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Quandamooka's wicked problems

By Tony Golsby-Smith - posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Twenty years on from the seminal Redfern speech, the traditional owners of North Stradbroke Island are at their own historic turning point. On Sunday Paul Keating gave a speech at the first AGM of the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC). In July 2011, after an arduous seventeen year-long claim process, the Quandamooka community achieved two Native Title consent determinations over the land and waters on and surrounding North Stradbroke Island. But the battle isn't over. The next task of the Quandamooka will be to ensure they realize the full potential of Native Title and access the opportunities it presents.

Across the mainstream and Indigenous political spectrum, there is almost unanimous consensus that while Native Title holds great potential for Indigenous Australians, the full benefits have not yet materialized. There are two key components of the challenge but each are a completely different problem. Since the Native Title Act was passed nearly twenty years ago, there has been an enormous amount of debate and work around the attainment of Native Title for traditional owners. In legal and cultural terms, it is incredibly complex but ultimately there is a definable answer – you either achieve a determination or you don't.

Once a Native Title determination has been reached, as in the case of the Quandamooka community, the challenge to leverage the hard-fought gains presents a completely different problem, one that involves an amorphous 'ecosystem' of white Australian rules and regulations, Indigenous ways of knowing and doing business, internal and external stakeholder expectations. Beyond mere compliance, there is no common, definable answer as to what success looks like.


It is no wonder Indigenous organisations struggle with this challenge, nor is it any surprise successive Federal and State interventions have failed to help Indigenous Australians attain the same economic and social benefits available to the wider Australian population. Instead, because of their over-bearing top-down approach they have often created divisions and sometimes a whole set of problems of their own.

The people of Quandamooka are well aware of this pitfall. For this reason QYAC is designing its own strategy for using the proceeds of the native title win, a task previously controlled by government. Although there have been mandatory 'consultation processes' run by government, the plans were designed by outsiders with their own objectives to meet. The Productivity Commission's 2011 biennial report on Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage identified a set of 'things that work'. Community involvement in program design and decision-making, cooperative approaches and a 'bottom up' rather than 'top down' approach were paramount among these. There is much rhetoric around bottom-up or 'working with communities' and no doubt many people working in and out of government have a genuine 'will' to make these approaches work. What they lack is the 'way'; most attempts fall down because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the problem and the lack of the right tool-kit.

The challenge that the Quandamooka community now faces is known as a "wicked problem", a socio-technical puzzle where there are no right and wrong answers. Membership and community organisations can't implement top-down strategy, because they need to engage their membership. Leaders must continually engage with their constituents through genuine conversation and relationships in order to create compelling cases for change.

In the private sector forward-thinking leaders understand that the world and the challenges facing their businesses are increasingly 'wicked'. In our experience, what quickly follows is a jarring realization that the traditional tools of analysis and planning are not up to the task. These tools are perfectly honed to working out what has been, not what the best way forward would be. They are virtually useless in dealing with the very human realities and dreams, and therefore choices, of their employees and customers who themselves experience increasing wickedness.

People are not inspired to make choices by plans and analysis. They are inspired by story of the possible that is relevant to them. They are convinced into action by a compelling argument for why they should strive for a future course or choose one option over another. The tools of argument are based around the very human desire for meaningful conversation, for example, rhetoric, language and persuasion.

On the face of it, there could be no greater difference in the situations facing Indigenous communities and corporate Australia. However as the number and potential economic value of Native Title settlements increases, particularly in resource-rich areas, Indigenous communities will need to develop a business identity which ensures these acts of land justice translate into successful outcomes for the traditional owners. At the same time businesses are gathering more and more data, adapting to more ways of interaction and yet are finding it increasingly difficult to connect with their employees and customers. Both are facing wicked problems that potentially threaten the sustainability of their respective futures. Between them they have all the pieces of the puzzle.

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An edited version of this article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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About the Author

Tony Golsby-Smith is CEO of management consultancy Second Road and is working with Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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