Self-determination means consultation & dialogue

It seems easier to tell Aboriginal people and communities what is 'best' for them instead of consulting and listening. Why, and what are the consequences?

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Selected statistics

Direct Aboriginal expenditure that in 2017 went towards mainstream, rather than Aboriginal-led, services.
Proportion of money some programmes spend on consultants and bureaucrats.

Why politicians fail to consult Aboriginal people

Self-determination is not about letting Aboriginal peoples run programs designed by someone else.

Many Australian governments have failed to genuinely consult Aboriginal people on programs involving them. The government's preferred mode of operation seems to be a bureaucratic approach from an ivory tower in Canberra.

Independent member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, Yingiya (Mark) Guyula, gives an example about the frustration of Aboriginal politicians when dealing with governments that do not consult.

"I have not been respected by this government. They make a good show of pretending to listen but they have cut me out of any real consultation or conversation. I’m sick and tired of people answering my questions by going round and round. Nothing direct. I’m sick and tired of being offered briefings. I should provide briefings because I have been elected by the people to be their voice – we brief the government. The government does not want to listen and we must find a way... I have been saying it for two and half years."

Hundreds of reports with thousands of recommendations gather dust in politician's offices because implementing change would involve any combination of a lot of money, time and effort, and most likely be unpopular with voters.

Some Australian politicians will take the 'initiative' rather than wait for consultations with Aboriginal people to run their course.

For example, when it took too long for an agreement to be reached between the government of Western Australia, developer Woodside and the Kimberley Land Council, the state premier simply announced that his government would compulsorily acquire the land where a $30 billion liquefied natural gas site had been proposed.

In 2007, shadow minister Tony Abbott, in a statement very close to racism, said "consultation is important, but the search for unanimity has long bedevilled good policy in this area. With Indigenous people it is hard to establish consensus. If we wait for a consensus we'd probably be waiting for ever."

What he failed to see is that Australia's Aboriginal people are not a homogeneous group, but many nations with many different views.

If we wait for a consensus we'd probably be waiting for ever.

— Tony Abbott, conservative coalition Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, in 2006

If you are a frontline worker you'll notice how frustrated and exhausted Aboriginal people are with politician's ignorance.

Sue, a Creative Spirits newsletter subscriber, wrote: "After attending the Australian Rural Health Conference in Cairns this year [2017] and hearing of the wonderful work Indigenous people are doing to help themselves when the government actually asks them what they want instead of saying this is what you need, I cannot [help] but feel their frustration and understand their anger [for the times when the government does not ask]".


Each year since 2008, the government's Closing the Gap initiative sets targets for several areas of Aboriginal life in order to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples.

It wasn't until 2020 that all Australian governments signed an agreement to make decisions with Aboriginal people and partner with Aboriginal peak organisations, to engage communities, and to base targets on what Aboriginal peoples have been saying is needed to improve their lives.

Don't give advice, listen first instead

Aboriginal Koori Mail reader Sidney Watts, from Alice Springs, found that "there are too many letters to newspapers from obviously intelligent and highly knowledgeable non-Aboriginal people telling us the solutions to our problems and what we have to do.

"We're told the problem is alcohol, the problem is violence, the problem is this and the problem is that."

Sidney assumes that these do-gooders believe "that we are not capable of managing our own affairs".

Instead of following the temptation of the Western way of sharing an idea immediately, try listening for an extended time first before joining a discussion.

There are also all those whitefellas out there who are arrogant enough to believe that they know what is good for us and are very happy to use us to run their own agendas.

— Bess Nungarrayi Price, Chair, Northern Territory Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council

Video: Planning for successful consultation

Scot Hutton, a Community and Aboriginal Relations Manager with Plains Midstream Canada, gives a great every-day example of how proper consultation can support communities and projects at the same time.

Dialogue, not consultation, demand elders

In a statement in 2015 regarding the threatened closure of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia the directors of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) demanded dialogue, not consultation:

"We don’t want to be consulted! We demand genuine dialogue!

"How can the Western Australian Government speak for five months about closing down our communities and not talk with us for five months? Some people say that consultations will start on 01 July [2015] – but KALACC only hears this second or third hand because no one from Government has bothered to speak directly with us.

"When will we be consulted? And when the consultations take place, will the Government sit down with us, the cultural bosses and elders representing the Kimberley, and talk directly to us?

"We don’t want a ‘tick a box’ consultation. We demand a genuine dialogue with Government and a genuine input and say on the future of our lives and our communities.

"We acknowledge that there are problems and issues to be addressed, but no one understands the solutions to these problems better than ourselves, the people living in the remote communities."

Not consulting costs millions

Several reports highlight that the Australian government does not consult adequately with Aboriginal people, wasting millions of dollars as a result.

As little as 8 cents in a dollar get down to the community programs. The rest goes to consultants and bureaucrats.

More funding is not the answer to the problems of Aboriginal people. Increased funding "of non-Aboriginal organisations to deliver Aboriginal programs has not worked," finds Bill Pritchard, CEO of the Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat.

He recommends local communities should find solutions to local issues and develop local service systems. These can then be funded.

Reports label the return on government investment as 'poor', say its programs achieve little, "seriously lack transparency and accountability" and have 'appalling' outcomes.

The government spends tens of billions of dollars on Aboriginal programs. In 2008-2009 the NSW government spent $2.65 billion on delivering services to Aboriginal people.


View article sources (11)

[1] 'Australian governments have failed Indigenous peoples, says Oxfam', The Guardian Australia, 12/4/2017
[2] [2a] Personal communication with Aboriginal leader Michael Anderson, 24/2/2012
[3] Facebook post, 6/2/2019,, retrieved 8/2/2019
[4] 'Gas threat', Koori Mail 484 p.1
[5] [5a] 'Sorry 'a 90s issue'', Koori Mail 416 p.10
[6] Sue Howard, email 31/8/2017
[7] 'Close the Gap Campaign Report 2021', The Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, 2021, p.12
[8] 'Time for NT to stand up', reader's letter, Koori Mail 485 p.24
[9] 'Thanks, Jenny Macklin', Koori Mail 485 p.26
[10] 'KALACC Directors Statement on the Threatened Closure of Remote Aboriginal Communities - April 2015',, retrieved 21/4/2015
[11] [11a] [11b] 'Groups give support to new report', Koori Mail 512 p.6

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Self-determination means consultation & dialogue, <>, retrieved 17 June 2024

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