In the Northern Territory news at the moment are two stories, one of hope and one of failure. The appointment of Mick Dodson as commissioner to negotiate a treaty with the Territory’s first peoples contrasts with the public exposure of how the Northern Land Council has funneled Aboriginal and government money to the secretive Aboriginal Investment Group (AIG) to reward its supporters .

The danger is that people point at examples like the AIG to argue that Aboriginal people aren’t capable of managing their own affairs and that a paternalistic state continues to be the only answer to Aboriginal disadvantage. In previous articles, I’ve argued that it is not Aboriginal people that are to blame, but instead it is the way that Aboriginal governance is structured. Structural reform could deliver Aboriginal governments that are able to effectively govern Aboriginal lands and achieve community aspirations. The current treaty process proves provides a rare opportunity for structural reform, and this article proposes a rationale and method for delivering effective First Nations government in the Northern Territory.

Let’s start with the Canadians, the first place many people look to as a model for Aboriginal Australia. Their Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples summarized the criteria for effective government in a single sentence:

“To be effective—to make things happen—any government must have three basic attributes: legitimacy, power and resources.”

Aboriginal institutions generally lack these basic attributes. Let’s unpack why. In the rest of Australia, local governments’ core function is land use planning and approvals, in addition to services like rubbish and roads. They also make most of their income from land taxes and service fees. Local leaders make decisions about how to use this discretionary income to benefit their constituents – thus meeting the three attributes for effective government.

The Regional Councils in the NT at first glance look very similar to local governments elsewhere in Australia. They hold elections for councilors, and deliver services such as rubbish, roads and community services. In reality, as I have discussed previously regional councils are very different from local government elsewhere. Their authority only covers the large townships, and not the large areas of land and smaller outstations their boundaries extend to on paper. Without levying taxes on land, they have almost no discretionary income to spend, and so elected representatives have little to do beyond “oversight” – there’s no free money and so no decisions to make about what initiatives they want to undertake to improve their communities.

For example, let’s compare Charters Towers Council with MacDonnell Regional Council, in some ways quite similar in terms of population, size and remoteness.

78% of Charters Towers’ income is free to allocate as they wish, and only 22% tied by grants to specific projects, whereas the percentage is exactly reversed at Macdonnell.

Virtually everything that MacDonnell Regional Council government does is predetermined by its funders through grant agreements. It’s no wonder that across the NT, good councilors get frustrated and drop out, leaving people who are only interested in the perks of power to run the place, often leading to poor and ineffective government.

So who does make decisions about land and where does the wealth go that is generated by activities on Aboriginal land, such as mining and ranching? The Land Councils of course. In contrast to Regional Councils with their open elections, Land Councils are accountable to only a small number of people – the Traditional Owners of a particular place. Small families of TOs often make key decisions that affect the future of thousands of people. In practice, without local TO agreement, nothing can get done in remote townships – certainly not infrastructure construction or economic development – and this makes these township TOs hugely powerful.

Many local Aboriginal people complain in places like Galiwin’ku and Gunbalanya about the power of township TOs and how they themselves as residents have no say over what happens in their community. It’s a fundamentally undemocratic system that may approximate traditional law, but doesn’t work in administering the large, multi-tribal settlements that hold much of the Territory’s Aboriginal population.

In addition, much of the wealth generated by Aboriginal land is either paid out to individuals who make the individual purchases many of us would – new cars, new TVs etc. – or is funneled back into off-books entities like the AIG, in turn paid out to businesses and consultancies run by the select few who have been chosen by the Land Councils themselves to sit on their governing councils. Very little of it goes to pay for building sustainable futures for Aboriginal communities and none to those responsible for providing essential services or decent housing.

Think of it like this. The Land Councils are like the House of Lords – people in power on the basis of birth and selection. The Regional Councils are like the House of Commons – elected democratically. Imagine if each of these institutions had its own bureaucracy; the House of Lords made all the decisions about land and kept all the income from the land and the economy; while the House of Commons was responsible for delivering all the services, but was entirely funded by foreign donors who told it exactly how the money would be spent. And they refused to work together. That’s the situation in Aboriginal Australia today.

To fix this problem, let’s go back to the Canadians. More and more Aboriginal people in Australia talk about ‘First Nations’, drawing on language from our subarctic cousins. The Canadian First Nations generally function much better – because they have a combined governance arrangement that is the government of that that First Nation. Each nation is different, but where they have multiple bodies similar to traditional owner councils or elected councils, they usually operate as a single institution, resolving differences and ensuring that income from land goes back to funding community aspirations. Community leaders have a meaningful role based on their greater legitimacy, power and resources, and this means more effective government.

If we want to build First Nations – First Nations Governments – we need to bring the pieces of fragmented Aboriginal governance together in a single structure representing each Nation. Imagine a Yolngu Nation in Arnhemland or a Anangu Nation in the Western Desert. 

Merging Land Councils and Regional Councils is the first and most important step. The doesn’t mean that the actual representative bodies themselves or the role of TOs disappears, but it does mean that a single institution manages both bodies, that disputes between the two representative groups are managed internally through an established process, that people have more of a say in decisions about their community, and there is greater Aboriginal community accountability over how income from land is used. In short, kind of like how the Houses of Parliament work today. There’s actually already provision for this in the Land Rights Act, which allows powers to be delegated to another institution, so it’s not an unfeasible approach, particularly where regional council and land council boundaries are identical, like on the Tiwis or Groote Eylandt.

From then it becomes open as to what functions of the NT government are delegated. The obvious one is land use planning, in line with local councils elsewhere in the country and First Nations in Canada. Unlike the current, reactive system, Aboriginal land owners should be able to plan for the future of what they want to do with their land and actively seek out economic opportunities, rather than simply get a (partial) veto power over developments proposed by others – as I have previously argued here. Activities like fracking – for example – could be decisions that individual First Nations make on a nation-by-nation basis. Heath and Education are other functions largely performed by regional bodies that can be included in and aligned with individual First Nations. None of this requires large additional powers to be delegated, but it does require the centralisation of power at local level.

The other way to increase government effectiveness is to move to untied funding for local governments. This means that First Nations would have more freedom to decide how money is spent. Naturally, this is politically difficult as the Territory and Commonwealth governments have specific spending priorities. That’s why moving to Payment by Results (PbR) may offer a way out. PbR is common in international development, and means that organisations get some or all of their funding based on the outcomes they achieve, while being free to achieve them in the way they think best.

Payment by Results could be tied to the Closing the Gap targets, with communities free to make their own decisions about how to use their funds to achieve set targets.

Thanks to a unified government, bickering between different institutions would no longer hold up action to address disadvantage and poverty. PBR can also be a vehicle for mobilising new funding from the private sector and philanthropy through mechanisms such as Social Impact Bonds. Given the NT’s current funding crisis, this is particularly vital. Applied to land management, PbR would create much greater incentives for sustainable land management and reversing biodiversity loss, compared with block grant funding for rangers. This example from Laos demonstrates how effective it is.

Finally, for those that worry that non-Indigenous executives would take advantage of councilors who would have increased power but may not have the financial or technical literacy to understand council papers written in what is for them a foreign language, innovative data visualisation methods, as I have discussed in my article here, provides the final piece of the puzzle. By presenting information, including financial information, to both councilors and community, in ways more closely aligned with Indigenous knowledge, we would have much greater transparency and accountability than at present.

This manifesto for change sounds radical, but it’s not, not really. Everything in this article has been proven elsewhere. Everything in this article is about how to achieve the sort of outcomes that many, many Aboriginal people have been asking for. I held off writing this article for years, because I thought as a non-Indigenous person, it’s not my place to offer solutions. To my Aboriginal friends, please forgive me, but this is all I have to offer for a better future – my knowledge. I thought that, after 10 years of working with Indigenous people around the world, my insight about how to achieve the future you want might be worth something – so I’m putting it out there. But at the end of the day, whatever you want, I support you.

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