Communities can take the initiative

Indigenous communities don’t need to wait for government to devolve responsibility to them. In many cases they can just take it. We also need  to correctly identify who the community is and who speaks for them. This doesn’t always happen.

by Warren Mundine
Executive Chairman, Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce


We recently heard a rare admission of bureaucratic despair as former head of the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet, Peter Shergold, admitted that in his two decades as a senior public servant little was achieved for Indigenous Australians. This was despite genuine good faith and goodwill by the relevant governments and despite vast sums of government money.

Mr Shergold identified a number of reasons why he believes programs fail. One was that responsibility for service delivery is not entrusted to the local community. Noel Pearson has correctly described this as the problem of “passive service-delivery” where individual, family and community responsibility has been displaced by centralised service delivery and learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness becomes a vicious cycle – people don’t take responsibility, so government does not entrust it to them. Service delivery is structured as if the communities will never be able to take care of themselves.

But the question for me is why government is so important in the first place.

An Aboriginal friend of mine once remarked that Indigenous people sometimes complain to him that government needs to give them their self-determination. He usually replies that if you think government has to give you self-determination then you are kind of missing the point.

Some years ago during a visit to Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs, I watched a woman rake up garbage into piles on the ground. Shortly after, the garbage truck drove through the town but did not collect any rubbish. It only collected rubbish from bins, and the bins had been removed because some people had set fire to them. In many cases this was to keep warm in a town where many houses did not have doors and night temperatures dropped below freezing. But the contract required the truck to drive through the town to empty the bins. So every week it did just that, even though there were none to empty.

I could go on as to why homes didn’t have doors or heating and so on, but the upshot was a complete failure of service delivery in the town, with all failures reinforcing the other and a community waiting for government to fix the problem.

Yet here was a woman raking up rubbish and putting it into piles. A woman taking personal responsibility for her community’s condition. That is the mindset that is being lost as a result of learned helplessness and it is the mindset that communities need to recapture and grow.

When I visit Indigenous communities I usually hear about one thing or another that the community needs. Usually they don’t realise that some of these are already within their own power. Inadequate or irregular garbage collection, or the tip too far away? Well, the local Indigenous Shire Council has the ability to build a tip nearby and collect garbage, like all other councils. We want money from the government build a first-rate art centre? Well, the local artists produce artwork worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, why not use proceeds from art sales to build one. Money is not usually the problem – the resources are available. The community is simply conditioned to always look to government.

Indigenous communities do not need to wait for government to devolve responsibility to them. In many cases they can just take it. It also is important that we correctly identify who the community is and who speaks for them. This doesn’t always happen.

Indigenous people know what nations and clans they come from and can very quickly work out where a person fits within their world. Systems of recognition and governance have existed since before European colonisation. In traditional communities the systems have continued relatively untouched. In other communities, governance may have been diluted but can be rebuilt. When I was CEO of NTSCorp we often helped groups reconstitute their governance for the management of their native title rights.

Rather than recognise these systems, governments have created artificial structures and granted them community authority, such as Land Councils, Regional Councils, Homeland Councils, Aboriginal Corporations and Indigenous Shire Councils. These are statutory entities that may or may not reflect the community’s structure or speak for the community itself but have a privileged place at the table when it comes to how the community organises itself and makes decisions.

Land Councils, for example, are not aligned to the traditional tribes or nations. New South Wales has upwards of 60 Aboriginal nations and around 130 Land Councils. The Northern Territory has more than twice as many nations as NSW and only 4 Land Councils. And this is just Land Councils. There are a range of other types of councils and organisations that are involved with governance and decision making in Indigenous communities all intertwining and overlapping. This adds extra layers of complexity and government control to already over-governed populations.


New housing initiative in Baniyala

Take for example the campaign for private home ownership in Baniyala in northeast Arnhem Land. The Baniyala community has for years been trying to introduce private home ownership in the form of 99 year leases from the Northern Land Council which holds the land on trust for the Baniyala community.

The NLC originally opposed the leases because it believed banks would not provide loans against the leases and that the conditions for a private home market do not exist. But it should not be up to the Land Council to make judgments about what economic activity will or will not succeed in a community if the community itself wants to make a go of it. If we are serious about personal and community responsibility then the Baniyala residents and their lenders should be free to work all that out between themselves.

There is an absurdity in looking to government to help overcome learned helplessness. Indigenous people should be able to decide they want for their communities in relation to land use and culture, establish healthy community governance and, like Baniyala, just get on with it. Government and its agencies should not stand in the way.


Warren Mundine is the Executive Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. A version of this article was first  published in the Australian Financial Review on 25 June 2013.



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  1. Greg Larkin says:

    Great article Warren.

  2. Colin Lane says:

    Warren, all the best up at Garma, that should be an interesting few days !
    Good on you for taking on the self proclaimed guardians of Indigenous development,
    At the community level there is a groundswell of positive change towards action and
    commercial capacity – keep driving this message and we will see communities take the initiative
    to reform social, cultural and commercial boundaries – who says this cant be done !
    This stuff needs to said and read – dependence must be replaced by independence.

  3. Denise Colbung says:

    Who are the other board of director members on the Australian Indigenous CC. Do they have any representatives from WA urban, remote and rural?

  4. Elizabeth Henderson says:

    The Board members are listed on our webpage.

  5. Lucy Andrews says:

    Not a truer word has been spoken I have just retuned from Broken Hill where I was part of community service forum seeking input from local aboriginal community workers to provide feedback on resolving issues with the social housing properties the NGO I work for manages. I was amazed at”learned helplessness” attitude these people had.
    I was shot down when I raised the issue of self responsibility.
    I plan on sharing this insightful article

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