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What is holding people back?

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

Conversations with Traditional Owners revealed complex histories across the three regions. Listening to the history of Traditional Owner groups from these regions reveals many of the barriers that are now long-standing and deeply entrenched. The following section explores common barriers to achieving aspirations existing across the regions.

Trauma arising from the historical impacts of colonisation

Across the three regions, acknowledging the historical trauma associated with colonisation and understanding the negative impacts of past government practices are critical. Many groups spoke about this in terms of understanding local histories. People discussed the critical step of acknowledging the deep and recent history of these areas, and particularly for government to acknowledge the trauma caused and the ways in which this trauma has been transferred across generations.

In one region a group talked about the history of displacement and dispossession from their Ancestral lands and how this has had a devastating effect on their ability to maintain connections to Country and protect significant sites over time. Whilst in another region, groups stated a lack of acknowledgment of the history and associated trauma from colonisation is a hindrance to moving forward.

'We still feel like we’re visitors on our own land, I still feel like we are dispossessed here. The journey isn’t done yet, we’re pleasing everyone else but not fixing our spirits.'

Multiple groups spoke of the lack of recognition and acknowledgment of people, Country and history. Some felt that their history has been ignored or adopted by other groups, whose recollection of history has been taken as truth.

Trauma arising from lack of recognition

'A lack of recognition of the oldest culture and law in the world.'

Participants across all regions commented on the harm and trauma associated with formal recognition processes.

Many people spoke of the way in which the native title process and the way government agencies engage had impacted the community. One group recounted a time when local government agencies refused to engage with groups until formal recognition had been resolved. Concern was expressed that if native title proceedings recommence, this situation will again eventuate.

Many groups across the three regions stated the lack of formal recognition is hindering groups’ abilities to move forward. Groups stated formal recognition processes have been drawn out, unsuccessful, damaging and divisive.

'The native title process has been traumatic and drawn out.'

The reasons for unsuccessful formal recognition applications are not clear and this has created a level of mistrust in the existing processes for formal recognition and in government generally.

Furthermore, the corporate structures required to take forward any rights is often incongruent with cultural ways of organising and governing. Consequently, some groups stated that this is not a path they are willing to go down again, at least not for some time.

Some groups also feel that people sitting in influential, decision-making positions about formal recognition processes are those who have benefited from these processes.

Conflict

Groups spoke about the ongoing impacts of colonial processes including fractures and divisions within the community and explained that these longstanding disputes have hampered their efforts to come together to achieve their aspirations. One group commented these are often generational disputes that have been left for too long. Relationship breakdowns and neglect are viewed as symptoms of these family disputes and ongoing lateral violence. In one region, groups talked about one of the impacts of such divisions - people disengage from Traditional Owner business, hesitant to engage in anything exacerbating divisions.

'We come here to build strength and when arguments happen, we feel weak.'

'If there’s no unity, there’s no way forward.'

Unresolved questions about right people and group representation

In regions where questions of ‘right people’ have not yet been resolved, issues of representation and group membership are viewed as barriers to groups achieving their self-determined aspirations. The legacy of previous formal recognition applications has created enduring divisions. Some groups talked about the lack of incentives for some community leaders to act inclusively and create opportunities for the larger community.

In one region, groups acknowledged that the unresolved questions about right people meant some groups are included in important conversations whilst others are left out. Some groups acknowledged this has been a reason for previously declined RAP applications.

Groups across all three regions had concerns with government not engaging with the right people. Many people said government picks and chooses who they engage with – often the loudest or most convenient voice. This was explained as bad practice engagement as these are not necessarily the right people or representative of the right people. Many groups were concerned about agencies engaging only with one or two individuals who were not representative of the group, and that the decisions about who to engage were based purely on existing relationships. Multiple groups were also concerned about government agencies attempting to consult by approaching Aboriginal staff employed by the agencies instead of consulting with the whole group.

Groups in one region stated government’s focus on neighbouring groups with formal recognition means opportunities are often not provided to groups without recognition. In two regions, groups discussed the impact on their ability to care for Country because of extent of Country disputes with neighbouring groups. One group expressed their frustration with being left behind in government processes as government agencies often engage with the formally recognised group, even for matters relating to Country outside of their recognised area.

In one region, some Traditional Owners observed government was meeting separately with multiple groups. They explained this makes each group feel like government are speaking exclusively with them when they are actually having the same conversations with many groups. Groups stated the confidentiality around this process can cause confusion and anxiety in communities. Other groups however, supported government meeting with groups on their own terms and in small groups, commenting that this was a more comfortable approach.

Being left out or left behind

Many groups spoke about being left out or left behind in particular reference to neighbouring groups who have been formally recognised. This was explained in the context of neighbouring groups having access to greater resources and opportunities.

'The first ones who got Registered Aboriginal Party were best dressed and others who did not get in early don’t get opportunities.'

In all regions, Traditional Owner groups commented on feeling as though they have been left out or left behind by government. One group spoke about feeling they were the last ones to be included in government consultation processes. To them, government ‘consults’ through a short conversation, often with minimal notice and a lack of support, and these conversations frequently occur at the end of a project or process. In another region, a group mentioned the city centric State Government mentality means that Traditional Owners are getting left out of government processes.

'We will keep missing out if we are not at the table.'

'Every time we get an opportunity, it’s always taken away from us.'

'We’re left behind.'

'How can there be over consultation when there isn’t any consultation?'

'Nothing is ever ongoing for us.'

Lack of meaningful engagement by government

All groups reported a lack of meaningful engagement with Traditional Owners by the Victorian Government, and agencies such as DELWP, PV, AV and the CMAs were mentioned. Groups talked about having poor relationships with one or more of these agencies.

'I don’t think we have a good relationship with government otherwise they would be interested in the work we are doing out here.'

'They are very hard to deal with, we’re not hard to deal with.'

Some groups stated government engagement is cursory, weak, and establishes no commitment to ongoing engagement. There was a feeling that not having formal recognition meant government only consulted when absolutely necessary. Other groups believed there has not even been a 'tick-the-box' approach to engagement as there have been no opportunities at all to 'be at the table.'

'Engagement only happens when they need to.'

'We have no say over our cultural heritage.'

Another group commented on engagement occurring in a ‘practical’ way for government, but as ‘disrespectful’ for Traditional Owners. Associated with this is a feeling that government holds the power.

'The power is stacked against us.'

Some groups reported a recent decline in engagement, observing there was a time when government engaged more frequently. On the other hand, there were also some positive reflections on government engagement, or at least a feeling that things are improving. There was also sentiment amongst some groups that due to their persistence, agencies were beginning to engage. In one region, a group spoke about a recent opportunity to meet with government agencies and hear about their engagement plans and that this has resulted in some improved engagement outcomes.

Lack of resources

'We want the support to support ourselves.'

All groups discussed the lack of resources as a significant barrier. Many groups explained they are only able to come together and organise on a voluntary basis, often outside of their work and other commitments. Groups in two regions discussed the impact of a lack of transport and support for attending meetings as hindering their ability to come together. This then has a flow-on effect, causing friction within the group as people feel left out when decisions are made without consulting the full group.

One group commented that in instances when resources have been provided, they have been limited and only able to be used for specific purposes determined by others, not on the basis of what is needed as determined by the group.

Groups in all regions discussed the limitations of organising and meeting reporting requirements without administrative support and without a physical space to conduct their business. Almost all groups stated that the lack of resources, especially an office, impacts adversely on their ability to perform high value tasks.

'What’s missing is the foundational stuff – we are always offered training but need funding to buy assets and employ people to help with the administration.'

Victoria-New South Wales border

The state border between Victoria and New South Wales was described as an arbitrary line imposed by colonists which represents a barrier for groups in all regions. Groups stated that the border bears no relation to Traditional Owner connections. Groups in all regions discussed their connections to Country and family across the border and the way in which operating across two jurisdictions affects their ability to come together as a group and care for Country. Examples of how the border impacts Traditional Owners’ daily lives include access arrangements, permit regimes and regulations governing activities such as fishing. Traditional Owners are often required to duplicate their effort to get things done and stay connected to Country.

'We are a nation divided by States – we are doing things twice. It breaks our heart that we can’t talk about our whole Country.'

Conversations with groups with formal recognition

Conversations with Traditional Owner groups with formal recognition also revealed a number of significant barriers that prevent them from achieving their aspirations as Traditional Owner groups and as corporations.

Lack of acknowledgement of history and associated trauma

Formally recognised Traditional Owner groups spoke about the history of racist treatment from government and explained that this history continues in the context of government policies and procedures that are 'white man’s way.' This included a feeling that government did not consider the group to be capable.

'Healing and recognition work together – healing is not a separate thing.'

Group engagement and identity

Several Traditional Owner groups spoke about the need to engage more broadly with their members and discussed some of the associated challenges including:

  • Traditional Owners who are disengaged
  • The relationships between those living on and off Country
  • Managing and responding to a wide range of needs across a large membership.

Traditional Owners discussed challenges with group identity and membership. One group raised the challenge of working to reintegrate families not previously engaged with the corporation and another discussed challenges for corporations with members who have connections to multiple groups.

All Traditional Owner groups with formal recognition talked about the challenges of managing conflict and lateral violence between families and with the corporation as well as a lack of trust and understanding between families and members.

Governance

Several groups raised several challenges related to corporate governance including:

  • Managing board member turnover
  • New board members with varying levels of corporate governance and cultural and community knowledge
  • The need to review and renew governance structures and processes to respond to changing contexts, responsibilities and aspirations
  • A lack of understanding and acceptance by members of governance structures, roles and processes
  • Conflict and a lack of trust between the corporation and members.

Groups also spoke about the importance of cultural or Indigenous governance. One group explained that their rule book sets out corporate governance structures and processes but doesn’t include anything about cultural governance. This focus on corporate governance leaves little time for, and has an impact on, cultural or Indigenous governance.

Lack of resources

Traditional Owner groups consistently spoke about challenges associated with resourcing. Although groups with formal recognition receive some funding, groups spoke about the constraints of this funding and that it’s often tied to government priorities, rather than Traditional Owner priorities. This can distract from the strategic direction of the Traditional Owner group.

Traditional Owner groups also discussed challenges in addressing and responding to all the demands on their time. This results in groups being stretched thinly across vast demands, some of which the groups are funded for and others such as specialist advice, cultural education and internal group engagement work, that they are not resourced for.

Responding to diverse requests leaves groups with little to no time to further their own priorities, particularly in sharing cultural skills and knowledge within their groups.

Government coordination

Traditional Owner groups stated that government is not coordinated or cohesive in their engagement, and that government departments are competing with one another for engagement with Traditional Owners. Others explained a feeling that agencies sometimes play groups off against each other. One group also explained the challenges of different and varied government projects 'each with their own government engagement officer, seeking to engage with us' and that there is an expectation for corporations to 'be across all of these.' Another commented on the challenges of representation that occur when work is carried out across multiple groups’ Country, particularly when there is not yet agreed governance or group composition in areas without formal recognition.

Reviewed 08 November 2019

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