Sean Gordon: Constitutional recognition is not a feel-good exercise

LIKE MANY AUSTRALIANS, I have been following recent media on Noel Pearson’s proposals for Indigenous constitutional recognition. I agree that it is never too late for good ideas. The conversation must continue and nothing is settled.

Beyond that, my thoughts have been consumed by what a national Indigenous representative body would mean on the ground for my people on the Central Coast, as well as across Australia. I want recognition to make a real difference in achieving practical outcomes and securing economic development opportunities.

There is nothing I want more than economic development for our people. I want them to enjoy the same opportunities as everybody else. But there need to be structures in place for this to happen. In many cases we are doing everything we can to get ahead, but there are still many structural and social barriers to success.

Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council (Darkinjung) is one of the lucky Indigenous entities. We are well resourced and we receive little government funding. We are pursuing economic development in our region. The resistance we face would surprise most people. In one recent development application, our proposal attracted 2200 objections—more than any other development in the history of the Central Coast.

Some objections had little substance. There were suggestions that the development would see dogs roaming around the place, or that it would bring drunks to the neighbourhood. Prejudice remains a practical obstacle to our people achieving success economically, socially and culturally. These attitudes influence the way in which local government decisions are made—because public views are important. It is clear that discrimination plays a significant role.

On top of that obstacle, we have to fund expensive court cases in the land and environment court for our rights to economic development. Each fight costs on average $200,000, which adds to the cost our organisation must bear. These funds could be better spent building homes or providing real benefits to our community. But what about other Indigenous communities across the country who are not as well resourced? How are they supposed to negotiate the expensive court system in order to prosecute their rights to a sustainable future and a viable community?

REFORM, NOT RECOGNITION

Symbolic recognition of Indigenous people in the Constitution will not be enough to drive reform, deliver development and build sustainable communities. If all recognition is going to do is make Australians feel good, then this debate is heading in the wrong direction and not going far enough.

On that basis, I am attracted to the proposal for an Indigenous body enshrined in the Constitution. I think it could help enable Indigenous empowerment and economic development. Such a body could drive law reform at a national level, removing the burden on individual Indigenous organisations to battle alone.

This kind of structure would enable Indigenous Australians to communicate and collaborate with government in order to find appropriate solutions—an alternative to constant litigation. Government would have an efficient way to hear Indigenous views about what needs to happen to encourage Indigenous economic success. It would also provide an avenue to encourage and recognise the Indigenous contribution to the economic future of the nation.

There is no better feeling than driving into a Darkinjung-owned residential development site and seeing our contribution to the local economy. For every $1 million we spend, we create ten jobs. Ten per cent of our development is retained by Darkinjung for affordable housing for our members at no cost to taxpayers. I want to see more Indigenous communities achieving this kind of independence.

For this to happen, communities need to be able to tell government how to get rid of the barriers to their development. If there is no structural interface to allow our people to communicate with government, then there is no way they can succeed.

Designed properly, such a body could vastly improve the way the Indigenous space operates. Our small and under-resourced communities would not be so alone and isolated. They could have this national body, with local connections, taking their concerns and aspira tions to Canberra. It could be a structure to empower Indigenous people to work together more effectively.

We all know that the nation faces the challenge of closing the gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. But the current debate goes on at such a high level. There is no structural connection between government and community. The question is: how do we empower communities to take ownership of solutions? The suggested Indigenous body could connect the high-level political debates to the local knowledge of our people on the ground.

Of course, economic development is not the only important thing. In New Zealand, there are structures for Maori representation in parliament and settlements under the Waitangi Tribunal, both of which increase potential for effective economic development. But they also have the Maori Language Commission to promote and revitalise Maori language and culture. We could have this type of institution in Australia too.

I would want to see the body not only drive economic development in the regions, but also to help with language, culture and place name recognition. Everything depends on how the structure is designed and what else makes up the proposed package of reforms. Indigenous Australians need to engage with this proposal. We need to start discussing the possibilities.

Future law reform should be properly informed and led by Indigenous people. Real, on-the-ground Indigenous involvement and communication with government will be crucial if we are going to close the gap and revitalise and maintain Indigenous heritage. On that basis, this deserves serious consideration.

The Empowered Communities initiative could complement such a structure. We could have an Indigenous representative voice at the constitutional level, and more efficient mechanisms for government engagement at the legislative and institutional levels.

BUILDING A SOLUTION TO OUR OWN PROBLEMS

The Empowered Communities initiative was engendered more than two years ago, when twenty-five Indigenous leaders gathered on the New South Wales Central Coast. As a group, we embodied the diversity of Aboriginal Australia. We came from and represented urban, regional and remote communities.

We were drawn together by our shared despair over the lack of pro gress made in improving the lot of our people. For us, this has always meant social, economic and cultural development: families and children living safely by a set of social values or norms; young people getting a good education and jobs and economic growth for our people. At the same time, we want our culture, heritage and languages to be retained and valued.

At the first meeting, as the macabre exercise of comparing miseries conjured an insurmountable mountain, an insight appeared. Our people, being the 3 per cent mouse of the population, are fragile and weak in our dealings with the might of government elephants. As leaders in communities and heads of organisations, we are largely powerless. For example, none of us have any clear sightlines into the funding that goes into our communities, funding that purports to be about solving the same issues for which we are seeking solutions. Yet we are not privy to how these resources are applied. The result is constant doubling up on some types of services, yawning gaps in other much-needed services, turf wars, money and resources frittered away for no gain, efforts that are making a difference easily abandoned, and efforts that are not effective remaining.

Animated by this simple insight, we set out to devise a plan. We did not want to simply ask government to fix it for us—that well-worn approach has not been working for decades. We took it on ourselves to find a better way. So, the Empowered Communities initiative was born.

Our work since then has been extensive. We have built and designed this new interface from the ground up. In the eight Empowered Communities regions, the landscape was carefully mapped to build a realistic picture of the dynamics, people, organisations and relationships that could deliver a cohesive and truly representative community voice. On the other side, with the assistance of current and former senior bureaucrats, the government landscape was mapped.

With these two sides of the coin understood, we designed an interface to take in the complexities and unique structures of different regions and convert these inputs into a balanced, cohesive and orderly process for governments to engage with. This, we strongly believe, can be the engine room for real change and better outcomes for Aboriginal people, no matter what their circumstance. We think it could save money and time in our efforts for the betterment of our people.

After eighteen months of intensive design work, we presented our Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples Design Report to the federal government in March 2015. The report represents a deeply serious, studious and concerted effort by an unprecedented coalition of Indigenous leaders. It represents the pinnacle of their individual and collective thinking. The report is the apex of our thinking, the culmination of countless sleepless nights stretching back decades; it’s the premier reply from us as leaders to the enduring question that besets our nation—why can’t we close the gap?

STRUCTURAL CHANGE AND SELF-DETERMINATION

It is self-evident that the circumstance of the birth of Empowered Communities is superior to the haphazard and often glib ways that Indigenous policy has been formulated to date—with government making all the calls and little input from the Indigenous people on the ground and in the regions, who the government policies are supposed to benefit.

When we look at the big picture, it starts to feel exciting. We could have constitutional reform to enable an Indigenous voice in parliamentary and government processes at the national, Commonwealth level. We could have the appropriate legislative and institutional reforms to enable a more efficient, more effective working relationship between Indigenous peoples and the government at the bureaucratic, on-theground, service-delivery level.

Together it would mean a restructured national approach to Indigenous affairs, based on the working principles of Indigenous selfdetermination: the principle that Indigenous people should be making the decisions about the laws and policies and services designed to benefit them. Our people should be genuinely and specifically engaged in the solutions for our own development and prosperity, through structures that actively include and support our effective participation and leadership in the decisions that most affect our lives and communities.

This is of course a matter of justice for our people. But it is also a matter of practicality. If Australian governments are genuinely serious about the need to close the gap, the practical importance of Indigenous involvement and empowerment in Indigenous policy-making, lawmaking and service delivery cannot be denied. Either we as a nation are serious about the need to close the gap, and improve the circumstances of Indigenous people, or we are not.

The gap will not be closed, and Indigenous empowerment will not be achieved, through more of the same policies devised wholly by government and delivered to Indigenous people. A structural solution is required: one that gives Indigenous people a say, and increased authority and responsibility, over the decisions that affect us.

I wait with anticipation to see how the political leadership will respond to these two sensible requests from Indigenous people: two requests for structural change to ensure our people can take more authority and responsibility in our own affairs. Two requests for increased Indigenous self-determination. I am hoping with all my heart that Australia will move in the right direction.

Sean Gordon has recently been appointed to the position of Chairman at Uphold & Recognise.

Sean is the CEO of Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council and Chairperson of the Empowered Communities Leadership Group. He brings a wealth of experience in Indigenous leadership and corporate governance to our team. Sean has supported the work of Darkinjung in Aboriginal Economic Development, helping to shift dependency away from Government through strategic Asset Management, Sustainable Development, Good Governance and Informed Decision Making.

Uphold & Recognise