Empowered Communities

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Empowered Communities is an Indigenous-led, locally-driven initiative to restore balance to the relationship between government and Indigenous Australians.


Empowered Communities is about Indigenous people taking greater responsibility, and developing and leading their own plans for change. It is led by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people in eight regions across Australia: North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Sydney and the Central Coast of NSW, the Murray Goulburn region of Victoria, the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, the East and West Kimberley regions of Western Australia and the NPY lands in the Central Desert region that borders South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Changing the way government and Indigenous people work together

At the heart of the reform idea is that for too long local agendas have been sidelined by government policies driven from the centres of power. This has undermined local responsibility, contributing to ongoing dependence and poor outcomes for Indigenous people. A lot of money has been spent but Indigenous people and governments want better results, with policies and programs more focused on tailored local solutions.

When programs fail, Indigenous people are unable to make the changes needed to make them more effective. It is also time consuming and complicated for some organisations to access funding. The aim of Empowered Communities is to change this model.

A vision for genuine partnership

EC MapThe idea behind Empowered Communities is to change how Indigenous policies and programs are designed and delivered, and the way governments and Indigenous people work together. The Empowered Communities vision, which received federal bipartisan political support, is to ensure policies and programs address local priorities and needs, and achieve meaningful and lasting outcomes.

The goal is for the relationship between governments and Indigenous people to be more of a genuine partnership. Under this approach, governments must support Indigenous people and organisations to take ownership of creating change.

Instead of a variety of policies and programs that don’t fit together, the aim of Empowered Communities is to ensure that government policies and programs are well co-ordinated.  The idea is for Empowered Communities, no matter where they are located, to identify their own needs and develop local programs for their unique local priorities.

To make real change, funding arrangements will need to more closely reflect local needs, governments would need to be less prescriptive and Indigenous organisations would need to be more accountable for delivering outcomes in communities. Both would need to adopt a new way of working.

Communities’ principles for reform

Responsibility for developing the new model is a joint effort by Indigenous leaders from the eight regions, in collaboration with federal and corporate Australia. The leaders have agreed to a set of principles that aim to give Indigenous people greater control and responsibility over their lives.

They captured these principles in a compact that was presented and signed by representatives of each of the eight regions at the Garma Festival, in August 2013.

The leaders also invited then-Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and now Prime Minister Tony Abbott to sign the compact, as a representation of their commitment to these reform principles, and to the Empowered Communities proposal.

The principles for reform are:

  • Indigenous-led responsibility is at the heart of our principles on Indigenous reform. It is non-negotiable and assumed in all the principles listed below. Community and government programs must support Indigenous responsibility.
  • Participation in our reform movement is on an opt-in basis for those eager to shape their own destinies.
  • All program design must be site-specific to allow for our different laws, cultures, governance, and ways of making things happen.
  • Innovation in program design is critical and will always be encouraged. While mistakes are acceptable, we willapply what we learn each time to continually improve.
  • Funding for programs must be based on outcomes, with communities given the flexibility to innovate and do things better, and incentives used to change behaviours.
  • Program outcomes must always be measured in the same ways every time so we can improve how they are designed and put in place to make them more efficient and effective.
  • We will actively seek to learn from each other and from others in the business and not-for-profit sectors. We will share good practices and make sure results are delivered.

Empowered Communities are committed to rights and responsibilities

Empowered Communities leaders believe that Indigenous led-responsibility is crucial to effective and sustainable reform. They believe that social norms must be re-established to combat social dysfunction. These social norms include:

  •  Children attend school every day, are on time, and are school ready
  •  Children and those who are vulnerable are cared for and safe
  •  Capable adults participate in training or work
  •  People abide by the conditions related to their tenancy in public housing – they maintain their homes, and pay their rent
  •  People do not commit domestic violence, alcohol and drug offences, or petty crimes.

As a result, programs and policies should seek to change behaviours and re-establish norms. Both supports (such as counselling and substance treatment programs) and sanctions (such as income management) may be necessary to change behaviours.

The Empowered Communities Leaders are:

  • Denise Bowden – North East Arnhem Land, NT
  • Andrea Mason – Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (NPY) Lands
  • Ian Trust – East Kimberley, WA
  • Nolan Hunter – West Kimberley, WA
  • Fiona Jose – Cape York, QLD
  • Paul Briggs – Goulburn Murray, VIC
  • Shane Phillips – Inner Sydney, NSW
  • Sean Gordon – Central Coast, NSW