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OPINION: Local governments are vital to agreement-making

OPINION: By Senator Patrick Dodson, Shadow Assistant Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Last week I had the privilege of being in Kununurra in the East Kimberley to attend the 2017 joint Kimberley Pilbara and Northern Territory Local Government Forum. I met with local government representatives, countrymen and community leaders to discuss how to best harness future economic, social and cultural development opportunities for Australia’s north.

I wish to acknowledge the imperative role that local government plays in all areas of development, but I would particularly like to reflect on the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in local government.

Today, Aboriginal people are more included in the local government domain, and that is a good thing. It is in local government where the past separation of Indigenous people from political decisions is beginning to evolve to their inclusion in them. This is significant.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states that decision making requires, our free, prior and informed consent. Yet governments far too often try to ignore this truth in their policy making and thus continue as if the “Aboriginal Problem” is theirs alone to solve.

I think it is safe to say that governments need help in addressing the challenges that face Aboriginal Australia. We need to work together at a community level, at a local level and at a regional level, to help all members of our community find their own feet, to recover their capacity for self-determination.

We need to recognise that the best way of dealing with problems is with respect, together, and focussed on commonly agreed goals. This must be done through agreement-making between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Local government has a key role to play.

We should look to the town of Bourke in NSW as an example of what local governments can do. They bring together the local councillors, the police, the magistrates to work together with the Aboriginal community and their families to better and more respectfully resolve the problems of domestic violence and youth offending.

My hope is that local governments in Northern Australia come together in their communities to do something different… to treat the very causes of the dislocation and alienation of our communities, and foster agreement-making processes founded on the need for free, prior, informed consent. And not just look to interventionist strategies.

We need to develop dialogue and scenario-planning techniques that create equality, respectful of our diversity and working towards a determined common goal that envisages what we want for our regions.

Local government has never been better equipped to rise to these challenges.

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