Our future in our hands

Our future in our hands

Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

Launch of the report of the Steering Committee on the creation of a new National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

National Press Club, Canberra

Thursday, 27 August 2009

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I begin by paying my respects to all of the Ngunnawal peoples, the traditional owners of the land where we are gathered. I pay my respects to your elders, past, present and future.

Can I acknowledge:

  • Minister Macklin – thank you for being here today to formally receive the report on behalf of the Australian Government. 
  • Members of the Steering Committee for the national representative body process: including those present today: Jackie Huggins, Tanya Hosch, Jason Glanville and Geoff Scott
  • Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue
  • Jeff Harmer, Secretary of FaHCSIA, and other senior bureaucrats
  • my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters – including those who participated in the consultations for this process
  • distinguished guests and friends.

It is with great pleasure that I speak to you today to launch the report of the Steering Committee on the establishment of a new National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It is a historic day.

It is a day when, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we begin a new journey. When we express our determination to put our future in our hands.   

By truly exercising self-determination, for the first time. 

By creating the basis for a new relationship with Australian governments, with industry and among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And by setting a new benchmark for any public organisation in Australia – black or white – in terms of gender equality and ethical standards.

We have been without a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the national level for too long. 

We have suffered from the absence of a strong national representative organisation over the past five years.

And governments have also suffered from the absence of a national body. One that can provide credible and robust advice and ensure that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective is heard across the many issues that affect our lives and our communities.

As a result, as a nation we have lacked that most fundamental of requirements for a reconciled nation: a robust, genuine partnership between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And one based on mutual respect, shared ambition and common resolve. 

A national representative body is not a total solution to this issue, but it is an essential ingredient to ensure a strong partnership. All areas of government will benefit from the existence of the representative body.

Without such a relationship, without our involvement in the processes of government, and without our rights being protected, we will not be able to close the gap. 

But we could be on the cusp of a great change.

A new National Representative Body will shortly come into existence. 

It will be radically different from anything we have ever seen in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. It will certainly not be ‘business as usual’.

It will learn from the past and build on the foundations that already exist in our communities.

And it will act as a marshalling force for our peak bodies and community organisations so that they can come together in unity and with strength.

In December 2008, the Australian Government requested that, in my capacity as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I convene an independent Steering Committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to develop a preferred model for a National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This followed on from an initial round of consultations conducted by the government.

In undertaking our task, the Steering Committee has used a mix of the usual, and the not so usual, techniques. 

We convened a workshop of 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Adelaide in March 2009. Every participant was selected through a merit based selection process that also sought to ensure diverse representation from different geographic locations, age groups and with gender equality. 

Since that time we have convened focus groups, conducted a national survey and national naming competition, as well as participated in workshops and meetings, and received written submissions. 

Throughout the process, we have trialed different approaches. For example:

  • We have prioritised our engagement through the Indigenous media – print, radio and television.
  • We have sought to create high expectations about the ethical conduct that should be expected of anyone who ultimately seeks to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • We have shown that merit based selection processes – as used in Adelaide – can work.
  • And we have shown that processes that mandate gender equality can work.

Our process has been one that has sought to build consensus and to create a vision for our peoples over the short, medium and longer terms.

We are clear that we need to create an organisation that will last. Our people face generational challenges to achieve equality across a range of social and economic indicators. We will need a strong national voice for the duration to contribute to this task, and to hold governments to account.

We have taken as our guiding principle Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Article 18 states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own Indigenous decision-making institutions.

I am confident that the model we have developed for the new National Representative Body gives real meaning and practical application to this principle.

So before I describe the model to you – what have been some of the key issues that have influenced our thinking?

Through the course of the consultation process we have heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples understand the critical need for a new National Representative Body but do not want a return to old ways.

The consultations revealed two key tensions in the aspirations and desires of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The first tension was a representational one. How does the National Representative Body obtain political legitimacy with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples while also being streamlined, cohesive and expert in its operations?

There was a clear message through the consultations that appointment processes for the National Representative Body should emphasise merit based selection to ensure that the Body has the right set of skills to perform its key roles. 

The consultations revealed broad agreement on the need for merit based processes to underpin selection processes. This is to overcome the problems of the past, where unqualified democratic processes have not served us well as peoples. 

Related to this is the tension about whether the role of the National Representative Body is to represent a national perspective on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues or, to represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation. 

These are qualitatively different things. Answering this question goes to the size of the body and its formal structures, as opposed to its processes for engagement.

The second tension concerns the relationship to government. A key issue throughout the consultations was the desire for the National Representative Body to be independent from government (in particular, free of the ability of government to control or abolish the body)  while also being influential with government and playing a key role in the policy development process.

Addressing these tensions is a complex task. But it must be done if the organisation is to succeed into the long term.

There are five key features to the model proposed by the Steering Committee that seek to address these issues, as follows.

The first feature is that the new National Representative Body should be a company limited by guarantee. 

The Steering Committee has consistently heard the aspiration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that the National Representative Body become self-determining over time. This cannot happen if the body is a creation of Parliament whose existence is dependent on the goodwill of Parliament and the government of the day.

I must confess that when I began this role, I had assumed we would be recommending a statutory model. But I have become convinced that this would not be in the best interests of our communities.

A company limited by guarantee will have the following advantages over a statutory model:

  • The structures of the Body will be able to be flexible, with the members able to alter the Constitution when necessary. If the Body was a statutory authority it would have to rely on Parliament to approve such changes and may also have unnecessary or politically motivated changes foisted upon it.
  • A private company is more likely to attract corporate and philanthropic support for its operations. This will particularly be the case if the Body has tax deductibility status (as we have recommended).  It is unlikely that a statutory authority would attract significant corporate support. This would leave the body dependent on government funding into the long term.
  • A private company structure can begin immediately. While it will take a substantial amount of effort and time to fully establish the company and its governance procedures, there will still be greater certainty for the Body than if it was left to the processes of Parliament for its creation.

The second feature is the proposed structure of the National Representative Body. 

It is proposed that the National Representative Body will have four main components:

  • A National Executive;
  • A National Congress;
  • An Ethics Council;  and
  • An Administrative or Executive Support Unit.

The National Executive will be the governance and operational arm of the organisation.

The executive will:

  • Formulate, advocate and implement policies and priorities consistent with the decisions of the National Congress;
  • Develop the strategic and business plans for the organisation; and
  • Organise and lead engagement strategies with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In order to carry out these functions the Executive will:

  • Have a male and female Co-Chair, both of whom is full time;  and
  • Have six part time members, 3 men and 3 women.

The National Congress will be the primary accountability mechanism for the National Representative Body. It will set the national policies and priorities for the National Representative Body through an annual congress. It will also elect the National Executive. 

Each Congress would also include an Annual General meeting of the organisation, and allow for other decisions relating to the constitution, structure and membership.

It is anticipated that, over time, state / territory level and regional meetings will be conducted to feed into the national congress.

I will explain how the Congress should be constituted shortly.

The Ethics Council will be a small body that will have roles to:

  • apply a merit based process in order to shortlist candidates for election as the members of the National Executive; and
  • To develop and maintain the ethical standards of the organisation, including by investigating breaches of the ethical standards of the organisation by members of the National Congress and National Executive.

The Ethics Council will do a due diligence test of candidates for the National Congress and National Executive in order to ensure they are fit and proper persons in the first instance.  Their role is then to review activities, as and when required, through referral.

The Administrative / Executive Support Unit, through the Chief Executive Officer, will work to the direction of the National Executive.  Based on comparable organisations such as the growth of Reconciliation Australia, the support unit will initially be comprised of approximately 10 staff rising to 24 by year three of the organisation.

The third key feature of the organisation is its selection processes.

This proposed structure will require two selection processes for the National Representative Body. The first is to sit in the National Congress. The second is to become a member of the National Executive.

It is proposed that the National Congress will initially be comprised of a maximum of 128 delegates with voting rights. This may grow over time.

It is intended that delegates in the National Congress will participate as individuals. They are there to contribute to a national collective perspective rather than to simply represent the organisation or state / territory that have nominated them.

Other organisations and people not selected as delegates of the National Congress could still attend the congress meetings, but only in an observer capacity.

The 128 delegates would be determined through selection processes conducted every two years so that the National Congress is constantly refreshed with new perspectives.

The 128 delegates of the National Congress would be determined as follows:

  • The 8 Members of the National Executive would sit in the National Congress.
  • 40 delegates selected from chamber 1 of the Congress. This Chamber would provide a regular forum for national peak bodies and state / territory or regional level representative bodies to interact.
  • 40 delegates would also be selected from Chamber 2 of the Congress. This chamber would provide a regular forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that do not qualify as national peak bodies, or representative structures, but which still represent a sectoral interest. It should also include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and subject experts.
  • For both of these chambers, half the delegates would be required to be men and half women.
  • Chamber 3 of the Congress would be a chamber in name only. It will be a merit selection process to choose 40 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals or representatives of organisations to sit in the National Congress. Applications would be sought nationally every two years with 40 places set aside through this process – 20 men and 20 women. The selection would be conducted by the National Executive based on criteria relating to the abilities and skills of the candidates. This process would replicate the selection process used by the Steering Committee for its workshop in Adelaide in March 2009.

This model of chambers provides multiple ways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be involved in the representative body – through representative peak bodies, sectoral expert bodies, community organisations and in an individual capacity.

We anticipate that one of the key benefits of the new National Representative Body will be to provide a space where the sectoral or regionally specific expertise and knowledge, of existing organisations, can be harnessed for the greater good of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at the national level. We have proposed that the body be structured in a way that can maximise the contribution of these bodies in order to create greater leverage and coordinated effort.   

We anticipate that the chambers will place greater expectations on Indigenous organisations to be representative and rigorous in their operations.  I hope that over time we will see Indigenous organisations align their annual general meetings on a cycle that enables them to feed into the Annual Congresses of the representative body – so this is the type of change that may emerge over time.

We also anticipate that over time, new organisations will emerge to fill the gaps in representation from existing peak bodies. Already, through the consultation process there have been discussions among mainland Torres Strait Islanders about the need to establish appropriate representative mechanisms to feed into the representative body. 

We are also seeing the development of a national Indigenous disability network – another example of the type of growth in the Indigenous sector that will hopefully become commonplace once the representative body is in operation.

The 8 members of the National Executive would then be selected through the following processes:

  • Any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in the country could apply for a Co-Chair position, through an open merit selection process. 
  • The Ethics Council will be convened to produce a shortlist of candidates from those who have applied.
  • The Co-Chairs of the Board (one male and female) will then be elected by the National Congress from the shortlisted candidates.  It is envisaged that all shortlisted candidates will front the full Congress and present their claims for the Co-Chair position after which a secret ballot will be conducted.
  • For the six part-time members of the National Executive, they will be directly elected by the National Congress.  Candidates will self-nominate from the National Congress membership.
  • A shortlist of candidates will be developed by the Ethics Council, based on the nominations received. It is envisaged that all shortlisted candidates will present their claims for a part-time member position to the full Congress after which a secret ballot will be conducted.

So, as you can see, the selection processes will provide a hybrid of merit selection, ethical conduct requirements and election processes.

The fourth key feature of the proposed model is how it would be funded in order to become sustainable into the longer term.

The Committee has identified four key issues to be addressed.

First, the organisation will require full government funding of the establishment phase of the National Representative Body (estimated to be completed in December 2010).

Second, in order to assist the body to raise corporate support and donations, the organisation should be granted Deductible Gift Recipient status (DGR) and have this fast tracked.

Third, the committee has recommended that the Australian Government commit to provide recurrent funding for the National Representative Body’s operations over an initial period of approximately five years. This would create maximum certainty for the organisation to lock into place its governance and representative structures, without having to be distracted by seeking the minimum funding necessary to operate and prove itself. We anticipate that some funding would be required from year 6 but this would begin to decline as the organisation secures independent streams of funding.

And finally, an Investment Fund should be created to provide a capital base for the organisation so that over time, it can be fully independent and self-sustaining, without government contributions. 

Our modelling suggests that this Fund would require a total of $200 million from all sources over the initial ten years to ensure a sufficient recurrent expenditure base for the organisation after ten years.  The establishment of this investment fund will be a matter for the national representative body to negotiate with government, corporate and philanthropic funders once it has firmly established itself and is operating.

We have also recommended that the body should have an initial development phase that lasts until the end of 2010 that is focused on building a strong governance and accountability framework, and importantly, on building buy in and acceptance of the model by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This development phase will need to commence in the coming months if the body is to fully incorporate and be in a position to convene the first national congress in October next year.

This is such a significant moment because it is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples seizing the agenda and putting ourselves in the driving seat.

When you see the report, you will see that we set out a vision for the representative body over five years, 10 years and 20 years. This vision is taken directly from the consultations. I want to finish by quoting from this vision.

Five years from now

It is envisaged that in five years the National Representative Body will be an organisation that is functioning effectively and efficiently. It will have credibility and integrity with both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous communities . . . and government.   

After five years, the organisation will have begun to attract significant non-government sources of revenue for its recurrent operations and to build up its Establishment Investment Fund.

The National Representative Body will create formal and informal mechanisms that provide a space for fierce debates capturing the diversity of views across the whole population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These fierce debates will inform solutions to existing and emerging problems, as well as informing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community.

10 years from now

It is envisaged that in 10 years the National Representative Body will be an organisation that is self-sufficient, self-determining, and truly independent of government.   

It will not be dependent on government revenue for its recurrent operating costs, although governments may still be purchasing services from the organisation.

By this time, the organisation will have well established structures that ensure decisions are made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The organisation will have an effective and mutually beneficial relationship with government and the private sector. As a result, this strong union will produce effective and good policy, proper consultation processes, and advocacy across the broad scope of issues central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing.    

In addition to this the organisation will have well established mechanisms in place to make sure that local, regional and state issues are being represented and advocated for on the national level. 

20 years from now

It is envisaged that in 20 years there will be reciprocal respect between the National Representative Body and Tribal Nations. 

By this time Australia as a country will own its history – good and bad,  right and wrong. 

And the majority of Australians will demonstrate empathy and understanding with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as they did in the 1967 Referendum.

By this stage key targets will have been met across all measures of economic, social and cultural well-being and the gap; will be closed.

By the 20th year of operation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be recognised in the Constitution and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and elders will feel empowered and in control of their lives and of their destiny – with decisions made by our people for our people.

Friends, This is a rare opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to work together with governments, industry and the Australian community to secure the economic and cultural independence of our peoples, and to enable us to truly experience self-determination, for the first time in this country.

What we have proposed is a body that will exhibit the highest standards of ethical conduct. It will set a new benchmark for gender equality in national organisations – which all Australians can learn from.

And it has the potential to re-invigorate and transform the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community sector  so that it is increasingly representative, collegiate, and focused on building strong national partnerships that articulate a clear vision for our people, bring the corporate sector onboard, and hold governments to account for their responsibilities. 

I encourage all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to get behind the new National Representative Body and to make it yours. As the title of this report states, it is time to put ‘our future in our hands’. 

We must treat this as a once in a generation opportunity. As our 20 year vision in the report states:

‘In 20 years time, we don’t want our grandkids having to undertake this same discussion.’

We must all remember that from self-respect comes dignity and from dignity comes hope.      

Thank you.

Address: 
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Australia