How public servants can contribute to Aboriginal self-determination

By David Donaldson

Tuesday March 16, 2021

Rueben Berg. Source: Victorian Environmental Water Holder

Working out which powers can be relinquished is the first step agencies can make towards Aboriginal self-determination, says Rueben Berg.

There has been a big push in recent years for self-determination to underpin government’s relationships with First Nations peoples.

But it’s not always clear to public servants how this principle should be put into practice.

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At its heart, self-determination is about giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people more power to make decisions affecting their own lives, says Rueben Berg, a Gunditjmara man and director at WesternPort Water.

Doing the legwork to understand how to make that happen is important.

“One of the fundamental things that government and government agencies need to do is to actually understand what power they currently have as government and realise which ones they are willing to hand over to traditional owners, to Aboriginal People,” he recently told the ANZSOG First Peoples’ Conference.

“It’s not about just inventing new authority to give to Aboriginal people. For there to be true self-determination there has to actually be a handing over, a transfer, of existing powers and rights to Aboriginal people.

“That, I often find, from a government perspective can be quite a daunting idea — how you actually give that over. It’s one thing to talk in theory about self-determination and empowering Aboriginal people. When you actually talk about ‘this particular authority we’re going to say the government no longer holds’, that they’re going to give that over to Aboriginal people, the practicality of that needs to be really thought through and understood, because that’s what it means to actually transfer authority to actual people.”

Which powers are handed over will depend on the nature of the issue.

“It’s those those key elements that you need to distinguish in those conversations around, what are the decisions that are going to be need to be made that solely affect Aboriginal people, that solely affect traditional owners and their lands and waters — I think that’s pretty straightforward in how you address that, you just hand over authority to the actual people to make those decisions,” says Berg.

“You don’t need to have anyone else playing a hand in that.”

On other issues, where Aboriginal people are affected but not the only relevant party, it is “going to be really critical to tease out” how to improve the input of Aboriginal people into decision-making.

Alongside the handover of power needs to be an acknowledgement that the experience of self-governance may not always go smoothly, but that this should not lead to kneejerk reassumptions of power by government.

“Things might go wrong, but that’s okay, we’re going to learn from that in the process,” he argues.

“I think that’s an important conversation to be having — that all of a sudden if all aspects of government that Aboriginal people cared about were transferred over to Aboriginal people deciding them, that doesn’t mean that all Aboriginal people are going to think those are good outcomes that we came to.

“So being aware of that I think is really important from both an Aboriginal community perspective, but also government not having false expectations that okay we can hand this over and then it’s just going to be sorted and everything will run smoothly. Because there’s still going to be challenges and things to deal with.”

Government needs to keep its eye on the long-term goal of Aboriginal self-determination, even if there are short-term issues.

“This is a not a sprint, this is a marathon,” says Berg.

Working better with traditional owners

At the local level, relationships between public entities and Aboriginal groups can be complicated, with responsibility falling between catchment management authorities, councils, water authorities and traditional owner groups that often do not fit neatly within government boundaries.

The treaty process in Victoria will likely end with not only a general treaty, but a series of treaties between the state and individual traditional owner groups, which will potentially add to that institutional complexity.

Working better together should not wait until those treaties are in place, Berg argues, but can build on cases of good practice that already exist.

“I see more and more at the local level some really great examples of government agencies, local councils, water authorities, whatever it might be, actually coming together to work out how they can collectively work with a traditional owner group, rather than — as we’ve seen in the past — traditional owner groups being bombarded with 10 different entities coming to them and saying, ‘we need your input on this, we need your input on that’ … and all of it being needed by the end of the day, seemingly.

“I think greater collaboration between local entities, so that they can have a more unified exchange with traditional owners, will lead to really positive benefits for all those entities, for traditional owners and for the community abroad.”


The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is currently developing a framework under which to negotiate a treaty with the state.

This means there are a few years to go until a treaty is concluded, says Berg, who is a member of the assembly.

The lack of an example to follow in Australia has pushed the assembly to look to other countries to see what has and has not worked elsewhere.

“We’ve had many of our members previously go over and visit and talk with other nations around the world,” he explained.

New Zealand is perhaps the leader in this field, having made significant progress on rights and reparations for Maori under its Treaty of Waitangi since the 1970s. The institutions and experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States hold a lot of similarities with Australia as well.

The assembly is also looking further afield, recently speaking to representatives of the Sami people from Scandinavia about their experiences.

While every country is different, this learning process has been valuable, Berg believes.

“It does help us start from the best starting point that we can. We’re still going to make mistakes in this process, there’s no way on earth that the treaty that we do agree to is going to be perfect from the outset, but I think by learning from other places we can give ourselves the best chance.”

Following the ANZSOG conference, the state government announced Victoria will hold an independent truth and justice commission, which will “investigate both historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians, across all areas of social, political, cultural and economic life”.

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Laurie Patton
Laurie Patton
4 months ago

A decade ago former departmental secretary Neville Stevens chaired a review of the Indigenous broadcasting and media sector for the federal government. He was assisted by yours truly and prominent aboriginal activist (and currently number three on the Liberal Party’s South Australian Senate ticket) Kerrynne Liddle.

We met with Indigenous groups across the country and received dozens of detailed and valuable submissions.

Our report contained more than 50 specific recommendations. Collectively they supported the need to provide opportunities for self-management and a lessening of bureaucratic control. They included a range of proposals aimed at creating employment opportunities – particularly in regional and remote areas.

Sadly, the public servants with responsibility for this area of public administration all but ignored our report.

In frustration at their lack of action then communications minister Stephen Conroy hired me as a special advisor with the task of negotiating for SBS to take over the National Indigenous Television Channel. This move, which was solidly supported by the stakeholders we’d met during the review, was the only significant outcome. It gave NITV access to nationwide free-to-air broadcasting.

Last edited 4 months ago by Laurie Patton

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