The Indigenous Community Foundation and Australian Response

I'll begin today with an admission of sorts: I am not a lawyer. Therefore I won't be entering into debates over legal definitions or the significance of court decisions or rulings. Nor will I proffer argument on strategies for influencing legislative processes and outcomes. My point here is to introduce some discussion on the exercise of self-determination by indigenous peoples in Australia. For Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders at the beginning of the twenty-first century in Australia, the practice of indigenous self-determination is of more consequence than the perpetual political and legal battles over indigenous rights.

I'm the first to celebrate the achievements in both of these fields. I also acknowledge the incredible gains and socio-political shifts that come as a result of these efforts, but my enthusiasm is tempered. For even with these momentous shifts in legal doctrine or political policy, Australia's Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are, in the main, still suffering under disproportionate social disadvantage and a sustained spiritual and cultural assault. In one sense, Australia's indigenous populations have yet to fully realize the promise of the constitutional change of 1967, the High Court decision on native title in 1992, or the increased grassroots support for the reconciliation movement.

The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Australia

Most of those interested in indigenous rights in Australia are familiar with the High Court decision in 1992 on native title, colloquially known as the Mabo case. This extraordinary legal development is the latest achievement in the struggle by Australia's indigenous peoples to have their prior occupancy and rights recognized within the nation-state known as Australia. The significance of the High Court decision on native title was its dismissal of the legal fiction of terra-nullius as the foundation for the British invasion of the land that is now know as Australia. The Court's decision then recognized a form of rights at Common Law to be known as Native Title.

Australia's indigenous peoples have long been campaigners for both citizenship rights and first nations rights. And just as the recent decisions in the courts haw established the legal recognition of these arguments, so too has popular recognition of the claims increased.

Australia has unfinished business. The nation-state fails to formally recognize the place of indigenous peoples as first nations on the continent. There is no legal document, nor constitutional recognition, nor formal government recognition of indigenous rights to sovereignty. To a limited extent, the broader public in Australia has grown frustrated with the persistence of indigenous peoples' fig for these rights.(1)

Government Policies

Australian governments have largely followed global geo-political trends in public policies concerning the treatment of their indigenous populations.

With the English invasion of Australia in 1788, the country was declared vacant -- free of any human habitation -- and therefore free to be claimed for the British crown. This colonial trick exempted the British from the necessity of negotiating their presence and claims for land. The negotiation of a treaty and compensation or repatriation has been vigorously opposed by colonial and national governments in Australia ever since. This policy of fantasy was observed through the colonial expansion across the continent in the 1800s, even though this expansion was often in direct conflict with indigenous nations and their peoples. Disputes, conflict, and the threat of attack were a feature of frontier life.

During the formative stages of the federation of colonial administrations into the Commonwealth Australia in the late 1890s and with the eventual creation of the nation-state Australia in 1901, the indigenous nations and their peoples were explicitly omitted. Only in the 1967 referendum were these racist clauses removed. In short, the constitutional discussions considered indigenous peoples a state responsibility and subsequently made them wards of the state, as with other forms of property.

The social climate of the time offered no hope of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders assuming their rightful and full place within the new nation-state. Social-Darwinism and the logic of eugenics had Australia's indigenous peoples dying out under the pressure of the modern world. For a time through the 1800s, the massacres of Australia's indigenous peoples offered some evidence to support these theories.

Into the twentieth-century, though, formal government policies shifted to the objective of protectionism. Continued colonial expansion and the experiences of the last century made it clear that indigenous peoples were ruder serious threat of genocide and suffered the continued racism of "new" Australians. This protectionist stance was supported and administered largely by various religious organizations and churches. While the colonials didn't want to acknowledge the humanity of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, they were desperate to exploit the labor of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women. The predominant result of the enforced removal of children and the creation of a reservation system in Australia was the forced or indentured labor of indigenous peoples.

For the fledging pastoral industry, large tracts of land needed large amounts of labor. The system was made feasible only by exploiting the knowledge, skills, work ethic, and commitment of indigenous men and women. Indigenous stockmen and women were to wait until the early 1960s before this arrangement of indentured labor would be challenged and overturned by a decision in an industrial relations court.

This decision was welcome but not entirely effective. Most Aborigines who had agreed to work in the industry for little or no recompense did so because this enabled them to remain on country and to continue to meet Aboriginal cultural and social obligations. The "equal wages for equal work" case resulted in an eviction by station managers and owners of Aboriginal peoples from properties across Australia. The effects of this fundamental shift are evident yet in continued social and cultural dislocation throughout Australia.

Through the 1950s and 1960s the Aboriginal reserve system was intended to further assimilation. Indigenous peoples were to be trained and instructed in the ways of white Australia, with the ultimate goal that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders eventually abandon their cultural traditions and assume roles as citizens within mainstream Australian society. Still, the approach only intended for indigenous peoples a second-class citizenship. Racism was firmly entrenched in mainstream Australia at that time: discrimination based on the color of a person's skin was rampant, racial stereotypes pervaded popular logic, government legislation and political parties continued to deny individuals full citizenship and human rights. But a popular push for human and civil rights was gathering momentum.

The 1970s brought a change in the federal government and a corresponding change in official government policy. The concept of indigenous self-determination entered public currency. In one sense, this approach was a continuation of the previous policy of assimilation: all Aborigines would eventually become "white Australians." Still, this new policy acknowledged a degree of indigenous peoples' agency in the assimilation process and opened the door for subsequent change.

The Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs was created in 1974. Many formal reports and investigations were undertaken. A cadre of indigenous individuals began moving into post-secondary education and professional vocations; formal policies provided opportunity for a lucky few to seize new possibilities.

The 1980s saw a liberal government take office. Under the new administration, these trends continued at an accelerated pace. Many substantive policy initiatives were launched in indigenous affairs -- in education, employment, health, and also in the administration of Aboriginal affairs itself. After a brief and rather hurried process of community exposure, the federal government radically restructured the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The Department's replacement was a hybrid with two distinct elements. The newly constituted organization was called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC draws upon a local structure of elected Regional Councils. These regions are grouped into zones that duly elect a representative to sit upon a national board -- the ATSIC Board of Commissioners.

ATSIC has weathered its first ten years of operation with baggage from its earlier days as the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Many indigenous peoples who offered initial opposition to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs continue to offer well-founded critiques of ATSIC. The attempt to merge the bureaucratic world-view of public servants with an agency intended to deliver on indigenous self-determination has proved problematic.

Another significant development formulated through the early 1970s was the government's initiative to improve the accessibility of Australian corporations law. This initiative produced the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act. As a piece of federal legislation, the Act was intended to provide for the melding of indigenous community circumstances and the requirements of incorporations so that indigenous peoples might form legally constituted organizations. The early years of the Act's administration proved uneventful. Over the subsequent three decades, though, many thousands of organizations have been constituted at the local and regional levels. These community-based organizations are the predominant type of organizations incorporated and operating within indigenous communities.

Although the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Act to facilitating the achievement of its own objectives has been questioned in recent research, a conservative estimate at the community level of the proportion of organizations incorporated under the Act would run to 90 percent. Herein lies one of the anomalies of the Australian circumstance: even those organizations ostensibly incorporated as non-government entities to promote indigenous self-determination are in fact incorporated and limited by this Act of the Australian federal parliament.

So-called community-based responses to the needs of the indigenous community are overwhelmingly government-sector agencies, departments, legislation, and funding. The true extent of non-government activity is limited. Furthermore, many community-based organizations have formulated their organizational objectives in response to the demands of government agencies.

The Need for Balance

It has become quite common for community-based organizations to embrace and claim the capacity to operate across many fields with little or no experience or expertise. A given organization may combine youth issues, housing, land management, and employment training. After many years of being beholden to the limited resources of the public purse, some organizations have in fact become the chameleons of the public service. These organizations are likely to change their spots to manipulate narrow public sector programs and secure sufficient operating money. This comment is offered not so much as a criticism but merely an observation. The public sector has in fact encouraged such behavior because an organization willing to do whatever it can to stay in favor is an organization that serves the public sector well -- not the indigenous community, but the public service sector. Clearly, for indigenous community development to serve indigenous community interests it must be delivered by agents that are also controlled by indigenous peoples.

There needs to be a more balanced approach to who contributes to the community development process. To counter the preponderance of public sector agencies currently in play, the expansion and development of the non-government sector for indigenous initiatives must be a priority. The pursuit of alternative organizational structures and incorporations must be examined. In part, the initiatives of Cultural Survival, First Peoples Worldwide, and the First Nations Development Institute -- and more recently the Indigenous Community Foundation in Australia (ICF) -- provide examples of how to create and support efforts in this non-government sector.

Complementing this shift should be a commitment to considering the peculiar requirements for capacity-building within involved indigenous communities. For too long indigenous peoples have talked the familiar lexicon of indigenous self-determination yet taken decisions and adopted actions that contradict these words. For this non-government sector to mature, indigenous peoples must be willing to assume full responsibility and management of these organizations. Such a change will require that non-indigenous peoples, most with the truest and most sincere of intentions, vacate positions within indigenous organizations. The natural corollary of this shift will be a generational shift of power interests within indigenous communities.

The last two decades of the twentieth century provided many indigenous peoples with education and training within numerous mainstream societies and systems -- political, educational, and social. At times this new knowledge clashes with more familiar and/or traditional streams of indigenous knowledge. Translating between the two streams of experience and knowledge requires patience and tremendous effort. As indigenous peoples, we must prepare ourselves for the roles and responsibilities awaiting us as this generational transfer proceeds. Capacity-building must move beyond cliché. Young indigenous peoples, as younger generations have always done, provide our communities with a chance to seize control of our shared future. Young people hold the true prospect of real change for all our people. Accordingly, young people must be provided with and encouraged to seize opportunities for development and to observe those already in positions of responsibility.

In small part, the Lumbu Indigenous Community Foundation will provide some catalyst to these processes of capacity-building. As an independent, indigenous-controlled, non-government organization, the Foundation will play a critical role as an independent third party.

The ICF will be a vehicle to track and research future positive prospects. To achieve lasting outcomes, the Foundation must become an organization that can build networks of support, experience, and expertise. These features need not be housed or controlled by the Foundation itself such resources must be developed as shared community-level resources.

The Foundation will identify new opportunities -- specially as these trends manifest themselves in the local sense -- through the application of traditional and customary knowledge, the adaptation of contemporary technologies, or the exploitation of improved avenues for provision of goods and services to our communities.

This new approach to community development in indigenous communities is made distinct by the following features:

- promoting the adoption of more balanced, non-government sector development;

- extending capacity development beyond mainstream training and education programs to actually foster examples of indigenous peoples running and leading their own organizations; and

- using truly independent organizations to identify and pursue the creation of new sources of support for indigenous community organizations.

Political and Legal Gains for Indigenous Rights

The recent decisions by Australian courts of law on primary questions of indigenous peoples rightS have been momentous -- for the courts and the politicians. Though the High Court's decision on native title in the 1992 Mabo case was legally significant, and the resultant political response was important, the social response has been mixed. I believe that the backlash evident in popular support for right-wing touch-stones such as Pauline Hanson is evidence of the court and politicians getting too far ahead of the populace. Yet many ordinary Australians appreciate the moral imperative of improved race relations.

While the federal government response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was worth millions of dollars, the Native Title Act created statutory authorities to carry the official government response, and the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs was restructured into the hybrid Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, few real improvements have been achieved at the local level. The litany of health, educational, employment, housing, and police statistics offers little evidence of substantive improvements. A preoccupation with securing legal recognition of indigenous rights has been paralleled by political contests. Both approaches have delivered significant moments of indigenous success, but what do we achieve if only a handful of our people experience a substantive improvement in their daily lives?

The failure to convert such legal and political victories into community-level improvements breeds discontent within our communities. People read about these legal proclamations and policy shifts; pages of newspaper coverage herald the milestones of progress. Alternatively, television shows or radio talk-back carry the voices of angry non-indigenous protagonists bitter with their defeat or perceived loss. But this discursive is detached from Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

For ordinary Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, much of this public discussion, though implicating them, does not translate into tangible improvements in their lives. In time, land claims may be lodged or new public sector policies may offer financial support, but these ripples take many years to reach ordinary people. In the interim years, public mythology takes hold, public sentiment wanes, and political favor shifts.

I believe it is time we balanced the efforts that have been invested into these two approaches with community-based, indigenous-controlled, non-government initiatives to improve our own lives and communities. It's about time some measure of indigenous effort went into converting these legal rights into substantive rights. The recognition of native title at common law in Australia should now be matched by the expanded and continued exercise of rights by indigenous peoples at the local level.

With nearly 70 percent of Australia's indigenous peoples living in a rural or suburban circumstance, the application of the Native Title Act is limited. The Native Title Act was merely the first part of a much larger effort by Australia's indigenous peoples to have their special place as the first Australians recognized by the nation-state. This recognition has yet to be realized. Unless we can convert the nominal gains of the 1990s into grassroots improvements, a sustained political effort remains handicapped. This is our challenge for the first decades of this new millennia.

(1). At present, the Australian public is torn by a conservative backlash to the gains made through the 1990s.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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