CHANGE IS UNDERWAY – ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER COMMUNITY-CONTROLLED REPRESENTATIVES AT THE CENTRE OF DECISION MAKING OF GOVERNMENTS
Each year in February, the Prime Minister delivers a statement in Parliament accounting to the nation for the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country and outlines what more is needed to “close the gap”. It is a time when our country looks in the mirror and confronts our different status – a status that shows wide gaps in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
Over the past two years, a movement has been underway to change how the nation approaches these gaps. It started when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled bodies stood up and called for shared decision making with governments. We knew that having a seat at the table where decisions were being made was vital. And we knew that our voice needed to be equal to the voice of governments.
Last year, the Prime Minister spoke to Parliament about his commitment for this new way of working between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives and governments based on formal partnerships. This commitment is embedded in the historic Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap, signed in March 2019 by all governments and the Coalition of Peaks, made up of over 55 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled bodies from across the country.
Twelve months on from the Prime Minister’s last statement to Parliament, as we expect his next statement today, this commitment is taking hold.
After intense negotiations, a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was agreed in July 2020, setting out reform priorities to radically change the way governments work with our peoples. We are now witnessing unprecedented structural changes unfold. Foundations are being laid to embed formal partnership agreements between First Nations people and governments across the country. These partnerships are being agreed in writing, signed by governments. They embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled representatives squarely in the decision-making structures of governments.
In NSW, the state Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations – a member of the national Coalition of Peaks and made up of community-controlled lead organisations in land and water, education, health, legal services, disability advocacy, family and children services and family reunification services – have entered into a formal agreement with the NSW government to share decisions on closing the gap. The agreement includes a NSW Joint Council jointly chaired by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the NSW peak coalition representatives chosen by them. While the NSW coalition and its members have been around for a long time, this is the first time they have partnered with government in a formal way to share decisions.
The Aboriginal Executive Council made up of community-controlled peak organisations in Victoria, has agreed a formal arrangement with the Victorian government’s Secretaries Leadership Group that places them at the centre of decisions on the implementation of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
In Queensland, community-controlled peak organisations, previously operating as individual organisations, have come together to become a member of the Coalition of Peaks and to be formal partners with the Queensland government on closing the gap. Membership includes a new state community-controlled housing peak body being formed. Negotiations are underway with the Queensland government to formalise the shared decision-making arrangements.
We are setting up structures that support our First Nations people in regaining control and share in the decisions with governments that impact on our lives. We are working to ensure it is our people’s expertise brought to bear when designing policies for us. Having a seat at the table is fundamentally transforming our relationship with governments and is making a real difference.
With the Coalition of Peaks at the table, all governments have agreed to prioritise investment in a new national community-controlled housing sector, including building the capacity and sustainability of our community‐housing providers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long advocated for a voice to represent our needs on housing.
For the first time, the disability community-controlled sector is in direct negotiations with all governments about building a culturally inclusive model of care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability – an area that has been left out of the policy conversation of governments for far too long.
The Coalition of Peaks is clear though: this is just the beginning. Challenges remain and the path being forged is rocky. Decades of entrenched thinking that only governments know what is best for us is hard to change. It is still too easy for governments to default to the old norms where our peoples are, at best, consulted, based on terms set by government and where decisions are made behind closed doors. It is a change for our people too. Battle-wearied advocates are rightly sceptical of governments.
The partnership and national agreements on closing the gap set a new benchmark for our people and our relationship with governments. We must protect and strengthen the movement of shared decision-making that is underway across Australia. Anything less is a step back that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cannot afford.