2.1 Indigenous governance and culture
2.1.1 Culture is what makes governance strong
“Law and culture is what makes governance strong. It comes first.
We come together to keep us strong and then we can look after the organisation.”
(James Marriwal, Member of the West Arnhem Land Shire Transitional Committee)
“Indigenous cultures are diverse, and Indigenous ways of meeting governance challenges
may be equally diverse. This is not a problem. It’s a solution.”
(Stephen Cornell, Co-Director, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Harvard University)
Ngurra-kurlu (the way yapa life is governed)
Steve Jampijinpa, Warlpiri educator and scholar, explains the five pillars of Warlpiri culture—the land, law, ceremony/performance/dance, language, and families in skin groups—all of which connect together to govern Yapa people’s lives.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people put their culture at the heart of their governance. They have had their own systems of governance for tens of thousands of years. These systems of laws, traditions, rules and codes of conduct have changed over time, and especially as a result of the impacts of colonial settlement.
There have always been many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies spread across the vast continent of Australia, so naturally there have always been many different culture-based ways of ‘doing’ governance.
Currently, there are also different types of communities and organisations, each with their own governance histories and arrangements.
Despite the impacts of colonial settlement and diversity of communities across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to share many common cultural values and traditions to organise themselves, connect with each other, and collectively achieve the things that are important to them—that is, to govern themselves.
For example, there continues to be a high value placed on family connections and support; kin relationships, mutual responsibility and sharing of resources; respecting law and the authority of elders; and attachment to ‘country’ and the role of traditional owners in making decisions about their lands.
This means that while nations, communities and groups may have governance models that initially look different on the surface, their solutions are often based around the same deep cultural values and ways of behaving.
Embedding culture at VACCA
The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Muriel Bamblett discusses how culture informs the governance and operations of VACCA.
2.1.2 Indigenous principles of governance in Australia
“In the old days Yolngu people lived within the pattern of laws
which were passed down through the generations and are still with us today.
The patterns that go through songs, dances, art, (ceremonial) and sculpture all relate to each other. Pattern is the beginning, middle and end of Yolngu life. Patterns can be Yolngu or Balanda [white person], e.g. stripes, dots, lines, curves, rectangles, diamonds, squares, circles. But our Yolngu law patterns tell us a story.”
(Dundiwuy 2 Mununggurr/Wunungmurra, Yolngu Artist, Northern Territory)
As Wanta Janpijinpa and Dundiwuy 2 Mununggurr/Wunungmurra tell us from very different places, there is a cultural pattern or logic—a set of deep underlying principles in Indigenous law and culture—that provide the foundation for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance in Australia.
This pattern of principles tells the story of each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group and their links to the land and to each other. They are evident in everyday life and how people get things done, and are often set out in the strategic plans and constitutions of incorporated organisations.
In its work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, communities and organisations across the country, the Indigenous Community Governance Research Project documented this pattern of ‘design principles’ that lies deep at the heart of Indigenous thinking and informs these communities’ diverse solutions for rebuilding governance.
Indigenous governance principles in Australia
Indigenous people across Australia often use similar culturally-based principles to design their governing arrangements.
Indigenous people across Australia often use similar culture-based principles to design their governing arrangements.
These cultural principles are summarised below. Thinking about how these principles work in your own group, community or organisation can help your community develop its own governance choices and solutions.
Definition: A network is like the interwoven threads in a string basket. It is a group of people, things or organisations that are independent but are connected to each other and help one another by sharing knowledge, resources, ideas and so on.
Networks enable people and organisations to cooperate for agreed purposes.
We can see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander networks in extended families, linked groups, communities, ceremonial traditions, kinship relationships and groups of leaders, and often depicted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
Indigenous governance is a networked form of governance. It is based on thick pathways and layers of relationships and connections between people, places and things, past, present and future.
These relationships create an elaborate web—a kind of bottom-up federalism where rights and interests, decision-making powers, leadership roles, responsibilities and accountabilities are spread across different cross-cutting social layers and cultural geographies.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and their governing bodies working in communities are linked into these wider governance networks.
For networked governance models to be effective they need to have clearly identified and agreed layers of shared:
- power and authority
- decision-making processes
- roles and responsibilities
- mutual accountability.
Focusing on clearly identifying your own networks and how well these layers are working can often strengthen your governance. Networked governance arrangements that are built from the bottom up are a much more effective and sustainable solution than ones that are imposed from the top down.
See Topic 9 for more detailed information and tips about networked governance.
2. Relationships and shared cultural connections
Relationships based on shared cultural connections to other people and country (‘cultural geographies’) are central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance networks.
Strong internal relationships and a clear idea of group membership are important for effective, legitimate governance. Often when Indigenous groups start to rebuild their governance, they focus first on sorting out these internal issues in order to determine who has authority to make decisions, resolve representation issues, and so reaffirm their collective identities—the ‘self’ in their self-governance.
This is especially important when groups try to balance their need for local leadership and decision-making control with their need to maintain wider connections, or participate in larger-scale representative structures (such as regional, state or national organisations and assemblies).
Agreed understandings about internal relationships and connections are often used as the basis for creating representative governing structures that more properly reflect cultural ways of doing things.
3. Governance histories
The different histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, communities or organisations shape their governance arrangements and the challenges they face today.
Often, going through your own governance history can:
- shed light on the governance issues you’re facing today
- clarify the things about your past ways of governing that you value and want to protect and strengthen
- give you a clearer understanding of the type of governance you want for the future.
4. Cultural geographies
Definition: The concept of cultural geography is about the way peoples’ collective identities are based on their deep ties and attachments to particular areas of land (country) and their rights and responsibilities to look after that country.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often regard the ‘cultural boundaries’ associated with these geographies (e.g. land-owning groups, ceremonial and gender networks, leadership hierarchies, extended family networks) as the more reasonable basis for their governance arrangements.
These ‘boundaries’ are often different from non-Indigenous administrative, town and state boundaries.
Using cultural geographies as a basis for rebuilding governance structures helps give greater legitimacy to new governance arrangements, especially those involving land issues. It means that some groups of people will ‘fit together’, make decisions together and work together better than others.
The role of influential individuals (‘leaders’, ‘bosses’, ‘elders’) who form networks of leaders, is another deep underlying feature of how Indigenous governance works.
Such leaders influence and help people to cooperate, use resources, resolve problems, care for country and get things done.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have powerful networks and knowledge, forming connections within and between communities and regions. Because they are part of close social networks, leaders may be subjected to enormous pressures.
To continue being effective, leaders need to have and maintain:
- respect from their group for their knowledge and experience
- valued personal qualities and skills
- strong networks of social support
- responsibility for looking after their group members
- downward accountability to all their group members
Having these things will contribute to their ongoing cultural legitimacy. At their least effective, leaders can become catalysts for internal factionalism, ongoing disputes and exclusiveness.
6. Decision-making authority
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander approach to decision making is one of consensus and occurs across the layers of networks.
Consensus is created through slow agreement and can change over time. It is a matter of moulding opinion (often done by influential people) and when achieved can create chains of cooperation within and across networks.
This means that the authority to make decisions should be located closest to the local group of people within a network who are most directly associated with the issue at hand (e.g. the owners of the land, the resources, the knowledge or the dispute) and so most affected by the outcome.
However, other decisions involving ‘bigger issues’ that have implications for larger groups or multiple communities will need to be made at bigger, more centralised scales within a network.
Problems can arise for a group’s governance when the ‘wrong’ people or layer of a network is involved in making decisions or when factional interests undermine group consensus.
Problems can similarly arise for the governance of organisations when there is little clarity about who is making decisions about what, and when statutory requirements for decision making contradict the consensus approach within the wider community or nation.
Definition: Accountability simply means being answerable or responsible to a person, family, or wider groups and networks.
Accountability is based on rules, checks and balances to make sure people do the things they should and don’t do the things they shouldn’t.
The dispersed and overlapping nature of Indigenous leadership and decision making means that accountability is also dispersed across the layers of networks.
While government departments and private sector companies tend to emphasis upward accountability to themselves for their funding and support, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people emphasise the importance of downward accountability to the members of their own nation, community or local group.
Governance solutions will be more effective and legitimate if it is clear and agreed who should be making decisions, and who should then tell other parts of the nation, community or organisation about those decisions.
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.
2.1.3 Building and maintaining cultural legitimacy
There are no quick fixes for developing effective, legitimate governance, but there are ways of reducing the burden on those attempting to undertake the journey.
“… having legitimacy with the people you are trying to govern turns out to be a critical point …
You have to have legitimacy with the people whose lives are at stake … In some cases, this may mean Indigenous communities have to rethink their ideas of how to govern and invent new ways that better meet their needs … What matters is not that things be done in the old ways. It is that things be done in ways—old or new—that win the support, participation and trust of the people, and can get things done.
Some will be old. Some will be new.”
(Stephen Cornell and Manley Begay, paper presented to ‘Building Effective Indigenous Governance Conference’, 5–7 November 2003, Jabiru)
Girringun’s culturally-assured process
Girringun Aboriginal Corporation was awarded Highly Commended Category A in the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here CEO Phil Rist describes how Girringun’s ‘culturally-assured’ process gives the organisation’s decisions legitimacy.
Having cultural legitimacy in your governance arrangements means having rules, structures and processes that:
- are informed by an understanding of your own cultural traditions
- embody the values and norms that are important to you
- reflect your contemporary ideas about how power and authority should be shared and put into practice
- are generated through your people’s own efforts, and therefore have the support of the people being governed.
Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, organisations and their leaders need to find some degree of cultural legitimacy or common ground between their new governing arrangements and their cultural values, traditions and ways of exercising authority.
To achieve this, many Indigenous groups are experimenting with how to bring their cultural ways of doing things into their governance, such as integrating them into their rules, representation, organisational structures, decision-making processes, policies and constitutions.
Practical capacity and legitimacy go hand in hand. For example, there is little use in designing culturally credible rules if they are not enforced, or developing a culturally-informed governing structure if you cannot deliver the services and functions your members need.
When organisations and leaders lose cultural legitimacy with their members and groups this often affects their credibility with their external stakeholders.
When designing new governance arrangements it is important to be very clear about exactly how you want to integrate culture into your governance and to be flexible, inclusive and incremental in your approach to doing this.
Remember, cultural diversity means legitimacy can come in a variety of ways.
It is not an easy thing to do, but there are some lessons from the work that many Indigenous groups have already been doing. The following tips outline some of the things you can do to build and keep cultural legitimacy.