It is a word that has proved hard to define and impossible to deliver, but it has underpinned almost every substantial discussion about closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage and achieving reconciliation.
When Elliott Johnston wrote the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 24 years ago, he stressed its critical importance in lowering incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians.
When Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson wrote the Little Children Are Sacred report that prompted John Howard’s “emergency response” in the Northern Territory, some 16 years later, they said it was the key to ending the breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society.
The word is empowerment, and it is best described as the power to make decisions about the future from a position of knowledge, optimism and strength, confident about one’s rights, relationships and place in the scheme of things.
There is no better indictor of its absence in Indigenous Australia than the most recent statistics on Aborigines in jail, which show the situation is three times worse than when Johnston wrote his report, or the latest Closing The Gap report card, showing no progress in some areas and regression in others.
Noel Pearson was in his early days as an advocate and thinker on Aboriginal issues when Elliott penned his report, and he recalls saying to himself “yes, yes, yes” as Elliott outlined his “essential prerequisite” to empowerment.
What was needed was “an established method” to deliver it, the judge wrote, one whereby the broader society could supply assistance and the Aboriginal society could receive it, still maintaining its independent status “without a welfare-dependent position being established as between the two groups”.
“It’s always lingered with me, what Elliott Johnston said back then,” Pearson said to Fairfax Media. “I knew he had put his finger on it, but you’ve got to get the method right because you want support, but you don’t want it to turn into welfare, and you want self-determination, but it’s never been fully defined.”
Almost two years ago, with the backing of both sides of politics, Pearson set about crafting an “established method” to deliver empowerment with seven other Indigenous leaders from very different backgrounds, some very different perspectives and from regions as diverse as the Kimberley, North-east Arnhem Land and inner Sydney.
Among them was Paul Briggs, a Yorta Yorta man who was raised on the banks of the Murray River at the former mission of Cummeragunja and has been at the forefront of efforts to narrow the disadvantage gap for Aboriginal people in the Goulburn-Murray region for decades.
Together, the eight have produced Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples, a 165-page blueprint, to be released on Saturday, and have challenged Tony Abbott, Bill Shorten and other Indigenous leaders to embrace it.
A collaborative effort, it represents the biggest leap in thinking on Indigenous issues since Pearson published Our Right To Take Responsibility, his seminal assault on passive welfare, in 2000.Back then, the buzz word in Indigenous policy was “partnership” and the big idea was to trial “shared responsibility agreements” in communities with the aim of directing resources where they were most needed and building capacity.
Briggs was delighted when his region was chosen by the Council of Australian Governments as one of the trial sites for the new approach, but anticipation turned to disappointment when it became clear that many of the bureaucrats involved were either not up to the task, or unwilling to listen to the Indigenous leaders they were supposed to partner, or reluctant to even talk to each other – or all of the above.
“We came to the table under the COAG trials with this notion of cultural shifts, relationship building, and building the power and autonomy of Indigenous leadership, but I think governments were rationalising expenditure and struggling with their internal bureaucratic machinations,” Briggs recalls.
“It was very difficult for state to talk to Commonwealth and, internally, for bureaucracies in the state to talk to each other. There are silos all over the place and we had to sit and wait while they tried to sort out their inter-government business and inter-departmental business.”We put up a proposition about regional structure, regional governance, and governments walked away from it. Now we’ve come back to it again.”
Undaunted, Briggs and many other Indigenous leaders battled on, in his case forging partnerships with companies like KPMG and Wesfarmers and institutions like the University of Melbourne. His headquarters was, and remain, the Rumbalara Football and Netball Club, where the twin aims of pride in identity and engagement with the mainstream are nurtured.Behind the change rooms, in a portable room originally intended as the meeting room for coaches, Sharon Atkinson pursues a project that transcends winning premierships: reviving the language of the Yorta Yorta people before it is too late.
Among the positive signs are improvements in year-12 completion and employment rates, one of the lowest incarceration rates and the absence of youth suicides for five years, but the gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people in the Goulburn-Murray remains a huge canyon and social exclusion is one of the biggest barriers to progress.”We walked off Cummera (the Cummeragunja mission) in 1939 and came to the edge of town at Shepparton and we’re still sort of trying to come into town,” explains the quietly-spoken Briggs. “We haven’t reached an agreement on how that is going to occur.”
Karyn Ferguson is among Rumbalara’s high achievers, a champion netballer and mother-of-three who has completed a masters in health and social science at the University of Melbourne. A descendant of William Cooper, one of the Yorta Yorta’s most renowned leaders, she has plenty of first-hand experience of racism.”Last year I was playing [against] a girl who was 18 or 19 and she told me how disgusting and dirty we were and how we shouldn’t be playing in this league,” she recalls. “She would have gone away and thought nothing more about it. I’ve thought about that almost every day since it happened.
“If that’s happening to me, as a 39-year-old woman who is educated, what’s happening to our kids out there? How are they meant to have the tools to mentally process someone else’s deficiencies?”Sean Gordon was born in Brewarrina in western New South Wales and represents Indigenous communities on the central coast and the Darkinjung Land Council, which owns some 7000 hectares and is able to develop 10 per cent of it.
One housing development proposal that would retain 10 per cent of 178 new homes for members of the Indigenous community has attracted several times the number of objections to those received for a massive coastal development and a local coal mine.”I think right now when it comes to closing the gap, racism is the biggest barrier and people don’t want to hear that or accept that,” says Gordon.
If empowerment is the best way to confront ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping, Gordon says the imperatives are to break down the silos that prevent those at the highest levels of government and the bureaucracy from talking to each other; to stop applying policy according to a one-size-fits-all; and to end duplication and cut red tape.In 2013, the women’s council servicing a huge area in the central desert called the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands received about $10 million in funding, but was required to enter into 41 agreements with agencies of the federal Western Australian, South Australian and Northern Territory governments.
In 2010, the council estimated it spent 7,399 hours seeking funds, dealing with funding bodies and complying with reporting requirements, reviews and evaluations.Andrea Mason, who joined the council in 2008 says the attraction of joining with those in other regions to frame the policy has been “to do together what we can’t do by ourselves” in driving economic and social reform.
“We are well-resourced in terms of knowledge and understanding the issues, but if we don’t take this opportunity of really getting behind this Empowered Communities initiative, we could fall into the trap of government and just work in silos with no cross-collaboration, which is the Aboriginal way of working,” she says.
Felicia Dean, the former chief executive of Rumbalara, recalls having to negotiate more than 100 funding agreements with more than 450 individual reporting requirements, many of them from different funding bodies.
As frustrating as having to deal with so much bureaucracy was the fact that agreements came with the priorities and the KPIs already set. “They weren’t set by us and hopefully, under Empowered Communities, they will be,” she says.
Another impediment to empowerment is the extent to which Indigenous organisations have been squeezed out of the business of service delivery, which was underscored when the list of successful applicants for funding under the Abbott government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy was released.
“The service provision scene now is not just populated by the large NGOs (non-government organisations),” Pearson says. “It’s populated by profit-making private sector players – and they’ve organised. How they have gotten into this space and how this industry has developed has happened under the radar.”
Paul Briggs says the project is all about changing the funding paradigm away from addressing need to backing a bold vision of a post-disadvantage future, one that places as much weight on identity as it does on development, and brings decision-making as close as possible to the people it will affect.
“At the moment, all the Indigenous funding that comes out of government is needs-based, so a lot of time is spent on defining the need, measuring the need and negotiating for resources to meet the need,” he says.
So how does the group propose to empower? The starting point is to develop new regional governance structures that will be able to set priorities for funding, enter partnerships with business and education institutions, set their own development agendas and make agreements. Most of the eight groups behind the policy are well advanced down this path.
The next step is for governments to embrace the policy and commit to it by a formal agreement that will be binding for 10 years, or as long as it takes for the goals of policy to be secured.
To support the parties and ensure they keep their commitments, a new body, to be called the Indigenous Policy Productivity Council, will be formed, just as the National Competition Council was established to oversee competition policy in 1995.
KPMG chairman Peter Nash is among the supporters of a new way, describing it as the natural extension of the Jawun Indigenous Corporate Partnerships already operating in each of the eight areas.
“What we’ve learnt is that, despite the best intentions, if government or other organisations come in thinking that they know best in terms of what needs to be done, you’ll get sub-optimal outcomes,” Nash says.
“This is a model that engages the Aboriginal leadership as to what is needed and makes sure the effort, the goodwill and intent are directed in the right manner. That’s a big advance.”
University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis is another backer who has developed a close relationship with Briggs at Shepparton. “Will business or politicians have a problem with it?” he asks.
“I suspect not. Talk to people who are engaged in this area and there is a sort of despair about the fact that we’ve tried all these things and they haven’t worked. I suspect there might be quite a lot of support for a new approach that looks promising.”
In the end, though, it will not be governments or business that decide whether the approach is the game-changer it promises to be. “There really needs to be Aboriginal communities all over Australia who are saying the same thing: ‘Involve us in the process, give us the opportunity to determine what the priorities are and give us some control over it’,” Felicia Dean says. “If that happens, eventually we will close the gap.”
Pearson delivers another note of caution, stressing that empowering communities constitutes one third of the necessary agenda. “There is the issue of rights, including settling land rights, and there is the issue of recognition,” he says.
The surprise, given the tone of much of the Indigenous debate in recent times, is that all three are within reach, and with them the prospect of reconciliation.
As Pearson expresses it: “When those three roads meet – the rights road, the recognition road and the empowerment road – you then do have some kind of settlement.”
1962: Indigenous people get the vote in Commonwealth elections.
1967: 90.7% of Australians vote YES in referendum to count Indigenous Australians in the census and to give the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws for them.
1972: Tent Embassy established outside Parliament House.
1975: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam hands back title to Gurindji people, pouring a handful of red soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand to symbolise the legal transfer.
1985: Uluru handed back to traditional owners.
1990: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) established to give indigenous people formal involvement in government.
1991:Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommends that a formal process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia be undertaken.
1992: HIgh Court’s Mabo decision overturns terra nullius; rules that native title exists over unalienated Crown land, national parks and reserves.
1997:Bringing Them Home report on the Stolen Generations released.
2000: Cape York leader Noel Pearson attacks the culture of passive welfare in Our Right To Take Responsibility.
2005: ATSIC abolished; replaced by advisory body the National Indigenous Council.
2007: Little Children Are Sacred report prompts Howard Government intervention into NT Indigenous communities.
2008: PM Kevin Rudd says ‘Sorry’ to the Stolen Generations.
2010:PM Julia Gillard announces plans to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution.
2014: Tony Abbott spends a week working and living in Arnhem Land, the first visit of its kind by a serving PM.