Op-ed: Navigating government engagement with Indigenous communities

By Melissa Hagedorn

November 17, 2020

The latest research advances our knowledge about the most likely routes those early Australians travelled across this giant continent. (Image: Adobe/dedoma)

Over the past 12 months, we have seen the destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites at the hands of both governments and multi-billion-dollar corporations. The same thing happening to the Sydney Opera House or Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building is inconceivable.

Why is this so? The importance of preserving Indigenous Australian culture through effective engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is often overlooked.

Many organisations place a great reliance on just one or two individuals to foster relationships that an organisation can easily break when it suits them. Consultation processes are typically “box-ticking” exercises rather than sensitive and effective engagements that consider the cultural significance of sites, language and customs.

If an organisation is genuine in its intent to engage with Indigenous Australia, its culture will be one that builds a level of trust with communities, recognises the rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and demonstrates a willingness to preserve it at all costs.

For public sector organisations in Australia — federal, state or local — to effectively deliver services and projects for Indigenous Australians, or that impact indigenous communities, they must engage with those communities at many levels and in various ways. Successful engagements understand and accommodate cultural norms, recognise the internal organisation of those communities, and identify key individuals and the roles they play.

The first port of call for many people engaging with Indigenous communities is to understand what language is appropriate and respectful. Should Indigenous Australians be referred to as such, or as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, or as First Nations people? While “Indigenous Australians” is used widely as an acceptable catchall, it is always best to reference specific Torres Strait Islander communities as such. “First Nations” has recently entered the vernacular as Australians understand the significant value of our first people’s historical knowledge and traditional practices, such as land and drought management, bushfire mitigation, and sustainable fishing practices.

When addressing elders, the terms “Uncle” and “Auntie” are becoming more familiar in the Australian lexicon. While in western cultures these terms simply acknowledge a relationship or express affection, they are entirely appropriate to show respect for and recognise the authority of elders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This all might sound like quibbling over semantics, but if the language used to address communities and refer to elders is correct and appropriate, it sets a genuine tone of effort from the outset. For communities striving for equity it carries even more weight.

Language aside, it is clear that many people in government bodies simply don’t know where to begin when trying to engage with Indigenous communities.

Going in cold with a specific agenda or a discrete project that needs be progressed simply will not work. Such a transactional and inauthentic mindset will be damaging rather than efficient or fruitful. Relationships need to be built up over time, without being driven by one goal or initiative. Taking a thoughtful approach enables those organisations engaging with an Indigenous community to understand its unique structure, decision-making processes and the roles of key individuals.

While timelines are essential to drive progress, any government organisation whose remit embraces an Indigenous community needs to be committed to developing and maintaining close relationships with that community as an ongoing activity.

Brett Beaton, Director Remote Information and Coordination with the Northern Territory government believes having the right attitude and being sensitive to indigenous culture and values is essential for any engagement. He suggests that individuals charged with developing and nurturing those relationships should be selected for their relationship skills rather than their role in a project.

“One of the key components is self-reflection. Are you the right person to go and engage an Aboriginal community?” he said. “If you don’t have the awareness or don’t want to get the cultural awareness, you’re probably not the right person to engage in Aboriginal communities.”

Beaton said the NT government does leverage community development officers who have built long-term relationships with aboriginal communities to advance specific projects. However, when projects don’t go as planned or create adverse consequences for a community, these relationships suffer.

Another significant challenge in engaging with an indigenous community is understanding the social structure and identifying individuals who are respected and carry authority. This can be particularly difficult in communities that have not developed naturally but have been created by outside forces.

According to Beaton, “You could have 17 different clans sitting in a community that has been put together through a government policy. Bringing those different clan groups together can cause hostility at times. There is no fast way to understand who to talk to without really knowing the culture.”

Separate engagements with different individuals and groups in a community creates another challenge. Scott Morgan, a Community Engagement Officer with Wollongong City Council, says it’s important to maintain a consistent message, when there might be a temptation to modify that message to make it more acceptable to different parties.

“We as an organisation need to make sure that what we tell one group is exactly the same as what we tell another group. We just need to make sure they’re aware that we are talking to everybody else.”

All engagement with Indigenous communities, whether aimed at building and maintaining relationships or focussed on achieving a specific goal, should be underpinned by a clear plan; a plan that informs all those engagements, not a document to which lip service is paid. Such a plan should be comprehensive, based on principles and values, inclusive, respectful, diverse and timely, an integral part of the business, not something siloed away.

The mechanics of engagement with Indigenous communities are particularly important in the shadow of COVID-19. Face-to-face engagement is the preferred, most effective and respectful option, and should be prioritised where possible. But of course, this can be extremely difficult to achieve at present.

Some Indigenous communities have poor internet connectivity, but nevertheless we should never assume that communities do not have digital resources. Use of social media like Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat and TikTok is now widespread. And while these channels are not yet widely used by government bodies to engage with Indigenous communities, there needs to be effort devoted to making use of them and online tools more broadly.

With complex issues relating to communication, education and cultural differences at play, we must constantly test our assumptions about how Indigenous communities prefer to communicate with government organisations, and with each other.

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