I went along to the national consultation session on a future model for an Indigenous representative body (proposed replacement body for the defunct ATSIC), held in Brisbane recently, with about 80 other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people expecting to hear divergent views and be involved in robust debates with old warriors who have been vocal on this topic in the past.
But instead of locking horns with old heads, I found myself sitting in a comfortable inner city hotel conference room, devoid of any Indigenous theme, with a sea of unfamiliar faces discussing the finer points of meeting etiquette.
Take away identities such as Les Melzer, Steve Mam, and Bob Anderson and the chair of the session, Geoff Richardson, and the gathering represented to me a colourful tapestry of battle scarred community leaders. Adding to this was an array of curious public servants and academics choosing to whet their appetite in, or revisit, from the safety of a conference room setting, the volatile domain of Indigenous politics.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as new players generally equates to fresh perspectives as was evidenced through consensus from group discussions. The session came up with the following suggestions: a national representative body of seven delegates, lean and mean with a policy mandate only (no input into financial administration) that would be advanced constitutionally within a decade. The would have the honorary status of senators; assuming seats in the upper house with a six-year term; a senator’s remuneration package; and similar political standing.
Indeed - the name “senator” has a certain ring to it - and besides, a wishful, visionary, constitutionally endorsed, bipartisan concept such as this should attract, at the very least, a better field of Indigenous candidates, including many from the private sector and academia. These people have deliberately avoided throwing their hats into the ring in past contests through fear of attracting the untoward stigma that went with the territory.
Indigenous Australians could certainly do with new innovative designs for conceptual frameworks to address age-old problems that adversely afflict our communities throughout the nation. It is apparent that the old social policies of the 70s and 80s have not worked for “our mob” and ought now to be thrown out along with those parasitic personnel who have suckled off the welfare teat in discrete communities for far too long.
My father, Jim, who was deputy chairman to Lois O’Donaghue in the first national representative body; National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) during Whitlam’s administration and later held the position of Chairman of the revised National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) under Fraser’s term, chose not to accompany me to the meeting in Brisbane.
Humbly, he declined my offer stating instead that he thought the time was now right for the next generation to stand up and take the lead on future ideas that will shape their lives and that of their children. In saying that I felt Dad was finally relinquishing the reins of an old horse that he had directed over unsteady terrain for his entire working life, even though at 76 years of age I believe he still has much to offer.
Dad made mention, by way of ideological reflection, that the biggest talking point back in the early 1970s, when delegates cast their votes that ushered Ms O’Donaghue into the history books as the inaugural Chairperson of the NACC, was whether she would be accepted by remote traditional leaders. At the time there was great anxiety expressed by traditional representatives, especially those from the Northern Territory and Western Australia, about the appropriateness of electing a woman to the top job as they had never experienced a woman playing a lead role in decision making before.
He argued that such gender bias wouldn’t be countenanced or even register for discussion today.
Dad’s principal concern today, however, is the loss of voice of the grassroots people: those Indigenous people who are finding it increasingly difficult to get ahead, and feel weighed down by the mountain of financial constraints such as low income, excessive bills and a general lack of voice at the state and national level.
He believes that voice, or rather the debate today, is controlled entirely by a select few who are heard, almost exclusively, by politicians of all persuasions. Rather than working in favour of the grassroots nationally it would appear, at least in Dad’s eyes, that the agenda of the sophisticated well-heeled Indigenous leaders are being driven with a limited, self-interested focus.