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Competent indigenous leadership crucial to change

By Fred Chaney - posted Monday, 1 November 2004

Some supporters of Aboriginal Australia have expressed regret that little was said about Aboriginal affairs during the election campaign. This omission may have been for the best. It is hard to imagine that a divisive election campaign is the most desirable time to consider the complex issues surrounding indigenous advancement and reconciliation.

It would also be a mistake for supporters of reconciliation to use the re-election of John Howard as an excuse to keep whingeing about what's not possible rather than doing something worthwhile and meaningful within the context of a government reaffirmed by the electorate.

The good news is that there is a surprising amount of common ground about the way forward. Even that often-critical analyst, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, in its most recent social justice report concludes there are a number of initiatives moving us in the right direction.


The report drew attention to recent developments in implementing the Council of Australian Governments' (COAG) commitments to reconciliation, particularly the release last year of the first report on overcoming indigenous disadvantage and COAG's ten whole-of-government community trials.

That might sound like gobbledegook to people living outside Canberra. After all, it's much easier to think of these issues in terms of law and order, stopping substance abuse and ending welfare dependency: all worthy but none of them offering complete or long-term answers.

The truth is that successive federal and state governments, no matter what their political persuasion, have struggled to find answers. So the fact governments across Australia have agreed and made common commitments suggests there is a way forward.

The Prime Minister spoke of the essence of this new approach in an interview on the ABC's Lateline programme during the election campaign when he said, “…When you listen to the remarks of people like Noel Pearson and you hear their solutions in areas such as the Cape, you begin to understand that if communities are given the power to run their own affairs and to impose their own internal disciplines you will, over time, see an enormous improvement. We ought to be listening a lot more to those who believe that self-responsibility and personal empowerment in Aboriginal communities and the end of the welfare mentality are essential before we bring about a profound change for the better." 

This new, broadly accepted direction in indigenous affairs is based on two fundamentals: better co-ordination in the work of governments; and, most importantly, engaging and empowering indigenous communities to run their own affairs and find their own solutions.

Proposed arrangements after the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) include the establishment of a network of Indigenous Co-ordination Centres (ICCs) in regional and remote locations around the country.


In practice, this means bringing together the multiplicity of agencies whose interaction with communities has been confusing and frustrating.

But it's the other side of the post-ATSIC equation that says the most about the new thinking in indigenous affairs.

The plan is that ICCs will negotiate, plan and implement essential programmes in such areas as health, housing, education and family violence with networks of elected and representative indigenous organisations.

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Article edited by Darlene Taylor.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review on October 25, 2004.

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About the Author

Fred Chaney is Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia and Deputy President of the National Native Title Tribunal. He was Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs between 1978 and 1980.

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