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How can government better engage with Traditional Owners?

Conversations in the Mid North West, North East and Far East Gippsland

Traditional Owners of the Mid North West, North East and Far East Gippsland regions acknowledged the importance of government engaging with the right people. Questions around ‘right’ people for Country and group representation are ongoing in these regions, however Traditional Owners in all three regions firmly believed that this should not stop positive work occurring between government and Traditional Owner groups. The following section explores common themes that arose from discussions where Traditional Owners spoke about what government must do to engage meaningfully and respectfully.

Rights

A strong theme that came through in the meetings was the importance of knowing, respecting and embedding Aboriginal peoples’ inherent rights in everyday practices.

Many groups spoke about rights having been taken away or not being respected. One group cited an example of cultural mapping activities occurring on Country before a conversation was had with Traditional Owners about whether a site should be visited in the first place.

'Why would we want to work with a government that has taken our rights, that has disrespected us?'

Many groups talked about government having an obligation to recognise and abide by Aboriginal cultural rights and human rights including self-determination and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). One group spoke of the importance of government ensuring cultural rights were being considered when making decisions. Another group talked about this in terms of recognising Aboriginal peoples’ inherent rights to Country, for example to hunt and fish, regardless of whether formal recognition processes had been completed.

Groups referred to existing government policies, obligations and other instruments that acknowledge and embed Indigenous peoples’ rights, such as the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework (VAAF), Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Groups across all regions talked about rights in relation to their information and Traditional Owner knowledge. People felt that government and government funded organisations such as First Nations Legal & Research Services, are holding Traditional Owner information and not returning it. Some groups called for information to be returned to community. Others expressed a wariness around sharing cultural information with government because in the past, knowledge and information has been shared and used against Traditional Owners.

Groups spoke of the need for government to acknowledge and respect that Traditional Owners have within their own laws and customs, a cultural and moral obligation to care for Country. They talked about the importance of their old and young people looking after Country and being involved in decisions about Country, particularly when government is working on Country. One group stated government’s consideration of these obligations should not be treated just as a ‘’whim and inconvenience’’, and that government needs to recognise its ethical and moral responsibility in this business.

Relationships

Groups across all three regions talked about the importance of building good relationships that build trust in government agencies and the individuals that represent them.

Across the regions, respect was seen as the critical element that enables positive relationships. One group observed that a lack of respect for Elders makes it difficult to ‘close the gap’ for the community, as a lack of recognition of Elders limits the community’s ability to engage with government and thus, opportunities. Others observed that the way in which government agency representatives conduct themselves in meetings can be disrespectful.

Some groups spoke about a lack of commitment from government agencies. Examples include when government representatives do not follow through with commitments as well as not turning up to meetings when invited by Traditional Owners. This creates feelings of disappointment and further entrenches the distrust that exists.

However, some groups did reflect on good relationships with government. Some groups said that engagement works best where government staff know the community and have good relationships with Elders. Another group reported developing good relationships with some government agencies, particularly in relation to water management, leading to some positive engagement. A number of groups stated that government can establish good relationships based on trust and respect through commitment, willingness, and making time to talk.

One group reflected positively about a facilitated meeting between the group and various government agencies to discuss engagement. The group explained this created an opportunity to speak directly with agencies, providing a space for a conversation that went both ways and fostering stronger interpersonal relationships. The group observed that the agencies listened and that this led to better engagement outcomes.

A few groups spoke about good engagement involving agencies engaging and building relationships with Traditional Owners inclusively. One group cited that VicRoads and the local shire continue to engage with everyone and that this is positive because everyone had the same amount of information about what was happening on Country.

Higher levels of Aboriginal staff in government

A consistent theme across all regions was the need to create new opportunities for Aboriginal employment and promotion. This was seen as a way to improve engagement processes and as a means to provide opportunities to work on Country. Groups felt that the various government agencies had a responsibility to create a culturally safe and welcoming workplace where Aboriginal people feel comfortable and confident in carrying out their duties.

'There should be employment for our mob to do cultural heritage work on Country like site monitoring and surveys.'

Aboriginal engagement officers were seen as a critical position to improve government engagement. Some groups described having had a good experience with an Aboriginal engagement officer that frequently communicated with the group on the phone before and after meetings to see if everything was o.k. They also described the comfort associated with knowing they could call a person who they can relate to if they had any questions. Some people reflected on the sense of happiness and pride they felt when they were able to yarn with an Aboriginal person involved in government engagement processes. They also spoke about needing to make sure Aboriginal people working in government had opportunities to learn and grow.

Healing and wellbeing

Traditional Owner groups reflected consistently on the need to heal relationships within the community to move forward in a positive and sustainable way. Acknowledging history and understanding that past government practices have inflicted trauma on Traditional Owner groups is seen as a critical step in moving towards positive relationships.

Many groups felt that government agencies need to understand the importance of healing in community and support this through their engagement processes. In this context, they observed that meetings with government can be indirect opportunities for groups to engage with their membership and promote healing.

Groups in two of the three regions discussed the importance of wellbeing and safety in government engagement processes. Groups explained the importance of ensuring engagement occurs in culturally safe spaces. For some groups, this meant government representatives should attend meetings on Country. One group raised the need for new criteria for the term ‘cultural safety’ to account for holistic wellbeing across the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions.

Aboriginal facilitation

Across all three regions, groups reflected on the value of having an Aboriginal facilitator involved in meetings with government. Many people felt it was important to have an Aboriginal facilitator as they share key understandings of history. Some expressed that having an Aboriginal facilitator was important because non-Indigenous people may make assumptions without knowing which can create further harm and trauma. Others said that some people are not often engaged in government processes and having an Aboriginal facilitator is about ensuring comfort and safety.

The groups also reflected on power and facilitation. For some, having an Aboriginal facilitator reduced the potential for power imbalances, while others wanted to have the power to select their preferred facilitator for meetings.

'It’s a bit like having a yarn as well as getting some points across'

'Coming from the same space in terms of understanding'

Culturally appropriate and respectful engagement

The need for government officers to undertake cultural awareness and engagement training was a consistent theme emerging from all regions. A number of reasons were articulated as to why this is important:

  • Staff need to be culturally competent and have adequate capacity and capability for engagement with Traditional Owners
  • Staff need to feel comfortable in the engagement space
  • Staff need to hear about what has broken down and understand the history.

Suggestions were also made that new staff should undertake an induction program aimed at developing an understanding of the social and cultural context of the region and how to engage with the Traditional Owners of the region.

Some groups felt that government and Traditional Owners needed to work together to settle on agreed ways of working based on Traditional Owners’ cultural protocols. This would ensure there is alignment of expectations and obligations when agencies and Traditional Owners come to the table. The importance of government officers understanding cultural protocols before working on Country was also discussed.

'There are things that agencies do every day on Country and there are different cultural expectations that they need to understand and comply with.'

'It’s like we’re making them feel uncomfortable, talking about our culture.'

'It’s a real insult to our people. They are dealing with our sites. There is a cultural exchange that is needed.'

'They expect us to be aware of government, but it goes both ways.'

Groups across all three regions called for government to recognise and respect Aboriginal knowledge, skills and culture.

Groups felt that government agencies do not recognise Aboriginal knowledge and rely on ‘settler’ forms of expertise. Others felt that government needs to acknowledge the differences in skills and expertise in a community and not expect everyone to know everything.

'Respecting Aboriginal knowledge and taking it seriously.'

Support and resourcing

All groups talked about resourcing and the requirement for adequate, timely and flexible support for meaningful engagement. One group explained that although it hadn’t occurred often, support is more adequate when government or government funded agencies are able to tailor support to suit the particular needs of the group.

Groups throughout all regions spoke about a lack of support provided for Traditional Owners to engage in government processes. A lack of support for things like travel, meals and accommodation is a significant constraint on their ability to attend and participate in government processes, especially if travel to Melbourne is required. In calling for adequate travel assistance, groups sought clarity and consistency across government agencies in the way they provide meeting support and travel assistance. In one region, groups discussed the need for government agencies to better communicate with each other to facilitate greater support for Traditional Owners. Some groups also discussed the provision of travel allowances at Australian Tax Office rates or the same rates paid to government officers (whether State or Commonwealth). Groups also discussed the need for support to be provided to people ahead of government engagement, not retrospectively. In some cases, people are unable to get to meetings without this support up front.

The need for government to pay Traditional Owners for their time, advice and knowledge was a consistent theme across the regions. This was seen as a requisite for good engagement. Some groups expressed that working people needed to be compensated for loss of income or leave associated with attending meetings. A number of groups also explained that this could be addressed through payment of sitting fees or at a minimum, compensating people for their time.

'These organisations/agencies get paid to turn up to meetings, we don’t.'

Effective communication

Groups across all regions highlighted the value of effective communication. Effective communication was seen as a fundamental element of meaningful relationships between government agencies and Traditional Owners. Groups discussed the importance of embedding listening as part of government practice as well as the need for respectful conversations, particularly when there is disagreement.

'It’s a talk fest, but we’re the ones doing the talking and no one is listening.'

Another group stated that stakeholders need to be clear about their priorities for engagement, and then need to engage in an open dialogue with Traditional Owners about priorities for the region.

Groups reflected extensively on instances of poor communication from government. One group recounted an example of poor communication when a government officer called an Elder and left a message on their phone to inform them that a particular location on Country had moved portfolios without any further conversation or consultation. Another group expressed frustration at writing letters to particular people in government and receiving responses from a different person. They also said that when they write letters to the Minister, they received generic responses that do not contain information relevant to their enquiry. They felt that the issue at play was a lack of value in communicating effectively and respectfully. Other examples of poor communication include the total lack of feedback, or insufficient feedback from previous formal recognition applications.

There were some examples of good communication, with one group articulating that grassroots approaches had worked well where discussions had occurred in person about how to engage on Country appropriately. Another group reflected on what they observed as a successful engagement process, stating that a successful or effective process leaves them feeling satisfied that everything raised by the group was either pointed out, written up or talked through at the meeting. This group asserted, 'that to me is finished business.'

Sharing opportunities and information

Most groups across all regions expressed concern about government not sharing relevant information with Traditional Owners. Information fell into a number of categories, including information about work happening on Country, and information about engagement and employment opportunities, with one group observing that young people who are often highly skilled and able to contribute are keen to engage with government but do not know what is happening or how to get there.

'There’s a lot of work happening out on Country. We don’t live on Country but we want to know when things are happening.'

Groups also commented on a lack of feedback about funding applications, and feedback about decisions made in formal recognition processes. Some groups saw this as a lack of transparency.

Multiple groups across two regions wanted to understand how government does its business so Traditional Owners can better engage.

'We want to know how they do their business so we can better engage in that business. If there is a process, what is it?'

People had different suggestions about how best government can reach out to Traditional Owners with information about engagement opportunities. Conversations reveal that approaches need to be flexible, dynamic and varied depending on the group and situation. Some ideas included:

  • Providing information to Traditional Owners to share through their networks
  • Working with engagement officers who know the community and the Elders
  • Talking to Local Aboriginal Networks (but be aware that some Victorian Traditional Owners live interstate and may not be reached this way)
  • Talking to local Aboriginal organisations
  • Working with First Nations Legal & Research Services to mail out information to those registered with the organisation.

Decision making and power sharing

'We want to be at the forefront of every decision on our Country.'

In every meeting, groups spoke about government decision-making processes. Through these conversations, a theme of sharing control in defining and achieving mutually beneficial outcomes has emerged.

Groups spoke about wanting to have greater control over engagement processes, which need to be based on and driven by their priorities. Some spoke about the need to share control of the agenda. Others spoke of needing an alignment of government and Traditional Owner priorities, with the broader aspiration of better outcomes for Country. They raised the need to consider and define ‘benefits’ within engagement processes so that it is clear who will benefit and how.

One group said that a key component of good engagement was having a say about who from government the Traditional Owners work with. If government is carrying out work in the region, they would like to be involved in the selection of personnel. In cultural heritage management processes, the group also expressed wanting to be responsible for choosing heritage advisors from a register for each cultural heritage management plan.

Participants in all regions spoke about wanting to be involved earlier in engagement processes. For some groups, this means working together with government in developing a funding bid for a project at the very outset of this process. Groups reflected on the impact of being involved at the planning stages versus at the end of a project:

  • Undertaking planning together with Traditional Owners ensures there is sustainability and not just one-off site visits. Being able to plan makes it easier to organise people and build capacity to participate, whereas
  • Being involved at the end of a project exacerbates the power imbalance and means that people are always trying to catch up with projects.

All groups highlighted the importance of having access to decision-makers within government. Groups felt that when decision-makers were not at meetings with them they were further removed from government decision-making processes, adding that there is also a time delay while government representatives present at meetings have to relay information up the chain and back down again. Groups said that sometimes they don’t even get a response, adding to their frustration.

'Good engagement is for government not to send workers to meetings who then have to go back and ask. We need to be able to speak to decision-makers who can explain the reasons for decisions and also make decisions. We don’t want to waste our time or theirs.'

'By the time information gets up to the decision makers, the government changes.'

Some also called for government to impose 'less red tape' when they are working together on Country, explaining that they feel there are barriers preventing them from using Aboriginal knowledge methods even though the outcome will be the same.

Allowing adequate time and space

Across all regions, groups discussed the different time frames and pressures of both community and government and the need for these to better align. Traditional Owners spoke often about the challenges that government time frames present. A number of groups expressed frustration that government processes are slow and inefficient, yet several groups also stated that government time frames are inappropriate or unrealistic and are imposed without consultation rather than negotiated with Traditional Owners. Groups observed that sometimes the community feels pushed by people to get things done and that government time constraints put a lot of pressure on people and do not reflect the actual time it takes to effect environmental changes.

Groups in all regions also expressed frustration about government expectations regarding when engagement with Traditional Owners occurs. Many people spoke about their work and other commitments, stating that it is often difficult or not possible for people to meet with government during regular working hours, explaining the need for flexibility to arrange meetings during the evenings or on the weekends.

Groups spoke about needing more time for thought and reflection in government engagement processes, to account for the 'big thought process' Traditional Owners need to go through, which one group explained as involving consideration of the Ancestors, the present and future generations.

'We need to think of our Ancestors first, then ourselves, then our grandchildren.'

'Good engagement creates the space for people to think about the long-term impacts.'

'Good engagement is not just about us, it’s about our grandkids and grandkids’ kids.'

High expectations

A theme emerging across all regions was the commitment from groups to work towards better engagement outcomes, and an expectation that government will do the same.

'We’ve been here before, we’ve tried to improve government engagement and it hasn’t worked, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. When we stop trying, we’ve given up.'

'There’s got to be an outcome, you may not get the one you want but you’ve got to start with something.'

Many conversations called for government officers to operate with commitment, dedication and honesty.

Traditional Owners want to have high expectations of government. One group commented that they should be able to assume that government officers are working effectively in their roles, but that they often don’t feel that this is the case. One group offered that to embed accountability to Traditional Owners, engagement should be built in as a performance measure for government staff and that Traditional Owners should assist in evaluating this measure.

'Do your job!'

'Step up, do what you’re getting paid to do.'

'When you’re working with Aboriginal people you need to be dedicated.'

'It’s not about getting one good idea and putting it on a pedestal, good engagement is an ongoing practice.'A coordinated government

Many groups talked about a lack of coordination and cohesion within government, both between agencies and between different levels. Some felt that the Victorian Government does not work in sync with their Federal Government counterparts. Others expressed frustration at the lack of a whole-of-government process for Traditional Owner engagement, often resulting in engagement that is ad hoc and opportunistic. Groups also spoke of the importance of bringing local government and organisations such as First Nations Legal & Research Services into the conversation about a whole- of-government approach. Some also explained that a whole-of-government approach to the protection of cultural heritage is needed, and that Aboriginal Victoria should be able to hold other agencies to a higher level of accountability regarding the protection of cultural sites.

Of particular concern in all regions was the lack of coordination between the Victorian and New South Wales Governments. One group added that government agencies fail to acknowledge that a number of Traditional Owner communities extend across the border. Some groups have called for the Victorian Government to lead the way in developing a partnered approach with the New South Wales Government in these areas. Greater collaboration between the Victorian and New South Wales Governments was also explained as a critical component of a more holistic approach to cultural heritage and land management.

Collaboration and coordination were also discussed in a broader context, with one group articulating that collaboration should be cohesive across land, fire, biodiversity and water to produce a shared perspective and better outcomes for Country. Others saw coordination as crucial in ensuring that everyone along a river system is working together, government, non-government agencies, and Traditional Owners, including all neighbouring groups.

Conversations with groups with formal recognition

Given the focus of the Engagement Project on areas without formal recognition, discussions with formally recognised groups focused on the groups’ interests in these areas. A number of groups explained that they have not yet been recognised over the full extent of their Country and accordingly have interests in these areas. Groups explained that in these regions they are experiencing challenges engaging with government.

Groups also took the opportunity to make more general observations about engaging with government. As such, the below feedback may also be relevant to government engagement with formally recognised groups regarding their recognised area.

Sharing and strengthening knowledge and skills

Traditional Owner groups explained the need for two-way understanding as well as knowledge and skills sharing between government and Traditional Owners.

Traditional Owners stated that they need greater understanding and clarity of the systems within government and that government need greater understanding of Traditional Owners and their situations, explaining further that government often expects that all Traditional Owners are experts across all areas and often expects Traditional Owners to all have the same level of cultural knowledge without understanding their individual situation.

Examples provided for training and skills sharing included Traditional Owners accessing government training opportunities, and government officers accessing cultural education and awareness training. One group talked about the need for government to explain to stakeholders the responsibilities and obligations they have to newly appointed Traditional Owner groups.

Effective communication and good relationships

Traditional Owners stressed the need for direct contact and personal connections and explained that government needs to have face to face contact with the right people. Traditional Owner groups also spoke about the need for good personal relationships that are transparent, reciprocal and strengthen community capacity.

Some Traditional Owners commented that government needs to provide better communication about their structures, policies and procedures and need to be clearer about the outcomes of engagement processes so that Traditional Owners understand their role and their input.

Support and resourcing

As discussed above, Traditional Owners explained that they are often carrying out work that they are not funded to do. Some groups stated a number of ways for government to rectify this:

  • Pay Traditional Owners for all services that groups provide, including input and advice to government in engagement processes
  • Embed the cost of contracting specialist advice in project budgets
  • Provide resourcing for groups to support members’ health and wellbeing
  • Implement land taxes for any activity on Country
  • Fund Traditional Owner positions in RAPs to facilitate a stronger relationship between the group and government
  • Fund groups to discuss a project or issue as opposed to involving government to do this work.
  • Involve groups in any development on Country from the beginning so that 'Traditional Owners [can] be part of the significant spend on infrastructure on Country, and not just get the crumbs.'

Healing informed practices

Groups identified that government can support healing by recognising the hurt and impact of colonisation and government practices. They also talked about government supporting healing through recognising, respecting and understanding what it means to be Traditional Owners, and then working with them as Traditional Owners. This includes respecting Traditional Owner rights, understanding history and recognising the responsibilities Traditional Owners have to their Ancestors, families and future generations. Groups also discussed the need for a new approach to formal recognition processes, with one group referring to an 'absence of cultural safety in government processes' and another commenting that 'the State is doing lateral violence to us' in the Traditional Owner Settlement Act process. Groups also raised a lack of cultural safety and listening in native title and Traditional Owner Settlement Act processes, commenting further that outcomes do not fully address Traditional Owner aspirations.

Decision making and power sharing

Traditional Owner groups with formal recognition had mixed sentiments about how much power was being shared by government. There were some positive reflections around being engaged by government at the inception of ideas and having control of Country where land had been handed back.

However, groups also discussed challenges of having to meet to work on government’s priorities explaining that this impacts the strategic direction of the group.

One group added that they feel that they are treated as a ‘tick a box’, that government 'use us for their advantage, not ours.'

'Government is like a taxi driver taking us for a ride.'

Groups were concerned that they are not being involved up-front in decision-making and planning processes, and that engagement was more of an afterthought.

'They often don’t talk to us before they go out and do things so then we can’t meet their expectations.'

'We are being overwhelmed by engagement by government, but we are not involved upfront in preparing the vision.'

As well as the need to engage early, groups also stated that government needs to understand and respect groups’ time frames so they have 'room to breathe.'

Reviewed 08 November 2019

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