Closing the Gap: Governments must modernise their approach to Indigenous corporations

Feb 15, 2024
Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Australian flags outside the Australian Parliament House in July 2016

How governments approach Indigenous governance is crucial to addressing the reform task set by the Productivity Commission’s recent report.

The Productivity Commission’s recent review of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap challenges Australian governments to fundamentally reconfigure how they engage with First Nations organisations.

Modernising how government organisations approach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporate governance is crucial to this task, but the necessary work is in its infancy. The Productivity Commission’s report scathing assessment notes that they are ‘yet to identify a government organisation that has articulated a clear vision for what transformation looks like’.

Outsized role

Comparable North American countries have evolved government-to-government relations with First Nations people to a far greater degree than has occurred in Australia. One result is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations in Australia play varied roles and make a large overall contribution.

Indigenous corporations are not simply service delivery organisations, although that may be a primary purpose and the most visible face of some organisations.

Most Indigenous corporations represent their community to some degree, and many have representative roles or contribute to contemporary nation-building.

The diversity of Indigenous corporations requires governments to be able to recognise who they are dealing with and to adjust accordingly. Crucial here is the need to recognise where and how governments need to share power.

At the interface

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations operate at the interface between two peoples and governance traditions. Governments struggle to recognise this fact and adjust accordingly.

Government organisations tend to take institutional and operational cues from mainstream corporate governance and legislation. Since federation they have become comfortable with assuming they represent the pinnacle of power and authority, but neither of these tendencies stands up to historical scrutiny or contemporary expectations.

Indigenous corporations may ‘look like’ a recognisable entity to government officers, but this is because political conditions require Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to organise themselves in terms of corporations.

Beneath the surface there are usually other values, priorities, and commitments in play. Most commonly these involve deep relational commitments to families and places or regions.

The position of Indigenous corporations at the interface of two traditions requires governments to avoid assuming that they are dealing with a ‘known entity’ in their standard mode of operating, or as if they are the ultimate authority. Governments need to learn to recognise and engage with Indigenous cultural values and modes of operation, and to do so in negotiated partnership.

Need to modernise

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance systems are the first of the Australian continent. Our research found that Indigenous cultural governance is crucial to the operation of Indigenous corporations and the value they deliver for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider Australian community.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander values, customary law and governance systems are the source of many of the valuable factors, from systems of informal social support to governance integrity checks, that underpin successful Indigenous corporations. Despite this, there is a dominant perception in the Australian political setting that sees cultural difference as negative, meaning Western values and norms predominate in the mindsets of government.

Cultural difference is more likely than not to be seen as a barrier rather than a resource, and this places a racialised limit on the range of Indigenous factors that are likely to be readily recognised as valuable resources in the work of Indigenous corporations.

Government organisations need to shift beyond prejudice and the simple recognition of difference to understand that Indigenous corporate governance is the manifestation of another governance tradition and the values and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Working at the interface of governance traditions can be demanding and challenging for all involved. But governments need to accept and respond to this challenge if they are to evolve their relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the delivery of effective governance and services.

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