What they have discovered is that a lot of people have bullshitted to them.” Warren Mundine, The Australian, May 2013.

You can always tell an outsider – white or black – by the collective pronoun they use to describe Aboriginal people as a subject. Well-meaning or otherwise, when commentators speak of Aboriginal people as ‘they’ or ‘them’ you can bet Buladehlah to a brick shithouse that the reference will be generalised and impersonal.

In May this year Warren Mundine, in as lightweight a puff-piece in The Australian as you could find, told Natasha Robinson that:

” … in the past five years I’ve felt that I’m part of a new movement by indigenous people. They are over their communities being dysfunctional, they’re over their communities being treated on the fringe. They want to engage in the education system and commercial life of Australia.”

See what I mean? Even when trying to be inclusive – in his role as a member of some ‘new movement‘ – Mundine speaks of his people as “they” rather than “us” and “we.”

You won’t find many references to the Indigenous affairs portfolio in the Liberal National Party’s “Plan” that will apparently form the basis of its Indigenous affairs policy for the next three years if they win the election this weekend. There the LNP gives blackfellas a total of two brief pars and four dot points. The LNP’s 2010 election “real action for Indigenous Australians” policy* runs to eight double-spaced pages. Curiously it makes no mention of Mundine or the Indigenous Advisory Council, instead referring to the creation of the position of Director-General of Indigenous Policy Implementation in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet as the first priority.

So where else to look for what the LNP has in store for blackfellas across the country?

If Tony Abbott wins the election on this Saturday, Warren Mundine will most likely become the most powerful Aboriginal person in the country. He will lead the Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council, an as yet vague entity that will be unelected and, in the minds of many, an unrepresentative body providing Abbott with high-level policy advice in his “Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs” morph.

The little we do know of  the Indigenous Advisory Council is that it will be led by Mundine, from the New South Wales right, who will apparently be joined by fellow conservatives Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson. Abbott has said that the Council will include a “reasonable spread of urban and bush and regional, male and female” representatives. Little is known about what the Council will do, who it will report to (other than Abbott on a regular basis) and what relationships will be cast between it and the Federal indigenous affairs bureaucracy.

Roll forward to the joint Abbott/Mundine press conference at the annual Garma Festival at Gulkula in north-east Arnhem land in early August.

Abbott set the tone with his views of the true worth of Aboriginal land as an economic, as well as spiritual and cultural asset.

I think it is pretty clear that we need to try to ensure that indigenous land is an economic asset and not simply a spiritual and cultural asset. That is what I will be working towards bringing about.

Later that evening Mundine spelt out his manifesto for the future of indigenous affairs under an Abbott government in a speech, entitled “Shooting an Elephant: Four Giant Steps” to a closed corporate session at Garma. In his speech Mundine identified the elephant as having four legs – Governance, Land Ownership, Social Stability and Openness.

Over the next few days I’ll look at two other legs of Mundine’s elephant – Land Ownership and Openness – because they are areas that I’m most familiar with and also because these are the areas where I think Mundine makes his weakest case. Today I’ll look at Mundine’s vision for the future of governance in Aboriginal communities.

Mundine told his Garma audience that:

Indigenous people are the most highly governed people in Australia. At every level of government there are additional structures for Indigenous people, on top of those that exist for the rest of Australia … The current system is crippled by overregulation and does not meet the criteria for good governance. Most statutory Indigenous governance bodies are not truly representative and many are not transparent. The bureaucracy encasing Indigenous people is complex, inefficient and unwieldy. We have seen over the years examples of corruption taking hold in Indigenous governance bodies – I do not believe this is the norm but the perceived lack of transparency makes these bodies more vulnerable to it.”

Mundine plays a difficult hand here, on the one hand bemoaning the ‘crippling’ bureaucracy and on the other complains about the vulnerability of indigenous agencies to corruption and the complexity of the mechanisms established to oversee their operation.

Mundine presented no facts to support his broad assertions nor does he detail the nature and role of the Indigenous governance bodies he derides.

In particular he doesn’t identify what he means by a “statutory Indigenous governance bod[y]”. Does he mean the plethora of Land Councils in his native New South Wales, the thousands of Aboriginal Corporations incorporated under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006, the many associations incorporated under the various Associations Acts of the States and Territories or – and I could go on – the prescribed bodies corporate incorporated under the Native Title Act to act for and on behalf of Native Title holders?

Sure, the field is complex and there are a variety of corporate entities established under various legislative regimes but it is disingenuous for Mundine to tar all of them with the same brush.

These bodies are not always transparent with meetings and records open to the public or even the members. Many of these statutory bodies have substantial “gatekeeper” power over traditional lands or the exercise of native title. They may also hold royalties generated from the land from use by mining companies or from government compensation for dispossession. There are bodies with custody of hundreds of millions in funds held and collected on behalf of traditional owners but the structure does not contemplate funds being distributed directly to the traditional owners

Mundine is apparently unaware that there are often very good reasons – commercial confidence for one – why corporate entities choose to or are bound to by law to keep their most sensitive deliberations away from public scrutiny.

“Hundreds of millions”? Mundine may have helped his cause if he had presented some facts here. The only body that I am aware of that holds that sort of money “on behalf of traditional owners” is the Aboriginals Benefit Account that is established under law to receive and distribute royalty equivalent monies generated from mining on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. That money is used to and for the benefit of Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory.

Next Mundine delivered a curious an after dinner history lesson on the nature of contemporary Aboriginal society.

When European people came to Australia, Indigenous people were grouped in nations, each with a distinct geography, language and culture. The identity of Indigenous people was tied to the culture and language of their own nation, not to the Australian land mass as a whole.
Most statutory bodies created to govern Indigenous people are not aligned to Indigenous nations.

Several points that arise here. Firstly, it is questionable – and at odds with the commonly accepted contemporary anthropological consensus – that at the time of invasion to date that most Aboriginal people identified as members of a ‘nation.’ Relationships within and between groups were and are far more complex than such a simplistic analysis.
In my experience, particularly in the NT, people identify firstly and primarily as members of family and clan groups. At a meta scale they may identify as members of, say, the Jawoyn language group or the Yolngu cultural bloc, within which there may be a variety of different dialects, traditional practices, proprietary estates, beliefs and decision-making processes.

Certainly in north-east Arnhem land people will self-identify by a variety of classifications before identifying as members of a notional nationality. Usually this manifests as a rising scale of classification from family, clan, kinship group, moiety, dialect and/or language group and then, perhaps at a stretch – and ‘nation’ is very much a European concept – as a member of a meta-language group that might resemble what Mundine identifies as a nation.

I would argue that ‘nation’ as a descriptor is a term that has been adopted by those groups in Australia where their clan, dialect, moiety and language groupings have effectively – to adopt an inelegant but unfortunately accurate term – been washed away by the overwhelming tide of Australian history.

This fundamental flaw in Mundine’s manifesto is compounded by his statement that “most statutory bodies … are not aligned to Indigenous nations.”

There are very good reasons why those statutory bodies are not aligned to Mundine’s nations. Aboriginal people establish corporations, associations and proprietary companies for the same reasons as any other Australians. They incorporate in order to  run businesses, to hold title to land and to gather as sporting teams among a hundred other reasons. Occasionally they gather together under a corporate umbrella to represent the interests of a larger grouping that resembles Mundine’s ‘nations’, but only rarely, most likely because that is not an interest that is well-served by incorporation for that purpose.

Notwithstanding these uncomfortable facts Mundine maintains that for every one of his nations:

… there should be one governance body representing each Indigenous nation. One governance body to represent that nation on land and native title; hold land and other assets; collect royalties for use of the land or compensation for loss of land and use that for the benefit of the people of that nation; and preserve its culture, heritage and language. One governance body that companies who want to invest in an area can deal with on development and use of traditional lands and the protection of culture and heritage in the process … about establishing a governance system that reflects the identity that Indigenous people have to their own nations, governs the matters and decisions that are distinctive to those nations and provides certainty to those who want to engage with that nation.

Here Mundine reaches far into the realms of fantasy and folly. Is he really suggesting that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of small ‘governance bodies’ be established to undertake this broad sweep of functions?

Mundine provides no evidence that the creation of these hundreds of new legal entities would be in any way more efficient – or effective – than existing arrangements.

Mundine apparently has little awareness of the complexity of the tasks he would be foisting upon each of these bodies and of the need for skilled staff and specialist resources that each would need to deal with each other, with business and with governments at local, State and federal level – and between themselves. Nor does he identify or address the wasteful duplication and opportunities for waste, inefficiency, corruption and nepotism – the very things that he rails so righteously against – that would inevitably arise by replacing the (relatively) few with the many?

Mundine’s confident assertion that a clear line can be drawn around the territory of each of his nations’ and that exclusive jurisdiction can be granted over that area to a single entity beggars belief.

Many, if not most Aboriginal people in the NT have familial and cultural loyalties and connections that cut across the boundaries of Mundine’s ‘nations.’

Individual Aboriginal people – even within families – may have patrilineal connections to one estate or country and matrilineal connections to others. One indicator of this is that many, perhaps most, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory will be fluent in several languages that cover vast territories. It is accepted now that individuals can have a variety of rights and interests in country that would not fit within the neatly prescribed notion of Mundine’s ‘national’ boundaries.

This brief analysis points to the essential folly of Mundine’s proposal. Mundine reckons that such a system of governance would provide:

… simplicity, elegance and certainty in engaging with Indigenous communities … [that] need to have the same levels of representative governance, transparency, checks and balances and respect for the rule of law as other Australia communities.

How will Mundine and the LNP achieve this apparently elegant solution? That will be the subject of my next piece.

In the meantime, many Aboriginal people in the NT remain unconvinced of the elegance, and legitimacy of Mundine’s manifesto.

Maurie Ryan, Chair of the NT’s Central Land Council questions the LNP’s anointment of Mundine as head of the Indigenous Advisory Council.

The members of the [Central] Land Council find it unacceptable that policy affecting them may be dictated by somebody who doesn’t understand the issues affecting them. Unfortunately Mr Mundine seems to be unaware of the significant changes made in recent years and he needs to update his knowledge of the current situation in the Northern Territory … Mr. Mundine’s four fundamental principles of governance, land ownership, social stability and openness provide nothing new. These are issues we have all been working on for a long time, not in city board rooms but out on the ground in the bush.

* – Update – I have just realised that the policy document linked in above is to the Liberals’ 2010 policy. I have not been able to find a more recent contemporary 2013 version of that policy. The sole indigenous affairs-related policy I can locate from the Liberals is the “Boosting employment for Indigenous Australians” policy here.