Community leaders across the State told us that cultural and community governance is fundamental to the successful operation of remote Aboriginal communities. The importance of connection to country was conveyed at 75 per cent of community meetings, while the challenges of community leadership and impact of community administrative arrangements were raised at 45 per cent of communities.
Connection to country
Community leaders across the State told us about the invaluable influence connection to country, culture and kin has on their residents’ social and emotional wellbeing. They explained remote Aboriginal communities play a critical role in healing. Many communities still conduct traditional practice such as lore.
Traditional owners told us they have a responsibility to care for country and that remote community life gives them easy access to country to fulfil their obligations.
Community leaders also raised the difficulty their people face ‘walking in two worlds’, highlighting the challenges for youth to take up opportunities such as education, housing and jobs, while not losing connection to culture, country and kin.
Please refer to regional insights for more regional specific learnings about connection to country.
Impact of administrative governance
At some point, all remote Aboriginal communities have been incorporated under either the Associations Incorporation Act 2015 (WA) or Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (Cth) (or predecessor statutes), meaning communities fulfil a range of governance, financial and reporting obligations.
Community members of larger communities told us about the importance of local administrative governance. They noted that both State and Commonwealth governments had moved from operating programs through individual communities to engaging external providers, and funding for local administration had gradually dried up. They explained that without community offices and staff to support both residents and community councils, remote Aboriginal communities struggle to operate.
Many community members raised issues about the lack of resourcing of community offices, highlighting the need to have skilled local workers in the office, as they are the backbone of the community. Currently, many communities have residents who fill these roles on a voluntary basis or as logged hours for CDP, causing frustration for many who believe these positions should be funded.
Community members told us residents often rely on the community office resources (internet, computers and phones) for their personal business including Centrelink reporting. Community leaders told us that this puts strain on already stretched resources, suggesting government needs to think about how they can better support community offices.
Some communities reported having employed CEOs who were at best incompetent, and at worst, had misappropriated community funds. These communities were either in administration or had recently emerged from a period of administration.
Communities with an appropriately funded and competent CEO reported significantly better outcomes. Many community leaders said that a transparent CEO, ‘on their side’, who understands the local dynamic, could effectively advocate with governments and other sectors on behalf of the community. Community leaders highlighted that the CEO is pivotal in ensuring good financial decisions are made and in coordinating week-to-week community operations.
As in other areas, the diversity of remote Aboriginal communities produces diverse demands on its leaders. Small communities of one to five houses are typically family groups that operate informally, and ‘leaders’ are typically female or male family heads. But in larger remote communities, leaders are often part of an incorporated council, with a democratic mandate and legislative requirements.
Community leaders across the State told us about the mechanism their leadership groups have put in place to support and govern their communities. However, they struggle getting formal recognition of community policies, such as community by-laws, stressing communities need better support from government to help implement and enforce these mechanisms.
Community leaders told us that they often struggle with the pressure of being leaders in their community, including managing family expectations. They highlighted that service providers often expect them to play the role of ‘peace keeper’ with little or no support. Some leaders said they were concerned about the future leadership of their community, with few young people willing to take on leadership responsibilities.
Members of community councils and prescribed body corporates told us about the pressures they feel from a community level to be able to navigate government policy and procedures, with little to no training in the field. They suggested government needs to better support and mentor people in these roles.
Community leaders also highlighted the right to self-determination for their people, with a focus on community-driven solutions. Communities want to partner with government to design solutions to the issues residents face. Community members also advocated for funding decisions to be made by the community with the support of government. These funding decisions include, what programs or infrastructure is needed in the community, how much is spent and an involvement in the process of awarding contracts.
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