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Indigenous organisation leaders: balancing tensions between achieving political goals and regulatory requirements

16 August 2022

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This guest editorial was written for the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of practice monthly newsletter, highlighting new additions to the  Regulation Policy and Practice collection on APO. The RP&P collection brings together a range of practical resources from national, local and state/territory governments, regulatory agencies and external institutions conducting monitoring, inquiries and reviews. You can receive this newsletter by  joining the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice (membership is free) or  subscribe to the newsletter directly.


Dr Josephine Bourne


I recently had the great honour of co-presenting a discussion on the similarities and differences in the Indigenous-settler relationship with our colleague from ‘across the ditch’ Ms Lil Anderson, at the University of Queensland on 3 June, marking the 30th anniversary of the Mabo Decision. It was so great to discuss the similarities and differences in the Indigenous-Settler[1] relationship in our respective liberal-democratic settler states. My most powerful takeaway from this discussion came from Lil’s work in Aotearoa New Zealand, and was the framing of the Indigenous-State relationship as one of Co-Governing. This is positive, and inspires a commitment to mutual-respect, and trust that the adequate investments will be made into one another’s knowledge and capabilities to govern together. With the new Federal Government’s commitment to the Statement from the Heart, there is a need for new narratives that support the healing of the Indigenous-State relationship in Australia and support better ways of governing that are grounded in mutual respect. 

The fundamental aspect that settler-states share is the population disparity between a minority Indigenous population and a majority settler population. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise approximately 3 per cent of the overall population[2]. In New Zealand the Māori population comprise approximately 17 per cent of the overall population[3]. In a democratic system based on majority rules, and complications that can arise from diverse socio-political worlds – soft versus hard hierarchies and horizontal network systems versus vertical systems, overlayed with ideologies that can diverge more than converge – the need for appropriate, adequate and just Indigenous representation is a constant political imperative for Indigenous polities. Regulatory requirements occupy the space between our worlds, through organisational mechanisms. 

I want to tell you briefly about why I became so interested in how Indigenous organisation leaders engage with western organisations to achieve the goals of their members. I was inspired by the resilience story of my paternal grandfather born in 1907 and my paternal grandmother born in 1917 – they continue to be great leaders in my life. As a child I watched them navigate the encroaching colonial forces. As I got older and reflected on their lives and listened to stories from my father and his sisters I was in awe of their understanding of the encroaching systems and what could be done to protect old knowledges for a time in the future, a time that is less hostile. I grew up in Townsville, among a strong Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander community and I could see the ongoing determination and resilience around me. Through this observation and further research I later did as an undergrad and postgrad student, I learned about the greater story that connected all of us Indigenous people across the continent. I realised that there were others like my grandparents who had done their best to make it through harsh forced assimilation and still managed to work out ways to safeguard our knowledge and understandings of Indigenous ways of leading and governing.  

Building Indigenous organisational capacity

Aboriginal[4] and Torres Strait Islander[5] leaders began the work of building organisational structures to interface with the State in the early 1900s. Driven by the need to give voice to the dire situation of their families and broader kinship networks. This was at the time when the nation-state of Australia was federated. In those early days the belief that the Indigenous populations would eventually die out and the settler-state’s goals of expansion and development resulted in the emergence of the policy era of forced removal onto reserves and missions and then economic exploitation in the industries of the day. The indigenous leaders of the twentieth century grew their knowledge through connections in the union movement and other groups who came into their orbit. First setting up associations, co-operatives and other organisational arrangements that gave voice to civil society groups. This work led to the establishment of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA)[6], an organisation that spearheaded civil society’s voice in the successful 1967 referendum. The most successful referendum in Australia’s history with a 90 per cent “yes” vote[7] 

The 1970s & 1980s was the policy era of Self-Determination and Self-Management. The proliferation of Indigenous service delivery organisations grew across the country to address socio-economic disadvantage.  There was also the emergence of several government designed Indigenous national bodies, most notably the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was established after a consultation process. Understanding and being mindful of the political ecology of indigenous organisations provides insight into how Indigenous organisation prioritise their activities. It is a constant battle between operating mostly in defence mode when dealing with the politics of the broader environment and fulfilling daily operational and regulatory practice. The environment needs to change. In 2005 the dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) amid claims of corruption from Pauline Hanson and others ruptured the Indigenous-State relationship. The political hostility remained through successive Liberal and Labor governments.  

The Native Title sector emerged in the post-ATSIC era. After Native Title determinations were settled in court a new organisational entity called the Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) came into being. This entity is led by native title holders and represents the interests of native title holders in the geographic boundaries of the determination. The PBC receives a nominal annual budget and members who govern and lead the organisation work on a volunteer basis. Depending on the geographical footprint of the organisation (based on claim area or the diaspora of the members of the claim group), making decisions can be resource intensive and time consuming for volunteers[8]. In some cases, there can be technological barriers such as limited or no access to Wi-Fi or the need for computer literacy. Cultural barriers can include a mismatch between the perception of legitimate decision-making processes and different understandings of what constitutes a legitimate decision in the Indigenous cultural context versus what is required through regulatory guidelines. The work of understanding what is good governance in each other’s worlds has not been done on any significant scale in Australia but would go a long way in assisting with the survival of Indigenous organisations in various settings. There is a need for greater investment to create the capabilities to co-govern. 

The current Albanese government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart has resulted in the re-emergence of hostile narratives that promote beliefs that Indigenous organisations (and by extension Indigenous people) – are corrupt and cannot govern. This needs to be reframed though narratives that support the healing of the Indigenous-State relationship. The emergence of a new narrative is necessary at this point in the relationship. A better way of working together grounded in mutual respect for each other’s governance knowledge and systems. Growing an appreciation for understanding the systems of governance that mean ‘good governance’ in both worlds and the possibility of redesign in the space between our worlds. Aboriginal political philosopher, Mary Graham, reminds us that “Indigenous people, [are] the original owners and runners of Country on the Australian continent”[9] Reframing the relationship as not just co-existing but co-governing has the potential to create a less hostile environment. An environment that fosters understanding each other’s systems and working out what is realistically do-able. 

Dr Josephine Bourne is an academic in Political Science at the University of Queensland. Her research draws on her expert knowledge and understanding of Indigenous Politics, Australian Policy and Political Institutions, from both a practice and a theoretical perspective. She has worked on various state and federal policy initiatives, including education and leadership development, possibilities for the design of Indigenous representative mechanisms, constitutional reform options and treaty-making. Her main research interest is in analysing public, private and third sector responses to complex problems and the ways the mental frames of various actors can be transformed to adopt new ways of working, with a focus on leadership, Indigenous organisational development and governance. Josephine is co-author of the second edition of Australian Politics in the Twenty-First Century: Old Institutions, New Challenges (Cambridge University Press, 2022).  


[1] I am using the term Indigenous-Settler in reference to the dynamics inherent in two socio-political orders grounded in diverging political ideologies occupying the same territory.

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, source: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples

[3] Source: https://www.stats.govt.nz/information-releases/maori-population-estimates-at-30-june-2021

[4] See Aboriginal Historian Professor John Maynard’s work – Maynard, J. (2007). Fight for liberty and freedom: the origins of Australian Aboriginal activism: Aboriginal Studies Press.

[5] See Sharp, N. (1993). Stars of Tagai: The Torres Strait Islanders. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

[6] Later renamed the Federal Council for the Advancement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) when Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples united in a national movement towards the 1967 referendum.

[7] The amendments to the constitution in 1967 enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be counted in the census and it empowered the federal government to make laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.  Before that time they were solely under the legal jurisdiction of the states (previously the colonies).

[8] Recommended further reading: Brigg, M., & Curth-Bibb, J. (2017). Recalibrating intercultural governance in Australian Indigenous organisations: the case of Aboriginal community controlled health. Australian Journal of Political Science, 52(2), 199-217. Moran, M., Porter, D., & Curth‐Bibb, J. (2016). The impact of funding modalities on the performance of indigenous organisations. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 75(3), 359-372. Moran, M., Porter, D., & Curth-Bibb, J. (2014). Funding Indigenous organisations: improving governance performance through innovations in public finance management in remote Australia.

[9] Listen to Dr Mary Graham and Associate Professor Morgan Brigg discuss Aboriginal political concepts on ABC Radio National : https://www.abc.net.au/religion/aboriginal-political-concepts-autonomous-regard/13472098