The best and most viable solution to overcoming the social, economic and political issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia is self-determination—ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in charge of making and implementing the important decisions about their lives and futures.
This year’s Indigenous Governance Awards (IGAs) are all about celebrating the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that are practicing self-determination, by developing local solutions to local problems with culture as a source of strength and innovation.
For tens of thousands of years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have held and practiced culture-based lore, traditions, values, processes and structures. In other words, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have always had their own governance.
These ancient practices continue to shape clans, families and the nation to this day, and also provide the foundation that allows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to drive real and lasting change.
Since 2005, the IGAs have told and celebrated stories of successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led organisations making a difference by drawing upon innovative governance models to respond to contemporary challenges.
Previous IGA finalists the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health and the Marruk Project are just two examples of projects that have demonstrated best practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance.
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health was only in its fifth year of operation when it became a finalist for the IGAs in 2014. Its key programs, ‘Work it Out’ and ‘Deadly Choices’ were making a tremendous impact on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in south east Queensland. IGA Judge Gary Banks said that the projects had “a clear sense of mission, a high degree of competence and a governance model that provides an effective blend of community and technical expertise.”
It is by drawing on, and strengthening community and technical expertise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led organisation are so effective. These innovative governance models encompass complex social relationships and networks, and both rely upon and feed back in to the community in which they operate.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to live under two sets of laws: their own and those of non-Indigenous Australia. This requires skilful negotiation—satisfying external stakeholders at the same time as considering community issues is no easy task.
For many, this balancing act may seem daunting, but it’s actually what makes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led organisations so effective—their governance models are rooted in culture, yet entirely modern in their efficiency, legitimacy and accountability.
The winners of the non-incorporated category for the IGAs in 2014, the Marruk Project from Swan Hill in Victoria, used performing arts to strengthen culture and create opportunities for elders, young people, artists and cultural leaders to share their histories. Commenting on the initiative, IGA Chair Professor Mick Dodson said “one of the unique things about this project is its ability to bring the whole town together—it’s something beyond belief.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance is the foundation for building and sustaining healthy and prosperous communities. It involves holding true decision-making power and must reflect the cultural values and beliefs of the people it serves. It must also be responsive to changing local circumstances and needs over time and should be guided by strong, skilled and representative leadership.
If you’re part of an organisation or project that is kicking goals, or if you know of one, we want to hear from you.
By taking part in this year’s IGAs, applicants will be in the running for corporate mentorship, feedback by the judging panel, media and networking opportunities, and a share in $60,000.
There are two categories: incorporated organisations, and non-incorporated initiatives or projects.
Applications for the IGAs are open now and close on Friday, 20 May 2016.
This article appeared in the 9 March print edition of the Koori Mail.