Opinion by Michael Gunner, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory
Let me be blunt.
The old way of delivering services to remote Aboriginal communities through centralised bureaucracies hasn’t worked.
Box-ticking bureaucrats and politicians in Canberra and Darwin failed to deliver real progress.
Centralised decision-making failed to respect Aboriginal people who have walked the Northern Territory’s magical lands for 65,000 years, successfully maintaining their language, customs and laws, land and sea ownership and custodianship, culture, song lines and societies.
The time has come to find new ways to work with Aboriginal people who have suffered cycles of disadvantage and despair since European settlement.
We have to give decision making back to where it belongs.
Eleven years after the former Howard Government sent hundreds of soldiers into the Territory’s remote communities in a failed Emergency Response operation we are ceding decision-making back to Aboriginal people – at a pace they are comfortable with.
Across the Northern Territory a growing number of Aboriginal communities are being empowered to control delivery of key services to their people, under ground-breaking Local Decision Making agreements with the Labor Government I lead.
This is not only the right and respectful thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
Local decisions are the best decisions.
The Territory’s largest and broadest Local Decision Making agreement so far has been signed with the Anindilyakwa Land Council on Groote Archipelago, off the coast of Arnhem Land, 650 kilometres from Darwin, which is home to 14 Aboriginal clans who speak the Anindilyakwa language.
The Anindilyakwa people will take control of housing, education, health, local government, economic development, law and justice and environmental sustainability.
The agreement acknowledges long established systems of strong governance and leadership on Groote where GEMCO has been mining high grade manganese ore since 1964.
It sets out how the Land Council, NT Government, Anindilyakwa people and other organisations and agencies will work together to transition decision-making and service delivery for the Groote communities over the next decade.
The Land Council has outlined its people’s priorities for service delivery that they see as working best for their communities and region.
The agreement is so comprehensive it touches just about every facet of daily life.
Anindilyakwa people will control and take responsibility for a single, sustainable and culturally appropriate community housing system across the archipelago.
We have committed to cease or transition current sublease arrangements in the towns of Angurugu, Umbakumba and Milyakburra in favour of the Anindilyakwa Housing Aboriginal Corporation.
The agreement cites the importance of satellite (homelands) communities and acknowledges aspirations for their residents to receive a level of service consistent with existing townships.
Under the agreement locals will have greater involvement in the justice system, including access to rehabilitative services.
A locally owned and run low security alternative-to-prison facility is planned.
There will be a new community controlled bil-lingual education system that allows local people to take responsibility for their schools.
Locals have expressed interest in building and running an independent boarding school – like one on the Tiwi Islands – where students can stay and study during the week and return to their family homes on weekends and holidays.
Control of health clinics will be transitioned from NT Health to an Aboriginal Community controlled health organisation nominated by the Anindilyakwa people.
Locals will take responsibility for local government by establishing an Anindilyakwa Regional Local Government Council.
We will work with GEMCO and government agencies to secure the archipelago’s energy future.
Locals will also take the lead in economic development – jobs, careers, opportunities – through a Future Groote Accord that will develop a sustainable diversified economy not dependent on mining royalty income.
Nine other Local Decision Making agreements have been signed or are underway across the Territory.
We are not walking away from these communities.
We have an important role to play.
But it will be side by side – not top down as in the past.
The agreements will survive cycles of government, personnel and policy changes.
The Government, its agencies and Aboriginal people have the responsibility to make the agreements work in the best ways to suit communities.
What is the best pathway for one community may not suit another.
Locals could control school curriculums – from bilingual education to culture, with the aim of them living, working and growing their families happily in two starkly different worlds.
Locals could take responsibility for children attending school, for teachers to be employed and seeing even more locals becoming teachers.
And the agreements could form the basis of a Treaty or Treaties with Aboriginal Territorians which I see as the cornerstone of our future, where everyone reaps the rewards of our economy and lifestyle.
You pay respect, you truth-tell and you trust each other.
That is the seed from which a Treaty or Treaties could flower.
Earlier this year I signed a Treaty Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the NT’s four Aboriginal land councils.
We will soon announce the appointment of a prominent and highly respected Aboriginal leader as the Northern Territory’s Treaty Commissioner.
These are not symbolic gestures. They are real steps and real commitments.
We’re handing back power because it should never have been taken away in the first place.
We’re making history.
To be sure, the Treaty and Local Decision Making initiative offer the biggest structural reforms in the Territory’s Aboriginal communities since the Territory’s self-government in 1978.
Aboriginal Territorians will be able to proudly take control of their own lives, allowing them to oversee the development of their own communities in a way that fits their culture, traditions and aspirations.
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