This is a guest post by David Ross, the Director of the Central Land Council based in Alice Springs. He delivered this talk at the Aboriginal Governance Summit, held at Tennant Creek on 18 and 19 April 2013.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Waramungu people, and thank them for their welcome this morning.

I would also like to say how heartening it is to see so many of our leaders here today for this important gathering.

This Summit is not a conference.

This is a place for Aboriginal people from right across the NT to have an honest, open – and hopefully inspiring – conversation about where we want to go, and what work we need to do to get you there.

That is what Aboriginal Governance is – working together to build structures and processes that reflect your culture, your priorities, your world view, and your solutions to problems.

The peak Aboriginal organisations* in the NT have committed to working together more closely.

Our organisations share a view that Aboriginal Governance is fundamentally about the building of institutions, networks and processes that deliver well-organised action and genuine decision-making control to Aboriginal people over the issues of most importance to your lives and the future of your communities.

Governance is not just a matter of effective service delivery, or organisational compliance.
It is about the self-determining ability and authority of clans, nations and communities to govern: to decide what you want for your future, to implement your own initiatives, and take responsibility for your decisions and actions.

Effective Aboriginal Governance puts us back in the driver’s seat.

So why is the Summit important now?

Let me share my perspective on this question. I have worked for Aboriginal people in central Australia for around thirty years, but the last five to seven years would have to be the most difficult we have ever faced.

We have seen an unprecedented level of change: the Intervention, including compulsorily acquired five year leases and income management; the end of CDEP; severe restrictions on homelands funding; the roll-out of the government’s ‘leasing’ agenda; the removal of permits from communities; the abolition of bi-lingual education; the abolition of community councils in favour of regionalised shires and the abolition of community housing organisations in favour of Territory Housing.

Most of these policy changes were based on a view that Aboriginal people and their organisations have failed, are corrupt or worse.

I have never seen our mob so demoralised, and so unclear about what the future holds for your communities, your families and your children.

Aboriginal people in the Territory have been on the receiving end of constant changes in policies and programs by every level of government – it is clear to me that governments have lost their way in Aboriginal Affairs.

They don’t know what the solutions are and their own governance and implementation capacity is the lowest it has ever been.

At the end of the day governments will come and go, but our people will still be here.

That is why this Summit is about you and your governance agenda.

It will highlight that despite the difficult political environment and the constant media stories of failure and defeat, many Aboriginal people and their organisations are doing great work and exercising strong governance in all its forms: from the management of Aboriginal organisations or enterprises, to the ongoing exercise of traditional law and culture, the assertion of legal land and native title rights, and the hard job of making wise decisions about resources and money.

There are many examples of strong, effective and legitimate Aboriginal governance in the NT, and now is the time to recognise and celebrate these, and consider how to build on these strengths to achieve greater practical self-determination.

I want you to reclaim the concept of self-determination.

Self-determination has been bastardised and shoved into the closet by governments.

But to me, it means having genuine decision-making power and responsibility about what happens on your lands, in your families and communities, in your governing systems, and in your future development.

It’s about having meaningful control over your own lives and cultural well-being.

So what can we do now – drawing on your law and culture, your relationships and values, your skills and resources – to shape your own future, to control the things that are important to you, and achieve the outcomes you want?

This Summit will be a wasted opportunity if we only focus on what government should do for you.

Of course, the role that government plays is critical and there will be many messages and actions discussed over these next two days that will need to be communicated to all levels of government.

But I am very keen that we don’t spend all our time and energy talking about what should be delivered by governments. That is not self-determination in action!

I am most interested in what you can do for yourselves, how you determine your own future.

If you are unified and solid, then you stand a chance of getting governments to support your vision.

I welcome here today Mr Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, who will be speaking after lunch. Amongst other things he will be talking about the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and how this can be used to progress the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. The Declaration affirms your rights, including the right to equality, to self-determination and self-government – it is an essential framework.

The Central Land Council supports the Declaration, and urges the Australian Government to enter into a new relationship with Aboriginal people based on recognition of these rights.

Make no mistake, I am a firm advocate of the need to address the fundamental injustices and inequalities which flow from the lack of a negotiated ‘government to government’ relationship between Aboriginal people and the Australian Government, and the lack of recognition in the Australian Constitution. Both need to be remedied.

But, as history tells us, these rights will not be delivered on a platter, they need to be fought for, and non-Aboriginal Australians will need to support your struggle. And even though times seem tough, we have already fought for, and secured, some impressive rights and wins.

But that is just the beginning: because now we have to face what might be an even bigger challenge: You have to be able to practically deliver on your rights and promises, in order to ensure that life is better, on the ground and for future generations.

In my view we have two big challenges ahead.

Firstly, we need to be unified, strong and strategic in our negotiations for stronger rights and this is difficult when many of your communities and families are suffering the impacts of alcohol and drugs, and consumed with so much internal conflict. We can’t ignore the problems that are ruining young lives – drugs, alcohol, violence, lack of education, loss of cultural knowledge – we need to confront them and look at our own personal role and behaviour.

Secondly, you need to be ready and capable to take on the responsibility that comes with achieving greater rights and more power.

Power and responsibility are inextricably linked – it is like the Kirda-Kurdungurlu relationship – you cant have one without the other.

To exercise power you need to accept the responsibilities to lead, to govern, to work – to make tough decisions and to increase your own skills to implement those decisions. And this, as you all know, is no easy task.

You have to ask yourselves:

Where do you want to be in twenty years?

How do you want your clans, nations and communities to be governed?

What role can your cultural values and laws play in strengthening your governance solutions?

How can you support women and young people to play greater leadership roles?

How can you use the organisations you already have, to help us get there?

How do you build new structures and build your capacity?

Can your organisations – both new and old – help to keep traditional decision-making processes strong and reinforce your law and culture?

These are critical questions that we hope will be addressed over the coming two days.

I believe that we need a plan, a roadmap for claiming actual control over your own lives based on your own informed decisions about your governance arrangements, and a shared commitment to build a future for your kids that allows them to excel in both worlds.

Neither the political nor the legal system will give you self-determination. It must be created by you, and fought for and implemented by you.

To do that you need to be ready with the skills, cultural authority and confidence to claim those rights, and turn those rights into realities on the ground.

You can start by acting now on the things you do control, and make decisions about priority issues to tackle.

You can decide now to work together to be strong and unified, to increase your governing skills and capabilities to exercise your rights, and to adequately prepare your young people for the weighty responsibility that comes with any quest for greater control and power.

The next two days is only the start of this conversation – but let’s start it now.

This is a time for you, as Aboriginal leaders from across the NT, – to talk together, and share your solutions and insights about what you know works well for you.

Let’s start determining for ourselves, what you want your diverse forms of governance to be like in the future, and work together to make it happen.


* Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory – APO NT – is an alliance comprising the Central Land Council (CLC), Northern Land Council (NLC), Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT (AMSANT), North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS).