New Indigenous body just convenient dialogue partners for the Rudd government

The proof of the new body will be in the functioning, but the congress, as initially set up, is doomed to token status. It will hold its assemblies only once a year and its election procedures are of Byzantine complexity. It comes into being confronting a federal government inclined to take increasing control over Aboriginal societies.

Nicolas Rothwell The Australian May 03, 2010

Congress leaders Kerry Arabena and Sam Jeffries.
Photo: Dean Sewell

Grandiose in name, modest in function, bizarre in its bureaucratic architecture, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples raises more questions than it answers about the indigenous future.

The membership of the new body's national executive, announced yesterday, makes plain both the role of the panel and its place in the running of the country. The congress will not be a new ATSIC or even a distant cousin of the initial, ill-fated Aboriginal representative body wound up five years ago.

The national executive's members are all members of a distinct Aboriginal class: bureaucrats and prominent local advocates deeply engaged in the endless round of consultations and policy discussions that provide the heartbeat for the Aboriginal industry.

No radicals or profound intellectuals of the stripe of Noel Pearson or Marcia Langton here: instead, a selection of familiar names, safe and dusted with credibility, step forward to enjoy a modicum of limelight.

Co-chairs Kerry Arabena and Sam Jeffries, and their fellow executive members, will now act as convenient dialogue partners for the Rudd government and serve as champions for the large, vocal, politically engaged indigenous communities of regional and southern Australia.

The profound crisis rocking the Aboriginal world today may be centred in the small, far-flung communities in the Top End and centre, but there is no room on the new executive for traditional leaders from that realm.

The proof of the new body will be in the functioning, but the congress, as initially set up, is doomed to token status. It will hold its assemblies only once a year and its election procedures are of Byzantine complexity. It comes into being confronting a federal government inclined to take increasing control over Aboriginal societies.

The commonwealth's intervention in the NT has at least two years left to run, and its welfare quarantining measures are set to continue indefinitely.

Almost half a century after the referendum that enfolded Aboriginal Australians into the nation, the nation remains ill equipped to advance the interests of so small a minority.

Aboriginal congress attacked as lesser ATSIC

Emily Bourke ABC News May 3, 2010

Image: ABC News

There is a new organisation to represent the interests of Aboriginal Australians, but just a day into its existence, questions are being raised about just what it will do.

Human rights groups have hailed the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples as a turning point in Australia's reconciliation process, but sceptics say the body has limited financial and political power and may follow the same fate as other peak Indigenous bodies.

The congress is the latest incarnation of a national Aboriginal representative group and follows the controversial demise of ATSIC amid corruption scandals in 2005.

ATSIC was succeeded by the advisory National Indigenous Council, which was scrapped in 2008.

Wesley Aird, a former member of the National Indigenous Council, has questioned the purpose of the new organisation.

"Now we've got something else and I find myself sort of saying, 'oh, here we go again'," he said.

"The Government made an election promise. It has set up a body, so we can tick the box for the election promise that's been fulfilled. But the big question now is what is this body going to do?

"We know that it's not going to represent all Indigenous people. It doesn't have funding to hand out which is a good thing, so we avoid the Indigenous parallel of pork-barrelling.

"But there is a question around its relevance when what we should be doing is spending government money wisely, not on separatist convoluted processes. The money should be going into service delivery on the ground."

Mr Aird says the biggest challenge is for the congress to stay relevant in a way that encourages the Government and its departments to keep coming back for meaningful advice.

"When you're relying on government funds as a fallback position, you have to wonder, does that make it too easy and does that mean that they're able to slacken off a bit, knowing that they've got a bit of money in the bank and that they'll be OK for a while?"

"Whereas some other lobby groups, industry representative groups, they have to work damn hard to make sure their members keep paying their subscriptions and that means they have to keep doing a good, relevant job to those people that they want to influence."

Structural concerns

The Australian Human Rights Commission has described the congress as groundbreaking and praised the establishment of an Ethics Council to ensure the highest levels of professionalism.

But Dr Thalia Anthony, who has published widely in the area of Indigenous people and the law and is based at Sydney's University of Technology, is concerned about the structure of the congress.

"It made it very clear at the outset that there can be no national elections," she said.

"It's not going to administer services and it's not going to do what the national steering committee, that recommended this body, wanted it to do, and that's to provide a future funds to guarantee ongoing income for the body."

Dr Anthony says the congress is a lesser version of ATSIC.

"[The Government] has put limitations from the outset in order for it to not have a role that it relates to service delivery or relates to election, so a separate governance role.

"I don't see how it could ever attempt to fill that gap that ATSIC left when it was dissolved."

Congress co-chairman Sam Jeffries says the political agenda is yet to be established.

"We would certainly need the assistance from, not only Government, but from corporate and philanthropic and private sector groups etcetera to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people to," he said.

"[We'll] certainly deal with ... social issues in the community [and] economic development matters - those sorts of things."

Mr Jeffries says the congress should be up and running by the end of 2010.

"That will be the measure or be the benchmark of our success," he said.

It might not have any responsibility for programs in Indigenous communities, but many are hoping the congress can help Government and agencies close the gap of Indigenous disadvantage.

New indigenous 'company' structured to keep politicians at arm's length

Debra Jopson May 3, 2010

The body was recommended by former Aboriginal social justice commissioner Tom Calma
Source: AAP/ANU

A new national representative body to give indigenous people a voice has been set up as a private company so that the federal government will not be able to sack the leaders, its architects say.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples was yesterday launched amid the ghosts of past hopes in a Sydney hall where protesters in 1938 launched the Day of Mourning as a counterpoint to Australia Day celebrations.

A fresh generation of indigenous leaders, including its chairman, New South Wales self-determination advocate Sam Jeffries, and chairwoman, Torres Strait Islander public health specialist Kerry Arabena, stressed its independence compared with failed predecessor, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

"This is going to be quite significantly different to ATSIC because it won't have a program function. It's not setting legislation, so it is at arms-length from government," Mr Jeffries said.

While the federal government has supported its establishment, giving it $6 million to set up and pledging another $23.2 million over two years from January 2011 when it will be fully operational, the body will seek partnerships with business, industry and philanthropic bodies to fund its work.

Unlike ATSIC, the new body will not be responsible for services and then be subject to blame for continuing disadvantage.

It has equal representation for men and women at executive and lower levels written into its constitution, a measure that may restore dignity to indigenous affairs after the ignominious demise of former ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark.

This is the first time an Australian company has guaranteed gender balance for its decision-making bodies in its constitution, Dr Arabena claimed.

The congress will be guided by an ethics council which includes theatre director Wesley Enoch and former indigenous social justice commissioner Tom Calma, who led a nationwide consultation and advised government on the best formula for giving Aborigines a say in policy.

"They didn't want it to be established under statute because as with ATSIC, they can abolish you. The way around that was to set up a company limited by guarantee which was independent of government," he said.

The congress will comprise 120 delegates appointed by the eight founding directors who form a national executive. Details about election procedures are due to be announced soon, but all indigenous people are eligible to become members of the new company.

In a move away from the concept of self-government, the congress will seek to influence policy in a similar way to the National Farmers Federation and mining and business peak bodies, Mr Calma said.

Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has likened the congress idea to "a blackfella's wailing wall" and claimed it would be a forum for victimhood.

But the steering committee that devised it included respected advocates Jackie Huggins, Geoff Scott and Tanya Hosch, with leading intellectual Mick Dodson as an expert advisor.

Original source: The Age

Generation next: quiet achievers rise to forefront of Aboriginal affairs

Debra Jopson Sydney Morning Herald May 3rd, 2010

Co-chairwoman Kerry Arabena
Photo: Dean Sewel
Source: 'Sydney Morning Herald

The chairwoman of the latest national indigenous peak body is a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait, with a dash of German and Spanish heritage and a string of health administration jobs across northern Australia.

Kerry Arabena, a former social worker with a doctorate in human ecology now steering the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, is one of eight fresh faces who have suddenly risen to the forefront of indigenous affairs.

"We may not be household names, but we are all well-known in our fields," Dr Arabena said.

Her co-chairman, Sam Jeffries, has quietly helped to transform the landscape of Aboriginal representation in western NSW.

For six years he chaired the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly, which works with councils and government to ensure indigenous involvement in decision-making.

A regional councillor with the old ATSIC, yesterday he said he was moved to be standing in the "very space" where more than 70 years ago, a landmark Aboriginal conference was held and activist Jack Patten said: "We have decided to make ourselves heard."

Other founding executive members include Josephine Bourne, a Townsville-born Torres Strait Islander who has worked in schooling and youth leadership, a South Australia academic, Peter Buckskin, who is an expert on indigenous education and Daphne Yarram, a Noongar woman from Western Australia active for 30 years in the Victorian indigenous community.

They are joined by Colleen Hayward, who heads an indigenous education research centre at Edith Cowan University, Ned David, a Torres Strait Islander educator involved in land and sea rights bodies and Klynton Wanganeen, the first commissioner for Aboriginal engagement in South Australia.