money, people, natural, cultural) are managed
- rules, policies and laws are created and enforced
- essential programs and services are prioritised and delivered
- goals are set and achieved
- relationships with external parties are negotiated.
Having effective and legitimate governance benefits families, communities and nations. It is a powerful predictor of success in economic and community development and in maximising self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
For all these reasons, the importance of having a strong governance foundation is gaining ground. Rebuilding your governance is self-determination in action.
“…the deplorable economic and social circumstances in our communities will change for the better only when the Aboriginal communities can construct their own systems of governance and plan for their people’s long-term development.”
(Peter Yu, Indigenous Governance Conference, 2–5 April 2002, Canberra)
“If we are truly committed to the notion of self-determination, we cannot begin to pursue it without instruments of governance. If we do not have these structures, we cannot engage with government other than on an ad hoc, individual basis that leaves us vulnerable. We cannot engage in partnerships with business, we cannot benefit from the essential nature of our communal identity as Indigenous people. If we want to acquire native title and manage it for the benefit of our communities, this cannot be achieved without effective governance both during the process of acquisition and once the native title is acquired.
We can’t possibly hope to negotiate a treaty or any other form of meaningful national agreement if we don’t have governance structures that legitimise our side of the negotiation.”
(Jackie Huggins 2003, extract from speech, 10th Annual Cultural Heritage and Native Title Conference, Brisbane, 30 September 2003)
1.0.4 Who has governance?
All societies and groups have governance.
You can see it at work in extended families, the smallest communities and the largest nations and states.
You can see it in the activities of informal groups such as the local night patrol, native title claimant groups, volunteer groups, artists’ collectives and sporting teams.
It is present in organisations, schools, churches, health clinics and community stores, big businesses, banks, public service departments and mining companies.
Governments have their own forms of internal governance.
1.0.5 Power, authority and rules
Governance is about power and authority: who has it (who ‘calls the shots’, making the important decisions and rules) and how those people with power are held accountable within their group.
Sometimes, governing power and authority is in the hands of a small group of people. Sometimes it is widely shared across a network. Sometimes, power is in the hands of outsiders.
Who is calling the shots in your governance system?
Effective self-governance means not only having genuine decision-making power, but also being able to practically exercise that authority and take the responsibility for it (i.e. being accountable).
To exercise power effectively and legitimately, people need agreed rules and ways of enforcing them. Rules are the organising tools of governance. They tell us:
- how to behave towards each other and what to expect when we don’t
- how power is shared
- who has the authority to make the important decisions
- how decisions should be enforced
- how the people who make decisions will be held accountable.
Governance rules can be the unwritten laws, traditions and ways of behaving that people live by. They can also be written down in documents such as constitutions, by-laws, policies, regulations, business and strategic plans, and company rules.
If your governing rules are poorly understood, easily sabotaged by selfish interests or erratically enforced, the legitimacy of your governing power and authority will be severely undermined.
1.0.6 Women and governance
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have always had valued roles and responsibilities in the governance of their families, clans, communities and nations. They are traditional landowners and transmitters of systems of knowledge.
This continues to be the case today. Senior women are often the bedrock of community and family wellbeing, which is all part and parcel of governance. And they are active in many leadership and governance roles.
Today, the number of women in important governing roles in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, communities and organisations is growing.
Those organisations that deal only with women’s issues or men’s issues have boards and leadership that consist of women or men only. For most other organisations, especially those representing the wider interests of communities and nations, it’s important to reflect their general membership and to have both men and women sharing leadership on the board, and among the staff and management of the organisation.
If you promote gender equity (fair representation of men and women) in decision-making and leadership roles, you will strengthen the governing capacity of both men and women, and draw on all the knowledge and experience in your group.
Encourage young women to become involved so that they bring their own strengths to governance and leadership.
What can we do? Encouraging women to be active members
You can use this resource to see what your organisation or community does to encourage women to participate in governance and then to think about what else you could do.
Waltja women in governance
Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation was awarded First Place in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Waltja directors are all community women. Here Chairperson April Martin talks about Waltja’s governance processes and the strong women that are on their board.
How the Yiriman Project works with young women
The Yiriman Project was awarded First Place in the 2012 Indigenous Governance Awards. Yiriman Elder, Annie Milgin explains how the Project works with young people and how they involve young women.