Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Good governance for indigenous communities and regions: more diverse than unified, as much process as structure.

Download PDFDownload PDF


Indigenous Governance Conference 3-5 April 2002 Canberra

Dr. Will Sanders Fellow

Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research Australian National University


Our brief for this morning’s session is to define and give a comparative conceptual overview of Indigenous governance, in particular good governance for Indigenous communities and regions. It is always tempting, in approaching any topic, to try to define central terms and set performance standards out the outset of discussion and independent of any actual cases. However, in reality both our definitions and our performance standards emerge during discussion and from experience and observation of actual cases in actual times and places. My ideas about good governance for Indigenous communities and regions have emerged from observation of the Australian scene over the last thirty years. Based on that observation, I want to argue, as the sub-title for my paper indicates, that good governance for Indigenous communities and regions is more diverse than unified, and as much about process as structure.

One of the commonest observations made about Indigenous governance in Australia during the last thirty years has been that governance structures for Indigenous communities and regions are many in number and fragmented and varied in their responsibilities; indeed too many in number and too fragmented and varied in their responsibilities.

Last year, I did some work with a Central Australian community of some 300 people which had four community-level councils; a health council, a store council, a women’s council and a general community council. A few years ago, they used to have a fifth, an outstation council. But this fifth council had, in recent years, folded back into the general community council.

At the regional level, or should I say regional levels for the scale and boundaries of regional organisation are many, that community participated in at least three structures. Together with two or three other communities, they constituted and provided representatives for one of the nine regions of the Central Land Council. At a roughly similar geographic level, they were being encouraged by the Northern Territory government to rationalise and coordinate their community council structures. And at a larger scale, they participated in the Papunya or Apatula ATSIC regional council, covering most of Central Australia outside Alice Springs.

All this for a community of just 300 people, may seem like a very heavy burden of Indigenous community and regional governance. And this description could of course be repeated for many Indigenous communities around Australia. It is understandable and tempting, therefore, to suggest that the amount of Indigenous community and regional governance in Australia is simply too much. That present Indigenous governance structures are too fragmented and that a unified Indigenous governance structure, at some appropriate geographic level, would be better.

I want to argue strongly against the notion that some unified structure of Indigenous governance at some appropriate geographic level is the way to go, that unification of the diverse elements of current Indigenous community and regional governance would be good, or ‘for the best’. Ten years ago, in the book Remote Possibilities, Tim Rowse noted that the idea that ‘community power is, or should be made to be, a unified, centralised


sovereignty’ was ‘one of the most common and seductive assumptions in the discussion of Aboriginal self-government’. There was, he argued, ‘an alternative model for us to consider’ which he referred to as ‘dispersed governance’. In this model, which was already being practiced in Indigenous Australia, community authority relating to various issues was exercised by a ‘series of resource agencies, able to negotiate co-operation with each other when the need arises, but secure in their autonomy’. Autonomy, he noted, ‘refers not only to Aborigines’ relationships with non-Aboriginal society, but, just as important,…. to their relationships with one another’ (Rowse 1992: 89-90).

Rowse’s analysis is, I believe, as pertinent today as the day it was written. The false virtues of a unified approach to Indigenous community governance are as misleadingly seductive as ever, while the benefits of dispersed governance are as over looked as ever. Expanding on and perhaps moving beyond the very general idea that dispersed governance allows autonomy of Aboriginal people in relation to each other, I would argue that the benefits of dispersed governance for Aboriginal communities and regions are essentially twofold. First, dispersed governance divides the tasks of community and regional collective decision-making into ‘do-able’ bits and pieces. And second it offers opportunities for the representation of a diverse range of interests and points of view.

In the central Australian community I referred to at the outset, the health council focused its attention on the running of the health clinic, the store council focussed on the running of the store, the general community council focussed on physical infrastructure and housing services and the women’s council focussed on personal care services. These were, in my terms, all quite ‘do-able’ and reasonably discrete bits and pieces of the community governance task. So too was attending to land matters at the local and regional level, through the Central Land Council and to other matters, such as program funding, through the ATSIC regional council.

If one single organisation at the community or regional level had had to attend to all these tasks, it would have been heavily over-loaded. It would have needed to devise some quite elaborate internal departmental structures and processes, so that all the necessary tasks were attended to and that rules were developed about matters such as budget allocations and respecting each others turfs. Which of course, is not too dissimilar to what exists at present, through the work of the separate community and regional councils.

A single council would, in all probability, also concentrate community and regional decisions making power in the hands of those few elected to it. A variety of councils, on the other hand, disperses such power and perhaps allows routinely for some greater representation of a wider range of community interests, or for the representation of community interests of greater relevance to the particular task at hand.

There are, of course, dangers and costs of diverse representation, just as there are of unified representation; such as particular community interests capturing particular governance tasks or of a lack of co-ordination between tasks. However there is no guarantee that these costs will not also be experienced under a unified community


governance structure and indeed in the case of the capture of governance by particular interests, it could be all the more powerful and difficult to overcome.

I will digress at this point to make the general point that there is, of course, an enormous degree of dispersal of authority in the non-Indigenous institutions of Australian government. Elected States, Territories, Commonwealth and local governments all play different roles and claim strong degrees of autonomy from each other. Courts, different houses of parliaments and executive agencies also claim different roles and degrees of autonomy. So there is nothing unusual in Australia about dispersed governance. It is in fact the norm, and the best model we have come up with yet, even if it does have its faults.

I want now to move on to the second theme mentioned in my sub-title. Thus far I have a talked almost entirely about the structures of governance; what governance looks like organisationally. I think we also need to recognise, however, that good governance is as much about process as structures. Open consultative policy making debate carried on in conjunction with clear understandable executive implementation of decisions and accountability back to constituents would seem to be a crucial part of all good governance, whatever its organisational setting. Such processes will ensure that diverse interests are indeed given a chance to be brought to bear on the tasks of governance and that there is appropriate ongoing feedback between executive and representative functions. The search for particular good organisational structures is, in this sense, a distraction or at least only a partial addressing of issues. Processes also need to be addressed.

What would be the point, for example, in having a well worked out structure of governance for an Indigenous community or region, if the organisation never convened any meetings, or, if when it did, it kept no records of proceedings. In the absence of such records, how could it be shown that different points of view had been put and respected, before the resolution of an issue in a particular way? How could executive implementation be monitored and made accountable without reporting back to constituents and subsequent similar such meetings? Structures are hollow and meaningless with out good processes. And conversely good processes can probably make almost any governance structure work.

In pushing the discussion towards processes, as much as structures, and towards the benefits of diverse governance, I would not want to be misconstrued as arguing that there is no room for the reform of structures in the current governance of Indigenous communities and regions in Australia. For a number of reasons, I believe there is. Over the last thirty years in Australia, it has in some ways been too easy for dissatisfied people within existing Indigenous organisations to go off and set up another. In the language that Hirschman made famous in an excellent book published over thirty years ago, ‘exit’ has been an easier option than ‘voice’ or ‘loyalty’ (Hirschman 1970). Getting out of Indigenous organisations has often been easier and more attractive than staying in them and talking through differences. And because there have been lots of different Commonwealth and State government bodies around trying to do their little bit in


Indigenous affairs, a funding sponsor for a new organisation could often be found. But in politics, it is staying in organisations and talking through differences which is the more robust and enduring solution than getting out. So yes, probably too many Indigenous organisations have sprung up around Australia over the least thirty years. But the way forward in reducing this number is incremental and gradual, rather than radical; like the merging of the outstation and central community councils in the Central Australian community with which I began. And at the end of that incremental process community and regional authority in Indigenous governance should ideally still be quite dispersed.

To make the point that even with incremental organisational rationalisation, good governance for Indigenous communities and regions should still be quite dispersed, I want to conclude this paper with an example from elsewhere in Australia, where in my judgement, Indigenous community and regional governance structures actually became somewhat too unified about a decade ago and have suffered some criticism since as a result of this. The example relates to Australia’s second Indigenous minority, the Torres Strait Islanders and the governance of their island region of the Torres Strait.

In the 1980s and before, the Queensland State government encouraged a very unified Indigenous governance structure in the Torres Strait. Each island community had a single Island Council based on fairly strong residential criteria and, from 1984, the chairs of those 17 councils constituted a single overarching body, the Island Coordinating Council (ICC). When the Commonwealth government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) proposal came along in 1988/89, the ICC asked that its members become members of the Torres Strait Regional Council of ATSIC as well. To this the Commonwealth agreed, with the proviso that a couple of other separately elected representatives needed to be added to represent Torres Strait Islanders living on the more mixed-population inner islands of the Torres Strait, which did not have Island Councils. So the ICC members also became members of the Torres Strait Regional Council of ATSIC, and in 1994 of the Torres Strait Regional Authority under the ATSIC Act. When Native Title Representative Bodies were created under the Commonwealth Native Title Act of late 1993, the TSRA also put up its hand to be that representative body for the region as well. So Indigenous regional and community governance structures in Torres Strait were, by 1994, very unified.

In recent years, there has however been growing criticism of this arrangement and some pressure to move away from such a strongly unified structure. Islanders living outside the Strait feel shut out from the structure, while some Islanders in the Strait feel that too much power and responsibility is focussed on the chairpersons of the Island Councils - who are also the ICC and TSRA representatives. There is something of a move building for separate elections for at least the TSRA representatives - which I would argue is conceptually a move for a bit more dispersal in the representative elements of the governance structure. Unity of community and regional governance structures is being seen in Torres Strait as having its own costs, and some greater dispersal of representation and responsibility in governance structures is now being pushed for.


Good governance for Indigenous communities and regions should, in my view, as my sub-title suggests, be more diverse than unified and as much about process as structure.


Hirschman, A.O. 1970. Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

Rowse, T. 1992. Remote Possibilities: The Aboriginal Domain and the Administrative Imagination, North Australia Research Unit Australian National University, Darwin.