Aboriginal representative bodies

First Nations peoples need a body to represent them to governments. Ideally it's independent both politically and financially – not an easy goal to achieve.

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Selected statistics

Percentage of non-Aboriginal Australians who support a constitutionally-enshrined representative First Nations body; same figure for 2018: 77%. [16]
Percentage of First Nations peoples who support a constitutionally-enshrined representative First Nations body; same figure for 2018: 86%. [16]

Representative bodies need to unify people

First Nations self-determination is strongly linked to a representative body. But this is easier said than done. First Nations people of Australia and their nations are very diverse, have a history of being fragmented and act locally, not the least because of the multitude of languages. An iron rule in most of the hundreds of nations is that you only ever speak for your own 'mob'.

A strong institution that can unify Indigenous communities and hold governments accountable is a critical component of meaningful self-determination.

— Jacqueline Pata, administrative head of the National Congress of American Indians

Early Aboriginal representation

Many representative bodies for First Nations peoples have been short lived.

The government of Prime Minister Gorton (1968-1971) established the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (CAA) which comprised of three non-Aboriginal men. It also introduced a small Office of Aboriginal Affairs (OAA) which sat within the Prime Ministers department.

In 1973 the Whitlam government established the first separate department, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA). It employed Aboriginal people and took the reigns of the CAA from 3 non-Aboriginal men and the functions from the small and hidden department of OAA. The department role was to provide advice directly to the government on Aboriginal affairs, and implement and administer the Aboriginal affairs policy for government.

For the first time, Aboriginal people had a voice of self-determination.

1973 – National Aboriginal Consultative Committee

In September 1973 the Whitlam government introduced the first national body elected by Aboriginal people the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC) whose main role was advisory only. Australia was divided up into 36 regions and 36 Aboriginal people were elected by their own people to be the Voice to Parliament.

The Committee was subjected to continuous political and bureaucratic interference and two reviews. In May 1977 it was succeeded by the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC).

Despite its short life the NACC was important for Aboriginal self-determination. "We learnt how to negotiate, debate and work with government," says Delephene Fraser, Indigenous advisor at Department of Veteran Affairs. "We also learnt that the government can shut things down if government is not happy with its running or administrational processes."

1977 – National Aboriginal Conference

The federal government established the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC) in 1977. On 12 November 1977, members elected 35 representatives throughout Australia.

A resolution from the Second National Conference in April 1979 requested that a treaty be executed between the Aboriginal nations and the Australian government. Because the government's opposition to the word treaty the NAC decided that the agreement should have an Aboriginal name: the Yolgnu word 'Makarrata', meaning 'pay-back killings between families or tribes'. The NAC also set up a special committee to ask Aboriginal people what they would like to see in the Makarrata.

The NAC ceased operations in 1984.

1990 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) logo
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) logo.

In 1990 the Australian government of prime minister Hawke established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). The government body formally involved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the processes of government affecting their lives.

ATSICs objectives were

  • to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in government policy,
  • to promote Aboriginal self-management and self-sufficiency,
  • to further Aboriginal economic, social and cultural development, and
  • to ensure co-ordination of Commonwealth, state and territory and local government policy affecting Aboriginal people.

In order to achieve its objectives, ATSIC was to

  • advise governments at all levels on Aboriginal issues,
  • advocate the recognition of Aboriginal rights on behalf of Aboriginal peoples regionally and nationally and internationally, and
  • deliver and monitor some of the Commonwealth government Aboriginal programs and services.

I saw my brother come home with such pride and happiness of funding 40 million dollars to remote radio programs over the whole of Australia. He pushed the payment button and my mother cried in delight in hearing what her son did.

— Memory of Delephene Fraser

In the early 2000s ATSIC became more and more embroiled in controversy over its finances, powers and the activities of its last chair. One problem of the Commission was that it had to provide some services and it was often blamed for poor delivery, even if the Commission wasn't responsible for everything it was blamed for.

ATSIC was not an example of self-determination because was tied to the governments of the day and to the public service delivery. All spending or administration decisions taken by the ATSIC councillors at all three levels were vetted by the white bureaucrats attached to ATSIC who had the power of veto.

Another criticism was that ATSIC was dominated by men. Of the more than 400 councillors across ATSIC, 80% were men.

In March 2005 the conservative Howard government abolished the ATSIC.

"ATSIC wasn't perfect," says Russell Kapeen, a Bundjalung man from northern New South Wales and one of the Chairs of the Koori Mail Aboriginal newspaper. "But at least it was blackfellas governing blackfellas in a sense, and that's something we should be working towards again."

Abolishing of ATSIC created numerous social democratic issues for Aboriginal people. It meant that there was no advocacy from an Aboriginal point of view. There were no Aboriginal people sitting in manager or director positions. It also meant a serious blow to service delivery to communities.

A common view was that ATSIC was an acronym for 'Aborigines Talking Shit In Canberra'.

— Ray Jackson, president, Indigenous Social Justice Association

Video: Reflections on ATSIC

Listen to Aboriginal people reflecting on their experience with ATSIC.

1990 – Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG)

Created on 16 July 1990, the Aboriginal Provisional Government campaigns for Aboriginal sovereignty over Australia. It was formed by elders from several communities across Australia. Its founders include Bob Weatherall, Geoff Clark, Josie Crawshaw, Michael Mansell, Kathy Craigie and other representatives from all states of Australia.

The APG campaigns for Aboriginal self-determination and self-government and aims to establish its own government and an Aboriginal nation state. It argues that Aboriginal sovereignty was never ceded and therefore Australian law and title over the country is void (means nothing).

The "Provisional" aspect was included for two reasons: first, this Aboriginal body would foster a transition from white government control to an eventual full blown black national government. Second, the APG was not set up to govern Aboriginal people but to be a political vehicle for self-determination aspirations.

In 1992 the APG established an Elders Council during its national meeting at Hobart, Tasmania.

The APG has several functions:

  • Issue Aboriginal passports. These are issued on the basis that "the Aboriginal nation is separate to the Australian nation", and that Aboriginal people have distinct rights, including having a separate passport. The Aboriginal passport has already been used by Aboriginal people to re-enter Australia.
  • Issue Aboriginal birth certificates. They are considered an alternative to the certificates of government authorities and register Aboriginal children as citizens of the Aboriginal nation.
  • Send diplomatic delegations overseas. This follows a legacy set down by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in the 1970s.
  • Issues visas to non-Aboriginal people. If you want to "acknowledge the Aboriginal assertion of continuing sovereignty" and live or want to live in the Aboriginal nation you can request such a visa.
  • Encourage discussion. The APG encourages discussion within the Aboriginal community about their future as a people.


The Aboriginal Provisional Government... represents the reality that only we, as Aboriginal people, can forge a proper place for ourselves and those generations of Aborigines to come.

— Bob Weatherall (Gamilaraay), founding Chairperson of the APG in 1992

Video: Newsreel about the Aboriginal Provisional Government

This newsreel gives a lot of background to the APG (aired 30 January 2015 on NITV).

2010 – National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (NCAFP)

In 2009, nearly five years after the abolition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the Labor government announced that it would support a new national representative body for Aboriginal Australians.

The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples emerged in November that year from a series of Aboriginal community meetings throughout the country, peak body talks, a national forum and written submissions.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, was incorporated in April 2010 as a Company Limited by Guarantee. “As a company the Congress is owned and controlled by its membership and independent of Government,” said its website.

Aboriginal people wanted the new body to be independent from government, highly credible and properly resourced. It should give advice, advocate, monitor and evaluate government performance on Indigenous issues, but not deliver services or programs (like ATSIC did).

The Congress is open to all Aboriginal people over 18 years and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations.

The main characteristics of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples are:

  • Established as a company. As a company it is independent of the government (a lesson learned from the government-dependent ATSIC).
  • National Executive. The executives are elected by an annual congress with representatives from key Aboriginal organisations, individuals and community representatives.
  • Equal representation. The Congress has a guaranteed equal share of men and women for both office holders and delegates.
  • Ethics Council. The Ethics Council oversees the Congress' integrity and ethics of office holders, assist with legal and reporting requirements and has the power to investigate breaches or complaints.
  • Annual Forum of delegates. The Annual Forum of 120 delegates is organised into 3 chambers (regional, state and national organisations & peak bodies, other organisations, individuals). The Forum makes decisions on policies and issues affecting its members and advises the National Executive on the future direction and priorities.

The Congress had five primary objectives:

  • Set the standard for engagement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities;
  • Participate in parliamentary processes;
  • Ensuring the UN Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples is implemented;
  • Harness collective voice and action; and
  • Facilitate the generation of and contribution to knowledge.

On 8 June 2011 the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples got the first elected board of 6 directors. The organisation then had 2,300 members, in May 2012 4,000.

Unfortunately, in May 2016, a new government abandoned any funding of the Congress, affirming again how important independent funding is for an Aboriginal representative organisation. The government argued that Congress was not functioning as a representative body and failed to transition away from government funding. Subsequently the NCAFP went into voluntary administration in 2019.


Critics of the NCAFP, including high-ranking politicians, reiterated frequently that they don't want "just another ATSIC", an allusion rejected by the two co-chairs.

"It is not a service delivery body; it's a representative body chosen by the people, not chosen or appointed by government, and it will conduct its own business through processes that the body has established itself," says Dr Kerry Arabena, one of the inaugural Co-Chairs. "We are using private company law to fulfill our public citizenship potential. That's really important; we're using private law to fulfill a public outcome."

Another problem of the Congress is that many Aboriginal people in remote communities don't know it exists, even years after it was established. Depending heavily on government funding, the government's goodwill ran out in May 2016 when the government withdrew funding.

Many Aboriginal people see Congress as a toothless tiger and criticise its support of the government drive for recognition of Aboriginal people in the constitution.

The main thing that keeps me interested in this process is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been the ones that designed and constructed this model.

— Sam Jeffries, inaugural full-time Co-Chair of the NCAFP

A similar organisation in America is the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) which represents 565 tribes across the US. The NCAI is thought to be the "oldest, largest and most representative Indian organisation" in the US. It was established in the 1940s and is led by elected tribal officials.

2012 – National Body for Australian South Sea Islanders

In April 2012 the Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) formed a national body to give their community a voice at all levels of government.

The body advocates and works towards equality for ASSI communities while respecting the deep connections with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders families.

The ASSI history stretches back to the early 1800s. Back then many Islanders were blackbirded and went "missing from the beaches and the reefs". Repatriation followed in the 1900s, but many returned to the wrong islands.

Between 1863 and 1906 an estimated 60,000 Islanders were brought from the Solomons and Vanuatu to Queensland to work in primary industries as slaves. Their descendants form today's ASSI communities.

2019 – The Coalition of Peaks

Around 50 Aboriginal community-controlled peak organisations came together in 2019 to form the Coalition of Peaks, a representative body to partner with governments on all levels.

In March 2019, after months of community consultations across Australia, the Coalition of Peaks entered an historic formal partnership agreement with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) on Closing the Gap, a policy introduced in 2008 to improve Aboriginal lives and bring them on par with those of other Australians. The government struggled to reach most of its own goals almost all the time.

By working with the government the Coalition of Peaks hopes to have a formal say on the design, implementation and evaluation of programs, services and policies that affect Aboriginal people.

The agreement means that for the first time Aboriginal people, through their community-controlled peak organisations and members, are sharing decisions with governments on Closing the Gap, under a formal arrangement.

For more information see


View article sources (14)

[1] [1a] [1b] 'Meet 'a beacon for the future'', Koori Mail 503 p.8
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] 'History of government and Aboriginal Affairs prior to 1967 and after', The Stringer 17/9/2013
[3] ''That Word' Treaty - The Value of Historical Insights', National Unity Government, retrieved 22/6/2016
[4] [4a] 'of brutal brits and callous colonials', Ray Jackson, email 28/9/2014
[5] 'Bundjalung man is right at home', Koori Mail 473 p.21
[6] 'Aboriginal Provisional Government', Simple Wikipedia,, retrieved 21/8/2015
[7] 'Aboriginal Provisional Government', Wikipedia,, retrieved 21/8/2015
[8] [8a] [8b] [8c] 'About the Aboriginal Provisional Government - History of the APG', Aboriginal Provisional Government,, retrieved 21/8/2015
[9] 'Govt to fund First People's Congress', Koori Mail 465 p.4
[10] 'Congress Co-chair answers the critics', Koori Mail 488 p.5
[11] 'Unity key as Congress celebrates', Koori Mail 525 p.17
[12] 'Funding For Peak Aboriginal Representative Body Gone, Minister Says', New Matilda 10/5/2016
[13] [13a] 'Co-Chairs ready to lead way', Koori Mail 475 p.4
[14] [14a] 'National body gets a voice', Koori Mail 524 p.33

Cite this page

Korff, J 2023, Aboriginal representative bodies, <>, retrieved 19 June 2024

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