ANZSOG’s Proud Partnerships in Place virtual First Peoples Conference brought together Indigenous leaders and public servants to celebrate successful partnerships across Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, and to discuss how governments can achieve policy goals by building long-term relationships based on trusting First Peoples and respecting their knowledge and culture.
The conference – held over four consecutive Wednesdays from 17 February to 10 March and hosted by Australian ABC Journalist, and Ngemba-Muruwari man, Dan Conifer – saw over 500 people attend each session, using the virtual platform OnAIR, to listen to speakers and ask questions in Q&A ‘yarning circles’.
The speakers ranged from the Indigenous Affairs ministers of both Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, through to senior Indigenous leaders running community organisations, Indigenous public servants, academics and senior police officers, and covered partnerships in health, restorative justice and environmental protection.
ANZSOG Senior Advisor First Peoples Program and Strategy, Sharon Nelson-Kelly said that the uncertainty created by COVID-19 restrictions was not a deterrent to the conference successfully bringing together hundreds of people to hear many different stories of partnership, and the journeys to where they are today and plan to be in the future.
“We challenged our participants to think beyond the way things have always operated, and we highlighted how successful partnerships are already operating, and are letting First Peoples use their knowledge to benefit their communities and the broader community,” she said.
Australian Indigenous Affairs Minister, Ken Wyatt delivered one of the opening addresses to the conference, saying that “we must strengthen existing partnerships and establish new ones”.
He said that there were opportunities for governments to work in new and different ways at a local level, and to have more inclusion in social and economic partnerships.
Aotearoa-New Zealand Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta delivered the second opening address and said that partnerships in Aotearoa-New Zealand needed to embrace the “bi-cultural values that characterise who we are”.
“When it comes to social and environmental challenges, to get different results we need to have different conversations, and we need to involve the Indigenous voice in this,” the Minister said.
“What the world needs is a commitment to empathetic, sustainable and inter-generational solutions.”
The conference’s final event featured Willie Jackson, Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Minister for Māori Development, speaking about the Ardern Government’s agenda for the future in Māori-Crown relations.
He said that Māori communities had shown their ability to partner with the government during the fight against COVID-19, and that governments need to ensure “Indigenous people are treated on a more equal footing in recovery from COVID-19”.
“Māori communities developed solutions to protect the vulnerable, because they know their communities best, and iwi (tribal groups) provided funding for some of these initiatives,” Mr Jackson said.
“We must ensure that our country is guided by the Treaty of Waitangi – signed between Māori and the Crown. It has not always been used in the way it was intended, but it serves as a basis for partnership. The government intends to hold to the promise of the Treaty, and restore the balance between Māori and the Crown.”
He said that while compensation delivered under the Treaty had often been minimal, at around 2% of lost land, this had been used by some iwi as a base for economic independence.
Building Trust, Building Partnerships
Several speakers spoke in detail about the process of building partnerships and the need for governments to focus on trusting First Peoples, recognising the strengths and knowledge existing within communities and nurturing them through partnerships.
Deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisations (NACCHO), Dawn Casey said NACCHO represented 143 services, some of which have been operating for over 50 years and have built up good partnerships with the Federal Government.
She said that health organisations had a long experience of dealing with flu or mumps outbreaks in Indigenous communities and had been able to mobilise resources quickly to manage the threat of COVID-19.
“The end result is that 150 Indigenous people have contracted COVID-19 in Australia with no deaths.”
She said that reducing red tape and working better with state governments were priorities for health organisations.
“We have a lot of freedom to work with our organisations and determine how many of them will access particular programs. We want to be able to have grants allocated so people can move quickly, but that we are still accountable and that governments are accountable. We’ve had no issues with the Department of Health, but other departments haven’t quite cottoned on.”
“The Commonwealth funds NACCHOs but doesn’t have any control over what state governments do. It doesn’t have control over hospitals and their treatment of people, or the pathways to hospitals. We need structural reform in how these things are treated.
“We also need to work on other issues, for example housing has a huge impact on health and unless we can fix housing, maintenance and environmental health we won’t get the outcomes we could, and we hope we can fix those in discussions over the next few years.”
Executive Director Partnerships at the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, Cheryl Leavy said successful partnerships had been developed in Queensland, and that these partnerships were the only way for governments to work with First Nations Peoples.
She spoke about agreement-making around National Parks which focused on ‘sharing agency’ to give communities a role in caring for Country and running parks.
“I believe governments are in great need of the knowledge of First Nations people – the challenges they face and the opportunities are many and they are profound,” she said.
“The key to building good partnerships is the relationship, not the project, and that comes from respect for the rights of First Peoples. We focus on the relationship, because this will see us through the long-term challenges that we will face.”
“For some agencies this was what they were already doing, but for others it was very different and provided a lot of practical challenges, from resourcing to truly respecting the right to self-determination and finding enough time to engage.
“Working within government can be challenging – trying to find a balance between meeting your regulatory responsibilities and finding that space to work, but these questions need to be answered in partnership with First Nations people.
“Our agreement-making around National Parks is a key form of sharing agency, but that needs to be done more with First Nations partners and embedded through agreement-making, not waiting until an agreement is struck.”
She said that the process of partnership-building had potential value for all communities and their relations with government, not just First Peoples.
“People across the world want to be heard and to participate to work in partnership in the business of government – building partnerships is how we face the crisis of confidence in government that is growing throughout the world.”
The conference also heard about the inclusion of First Peoples knowledge in controlled cultural burning programs in Dja Dja Wurrung country in Victoria, and the incorporation of Māori knowledge into river management programs across Aotearoa-New Zealand.
Dame Naida Glavish DNZM, a strong advocate for Māori language and former Māori Party MP, spoke of the importance of maintaining culture and the importance of recognising the impact of its loss on Māori people.
She said that governments needed to trust Māori more, and to move towards co-deciding, rather than having Māori report to non-Māori.
“Māori used to report to non-Māori, but over time this has changed. Māori began to report to Māori in hospitals in the community, to ensure those services served communities better,” she said.
“Yes we need to co-design but we also need to co-decide”
The role of a Treaty in building partnerships
Justice Sir Joe Williams, the first Māori judge of the New Zealand Supreme Court outlined how New Zealand had, since 1975, used the Treaty of Waitangi to establish partnerships between the Crown and iwi (tribes).
“In 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal was given retrospective jurisdiction to deal with the process of loss through breaches of the treaty. This began the idea of the Treaty as a partnership, speaking to what it symbolised, the vibe of the document rather than the text.”
“Here we emphasise that our partnership is between formal equals, but acknowledge the power disparity between Māori and British in 1840 and today.
“Most New Zealanders like the idea that Māori culture is part of New Zealand culture, and reject the idea of Little Britain in the southern hemisphere. Most Māori New Zealanders accept, even celebrate, that separate identity is expressed within mainstream institutions rather than remaining in separate Māori institutions at the outskirts of national life.
“New Zealanders are unconsciously and organically building a unique national identity based on natural beauty and partnership between two founding cultures.”
Australia does not have a national Treaty with its First Peoples but Victoria has begun a process of designing a Treaty in consultation with its Aboriginal Peoples. This process will include the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Australia’s first truth-telling process which will investigate historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians by the State and non-State entities
Rueben Berg, a Gunditjmara man and member, First Peoples Treaty Assemblies of Victoria, talked about the process the state of Victoria is undertaking to develop a Treaty with its Aboriginal Peoples.
He said that with Aboriginal people making up less than one per cent of Victorians there was a ‘readiness conversation’ about how prepared the Aboriginal community was to take this opportunity.
“There’s strength that comes from us as a community being united in those negotiations with the Victorian government. I don’t see the finishing line just yet, but it could be just over the horizon,” he said.
“We are using the existing structures, Registered Aboriginal Parties and Native Title holders to avoid coming up with own systems and stepping on toes
“Are Australians ready for those settlements? I think there are different levels of readiness, there is a national conversation that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are having but it’s not one that the commonwealth is having. Broadly speaking, in Victoria there’s an amount of openness and willingness to have it resolved.”