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Watch this space: the new National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples

By Edward Cavanagh - posted Friday, 8 October 2010

Purportedly external to party politics and the public sector alike, a sparkly new organisation has emerged which vows to represent the interests of Indigenous Australians and offer new directions in policy. Responding, no doubt, to the endemic lack of consultation and a series of federal and state stalemates regarding the design and implementation of policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (NCAFP) has arisen.

At this stage, the NCAFP is very much indebted to its progenitors. In late 2009 it was the Rudd Federal government which announced its support for the establishment of a new representative body for Indigenous Australians, and pledged a $29.2 million start-up endowment for that purpose. Another ATSIC, however, this is not - or, at least, that is the impression one gets from the material provided by Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and by the NCAFP itself.

Its mandate is rather unique, for it boasts of several roles, from advocate to watch-dog. Perhaps what is most interesting about the NCAFP, however, is that it hopes to combine an active think tank-style role with an innovative representative mechanism. If the organisation manages to perform both of these roles successfully, we might just get some new energy injected into the unimaginative dialogues concerning Indigenous issues in this country.


The last decade has seen the rise (and fall) of several think tank initiatives for Indigenous Australia, but their coverage has been patchy. The Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, directed by Noel Pearson, is certainly the standout organisation of this type. As its name attests, though, the CYI is an organisation that primarily focuses upon a particular region of Indigenous Australia; so, coincidentally, its recommendations potentially - and often have, in scandalous style - run foul of Aboriginal policy analysts and activists elsewhere in the country (we need only here recall Independent MP Rob Oakeshott’s line that “There is more than one view in Indigenous Australia”, and his remarks about the geography of Aboriginality in his recent “I choose Gillard” speech, for recent and topical examples).

On the other hand, there is very real extent to which a similar charge can be levelled upon the intellectual anti-Pearsonites themselves, along with many others affiliated with a handful of lesser known, metropolitan-based and ephemeral think tanks for policies relating to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Despite the best of intentions - which, encouragingly, we are starting to see in abundance - the “Aboriginal situation” is often dangerously homogenised by all and sundry.

It is a serious problem in this country that most of the resolutions that our brightest brains have hitherto been able to broadcast are those which are either constrained by a focus on “the Indigenous problem” as something singular, or those which are trapped to particular enclaves.

The NCAFP style of think tank could, perhaps, be different. By liaising between the actual communities affected by social change across the country, along with government and private industry, the NCAFP hopes to generate the necessary data required to issue information and recommendations regarding future policy direction on a case-by-case basis. Make no mistake: the commitment to specific investigations for specific regions comes with a promise to offer new and relevant directions, and a promise to reinstate indigeneity to place.

A community-to-community focus of this type, something both Federal Labor and Liberal have been reluctant to implement in recent decades for any number of logistic and apathetic reasons, is, I think, a step in the right direction. Indigenous Australia is not and never was a monolith: and this is a reality that the diversity of the NCAFP’s current brains trust - with representatives from various regions of Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia, as well as the Coburg Peninsula, the Torres Strait, Arnhem Land, Stradbroke Island - seems to unequivocally testify.

There is a big dilemma, however: from all that we already know about think tanks, there appears one characteristic that they all tend to share in common, and that is that they are usually funded by private sources (and that, coincidentally, it is not unknown for their findings to correspond with those interest groups behind the funding). In this stage of its administrative existence, the NCAFP is primarily dependent upon the Federal Government, with initial funding due to dry up in December 2013. It therefore remains to be seen just how constructive and critical the NCAFP will manage to come across in the next few years, and whether it will be the Federal Government’s puppet or its pariah.


On top of its proposed think tank role, the NCAFP is in the process of developing a national representative council, with 120 delegates from across the country. The council will be split into three chambers, with an elected executive on top of this. Participation will be secured from urban, regional and remote communities. Youthful voices are not to be overlooked either. Meeting regularly, the NCAFP might just become a key forum for Indigenous Australians: a place where real concerns can be raised among Indigenous Australians.

Upon reaching solid resolutions - if it can reach them - the NCAFP is hopeful that the Federal Minister will listen to them. Yet, problematically, nothing obliges her, or the ruling government with which she is affiliated, to implement the NCAFP’s findings. There is then a very real chance that, for whatever reasons, they might be overlooked.

As disappointing as such an event would be, all will not be lost: an official, representative meeting place, peopled by informed delegates such as this one is, will leave behind a paper trail to which the reigning government must be held accountable in the future. Thus the NCAFP, so long as it remains well informed about Indigenous policy, may still manage to earn a reputation as an authority on these matters, even without Federal sympathy.

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Published in the Canberra Times on October 11, 2010.

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About the Author

Edward Cavanagh studies indigenous-settler relationships, and is the managing editor of an academic journal called settler colonial studies. He follows, and occasionally comments upon, developments in Indigenous affairs and education policy.

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