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Chapter 6 : Services to Indigenous Communities

Each year, the National Report must include an assessment, based on comparable national data, of the performance by local governing bodies of their functions, including the services they provide to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The inclusion of this requirement in the Act followed:

  • the 1992 Council of Australian Governments' National Commitment to improving services to Indigenous communities;
  • the review in 1994 of the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1986; and
  • the passing of a resolution at the Local Government Ministers' Council in April 1995 to increase the level of local government services to Indigenous communities which was to be developed within the framework of the 1992 National Commitment.

At the April 1995 Local Government Ministers' Council, Ministers also agreed to report annually on progress in improving services.

Indigenous people in context

At the 1996 Census, Indigenous Australians numbered some 386,000 people or just over 2 per cent of Australia's population. Table 6.1 shows the number of Indigenous people at that time by State, their share of each State's population and their share of the Indigenous population nationally. It shows that their share of State populations varied considerably - from 0.5 per cent for Victoria to 28.5 per cent for the Northern Territory. Also, just under 85 per cent of the Indigenous population resides in just four States - New South Wales (28.5 per cent), Queensland (27.2 per cent), Western Australia (14.6 per cent) and the Northern Territory (13.4 per cent).

Table 6.1: Estimates of the Indigenous population by State, as at 30 June 1996

In recent years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that there has been an increased likelihood of people identifying as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin in the Census and surveys. Provided there is no change in the propensity of the Australian population to identify as being of Indigenous origin, Australian Bureau of Statistics projected the Indigenous population would be some 427,000 people at 30 June 2001 and 469,000 by 30 June 2006 (Australia Now, p.1).

Across councils within a State, there is also considerable variation in the distribution of Indigenous people. Using data provided by the New South Wales Grants Commission as an example, Indigenous people comprise from 0.7 per cent for Mosman Council to 54 per cent for Brewarrina Shire Council. While Indigenous people comprise less than 2 per cent of the New South Wales population, 6 per cent of councils in New South Wales have more than 10 per cent of Indigenous people in their population. These councils are in rural and remote areas of the State.

The proportion of a council's population that is comprised of Indigenous people should have a direct impact for the council on their provision of services to Indigenous people.

Table 6.2 shows that most Indigenous people live in urban areas. But the Indigenous population is less urbanised than the total population. Specifically, in 1996 around 72.3 per cent of the Indigenous population lived in urban areas (defined as a population centre of 1,000 or more people) compared to 85.9 per cent for the total population. A further 10.8 per cent of Indigenous people lived in rural localities (population centres of between 200 and 999 people) and the remaining 16.6 per cent in other rural areas (the remaining rural areas including people living on properties).

Table 6.2: Distribution of Indigenous people by geographical area and State, 1996

The distribution of Indigenous people between urban and non-urban areas varies considerably by State. In the Northern Territory for instance, only around 40 per cent of Indigenous people reside in urban areas whereas in New South Wales, Victoria and Australian Capital Territory more than 80 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban areas.

There is high mortality amongst Indigenous Australians compared to the total population. Using data covering 1997 to 1999, the life expectancy at birth for Indigenous males was 55.6 years compared with 76.2 years for all males. For Indigenous females, life expectancy was 63.0 years compared to 81.8 years for all females (Australia Now, p.2). In 1998, the infant mortality rate for Indigenous Australians was 14.1 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 5.7 deaths for the total population.

Further details on the circumstances of Indigenous people can be found in a recently released report of the Commonwealth Grants Commission (see box).

Commonwealth Grants Commission's Indigenous Funding Inquiry

The Commonwealth Grants Commission was asked to develop methods of calculating the relative needs of Indigenous Australians in different regions for health, housing, infrastructure, education, training and employment services. In their final report, provided to the Federal Government in March 2001, they reported on the circumstances of Indigenous Australians.

The Commission found that:

  • the social, economic and cultural circumstances of Indigenous Australians differ greatly between urban, rural and remote locations, and between and within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner regions;
  • these differences have an impact on need and service provision;
  • the services provided to Indigenous people, how they are provided and the costs of providing them, differ with location because of the way services are provided, differences in need and differences in costs; and
  • in all regions, and across all functional areas examined, Indigenous people experience entrenchedlevels of disadvantage compared to non-Indigenous people.

Commonwealth Grants Commission 2001, Report on Indigenous Funding, 2001, Canberra, p.xv.

Health and wellbeing are influenced by many factors including access to clean water, sewerage, waste disposal, roads and transport. It can also be influenced by having a sense self worth, a sense of hope or of hopelessness; with these linked to education, employment, recognition and participation in processes of governance and in service delivery.

Governments in Australia, including local government, have a critical role to play in improving the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people. In many locations, this means far greater effort and collaboration to improve Indigenous access to mainstream services and, in some instances, aligning the appropriateness of such services with Indigenous requirements.

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Legislative context

The Federal Parliament's objectives, in providing the financial assistance grants to councils, are set out in section 3 of the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1995. These Commonwealth objectives were inserted into the Act following a review in 1994 and came into effect for the grants allocated in 1996-97. There are five purposes. The fifth purpose is that the Commonwealth provides financial assistance to councils to improve the provision, by councils, of services to Indigenous communities.

In support of this purpose, the Act requires that this annual report to Parliament - the National Report - includes an assessment of the performance by local governing bodies of their functions including services provided by them to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In addition, the Act requires National Principles to be established to guide State Grants Commissions in the way they allocate financial assistance grants to councils. The National Principles were developed by the Commonwealth and agreed by the States and the Australian Local Government Association. One of the National Principles requires State Grants Commissions to allocate general purpose grants to councils in a way that recognises the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within their boundaries. The full list of National Principles is at Appendix A.

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National reporting - progress across the nation

To date, no performance measures have been developed to assess performance of councils in providing services to Indigenous people. However, all States, the Commonwealth and the Australian Local Government Association have been providing progress reports on local government service provision to Indigenous communities since 1996. This was as a result of a resolution passed by the Local Government Ministers' Council in April 1995. The States' reports have been published each year in an appendix of the National Report.

The State progress reports on local government service provision to Indigenous communities for 2000-01 are provided at Appendix I. These reports identify a range of priorities, strategies and actions, and a mosaic of differing approaches.

When the State reports are examined, it is evident that there are different priorities across the jurisdictions and varied progress. In some jurisdictions there is considerable energy and commitment with a range of positive developments, including:

  • establishment of advisory committees on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters to advise State or Territory Minister for Local Government (Western Australia);
  • establishment of Intergovernmental Local Government-Aboriginal Network by the Minister for Local Government and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to foster a collaborative approach to improved local government outcomes for Indigenous people and to share information (South Australia);
  • development of State-wide action plans (Local Councils Belong to Aboriginal People Too, 1994, and Local Councils Belong to Aboriginal People 2 - A New Strategy, August 2000 (South Australia);
  • local government partnership agreements to promote links between local government and Aboriginal community representatives (Tasmania);
  • establishment of Indigenous community advisory committees at council level, (in New South Wales for example, there were 63 councils in 2000-01 with advisory consultative committees - an increase of six on the previous year);
  • employment of Indigenous policy officers in some councils (for example, eight councils in South Australia have them);
  • provision of better public health infrastructure for Indigenous communities (for example, water, sewerage and transport infrastructure in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Councils in Queensland);
  • strategies to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in local government (for example, New South Wales has a mentoring programme);
  • funding by the Commonwealth of specific projects by individual councils as demonstrations of best practice in the delivery of services or advancing issues of concern; and
  • legislative requirements to develop social and community plans by all councils for all people but with a focus on particular target groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (New South Wales).

However, some jurisdictions report little or no achievements, and others report only financial expenditure, with no reporting of discernible or related outcomes. Nevertheless, there are outstanding individual success stories at local government level, particularly in terms of reconciliation. An example of this is the Nillumbik Shire Council in Victoria. This council maintains its momentum and commitment to meaningful and productive partnership with its Indigenous people (see box).

Nillumbik Shire Council, Victoria

In 1998, Nillumbik Shire Council committed to an ongoing reconciliation process with traditional landowners, the Wurundjeri people. Since then, Nillumbik Council has initiated a series of reconciliation events, community projects and other public initiatives including art exhibitions, resource trails, educational lectures and reconciliation forums. These have successfully raised the profile of the reconciliation process, increasing awareness of the Wurundjeri people as traditional owners and custodians of the Shire's lands and developing the community's understanding of and commitment to the key issues of reconciliation.

Council supported the establishment and development of the Nillumbik Reconciliation Group. In the past two years the Group has ensured that reconciliation issues have not only remained on the local agenda, but have become integral to the value systems of local communities.

Initiatives of Nillumbuk Shire Council include:

  • councillors read formal civic acknowledgment statements before all public events;
  • council's major events and festivals incorporate a strong Indigenous component;
  • council's approach to environmental issues has integrated elements of the traditional owner's view of the world;
  • archaeological surveys have documented sites of significance throughout the shire and these sites are progressively being afforded protection under council's planning processes;
  • catchments and native parks have been renamed using the Woi-wurung language; and
  • a seasons calendar has been produced that more accurately reflects local weather changes, animal and bird migrations and the flowering of native plants.

A Treaty process has commenced and has committed the council to investigating the feasibility of formalising an agreement with local Indigenous people.

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The delivery of services to Indigenous communities has recently been the subject of two Federal Government reviews or inquiries. They were the inquiry into distribution of funding for programmes affecting Indigenous people and the Commonwealth Grants Commission Review of the Local Government Financial Assistance Grants Act (1995).

Inquiry into distribution of funding for programmes affecting Indigenous people

The Commonwealth Grants Commission presented the final of its three-volume Report on Indigenous Funding, 2001 to the Federal Government in March 2001. It is an in-depth inquiry into the current distribution of funding for programmes affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The inquiry was also expected to develop measures of relative disadvantage. The Commission found that, in certain Indigenous population groups, entrenched levels of disadvantage compared to non-Indigenous people was deeply ingrained in systems which perpetuate inequities.

Amongst the many issues raised, the Commission discusses some of the complexities of the relationship between needs assessment, data collection and interpretation, and resource allocation. The Inquiry found that 'there is no obvious and simple proportional relationship between measures of needs and the funds required to achieve outcomes' (p.52). And further, that 'the extent to which needs are met, or outcomes achieved depends on the outputs of several programmes and the social and economic circumstances in which the services are provided. Allocation processes must take account of these interactions.' (p.52)

Commission recommendations include 'the full and effective participation of Indigenous people in decisions affecting funding distribution and service delivery' (p.xviii). Likewise, the involvement of 'all relevant spheres of government with a cross functional perspective' (p.xix) is presented as an essential feature of effective partnerships between service providers, service funders and Indigenous people.

There are issues here for local government to consider both in the way they interact with Indigenous communities and in the delivery of their services to Indigenous people. The reconciliation action plans being developed for local government ministers in response to the Council of Australian Governments directive (see 'Local Government Ministers' Reconciliation Action Plans' below) provides one possible framework for addressing some of these issues.

Commonwealth Grants Commission Review of Local Government Financial Assistance Grants Act (1995)

In the review of the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1995, the Commonwealth Grants Commission was asked to examine and report on the effectiveness of the current arrangements under the Act to achieve the purposes of the Act and the goals in providing the grants. In relation to the fifth purpose - improving the provision by local governing bodies of services to Indigenous communities - the Commission found that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' purpose is not being achieved. The Commission argued that this is not a relevant purpose for an Act that provides for distribution of untied assistance and proposed that this purpose be removed (p.28).

The Commission was also asked to examine the appropriateness of the current National Principles. In relation to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples National Principle for general purpose grants, the Commission found that local government grants commissions have not consistently addressed this principle. The Commission proposed that this principle be retained and strengthened to make explicit that the needs of Indigenous people must be recognised in assessments for general purpose grants (p.27).

In relation to the requirement in the Act for the National Report to include an assessment of the performance of councils in providing services to Indigenous people, the Commission recommended that this requirement be retained and that the National Report go further. They recommended that the National Report inform the Commonwealth on whether Grants Commission's assessments are recognising the needs of Indigenous people and whether councils are providing services which address these needs. The Commission called on the Commonwealth, together with the States and Indigenous organisations, to work 'to develop the performance measures necessary for this assessment, apply them and publish the results in the National Report' (p.27).

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Commonwealth expenditure and progress

The Federal Government provides both tied and untied funding to help communities better deliver services to Indigenous populations. They include financial assistance grants, the Local Government Incentive Programme, and Local Government Ministers' Reconciliation Action Plans.

Financial assistance grants

In 2000-01, 102 Indigenous councils were receiving financial assistance grants. Some of these councils, such as Aurukun and Mornington Shires in Queensland and Ngaanyatjarraku in Western Australia, are established under mainstream local government legislation of the State. Others, such as the Deed of Grant in Trust councils in Queensland and the Community Government Councils in the Northern Territory, are established under separate State legislation. The final group is those bodies 'declared' to be local governing bodies by the Federal Minister, on advice from the State Minister, so they can receive financial assistance grants. Table 6.3 shows the distribution of Indigenous councils by State and by the way in which they have become eligible for financial assistance grants.

Table 6.3: Distribution of indigenous councils by eligibility type and by State, June 2001

In 2000-01, the Commonwealth provided these Indigenous community councils with around $18.77 million in financial assistance grants. Of this, $12.02 million was in general purpose grants and $6.75 million in local roads grants.

In most States, the methodology Grants Commissions used to determine the distribution of financial assistance grants to Indigenous councils is the same as that applied to the distribution of grants to other State and Territory councils, with disability factors applied to facilitate equitable grant outcomes (see chapter 3).

Local Government Incentive Programme

Whilst a complete list of 2000-01 Local Government Incentive Programme projects appears in Appendix J, the Commonwealth provided $284,000 to three projects assisting Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. These funds were provided to:

  • Galiwinku Community Government Council to develop and implement a road management system for the Miwatj Region;
  • Pirlangimpi Community Government Council to progress recommendations for the Strategic Information Plan for an integrated Tiwi Assembly; and
  • Ntaria Council for a suite of tourism enterprises in the region of the western MacDonnells.

More details of these projects are in the box below.

In addition to these projects, the Commonwealth is funding a joint initiative of the Local Government Association of South Australia and the South Australian Office of Local Government. This project will develop culturally appropriate material to support councils and to foster interest in nominating for council amongst the Aboriginal population within their local government area.

The project is being progressed under the State- Local Government Partnerships Programme. It seeks to respond to the continuing lack of awareness of voting rights, the low level of nominations as candidates for local government elections and the apparent still low levels of voter turnout by Aboriginal people in local government elections. The project also seeks to increase the awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and people about local government itself.

Miwatj region road management system for councils

The Galiwinku Community Government Council is coordinating a project to develop a road asset management system for six local government authorities in the East Arnhem Region of the Northern Territory. The total road length managed by these six authorities is 1560 km. This comprises 30.58 km of internal sealed roads and 1,529 km unsealed roads servicing homelands, airstrips and barge landings. The maintenance of this road network is funded through the local roads grants.

As part of this Local Government Incentive Programme project, a road audit of all internal sealed roads, including storm water drainage systems and road hardware, will be prepared. In consultation with each council an individual asset management plan will be developed that will fit within a regional asset management system. Each council will be provided with the software and training to continue to update its database and also the skills to use the management system as a tool to plan and schedule works both practically, as well as financially.

Strategic Information Plan for an Integrated Tiwi Assembly

The Tiwi people are one cultural and language group residing on Bathurst and Melville Islands north of Darwin.

This Local Government Incentive Programme project will improve the structure for financial and information management across all communities on the Tiwi Islands to support the new Tiwi Assembly. The project will:

  • confirm financial management system requirements, acquire and implement a system, transfer data and provide standardised office automation and desktop products;
  • define information management requirements and develop procedures;
  • establish information technology policies and standards and user support;
  • investigate communications alternatives, optimise the network, rationalise Local Area Network requirements and connect workstations and rationalise hardware and systems support contracts; and
  • provide training in all areas covered by the project.

Partcicpants in the project are Pirlamgimpi, Nguiu and Milikapiti Community Government Councils and the Wurankuru Association.

The western MacDonnells regional tourism development plan

This Local Government Incentive Programme project involves development of a 'suite' of tourism enterprises to attract increased visitor numbers to the region and capitalise on the Mereenie 'loop' road (via Hermannsburg to the major attractions of Kings Canyon and Uluru-Ayers Rock). The project will build upon the goodwill and work already completed as part of the community plan for Ntaria (Hermannsburg) Council Inc., by preparing a strategy for the region that meshes with the Northern Territory Government's Tourism Development Masterplan. This will involve implementation of a management strategy and development of final business plans for enterprises at Hermannsburg identified in the community plan. It is intended to not only increase visitor numbers but also their length of stay.

Aboriginal owned and operated tourism ventures will fill an identified gap and provide many visitors with an Indigenous tourism experience much sought after, particularly by overseas visitors.

Participating councils include Tjuwanpa Outstation Resource Centre Aboriginal Corporation and Wallace Rockhole Community Council as well as Ntaria Council.

Local Government Ministers' Reconciliation Action Plans

On 3 November 2000, the Prime Minister, State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association, through the Council of Australian Governments, agreed on a framework to advance reconciliation with Australia's Indigenous peoples. As part of this framework, the Council of Australian Governments directed Ministerial Councils - including the Local Government Ministers' Council - to develop action plans, performance reporting strategies and benchmarks to advance reconciliation.

In agreeing to the framework, the Council of Australian Governments identified three priority areas for action that reflect the priorities of Indigenous people. They are:

  • investing in community leadership;
  • reviewing and re-engineering programmes and services to ensure they deliver practical measures that support families, children and young people. In particular, governments agreed to look at measures for tackling family violence, drug and alcohol dependency and other symptoms of community dysfunction; and
  • forging greater links between the business sector and Indigenous communities to help promote economic independence.

The framework includes a new approach for governments based on partnerships and shared responsibilities with Indigenous communities, and programme flexibility and coordination between government agencies, with a focus on local communities and outcomes.

In relation to developing an action plan for the Local Government Ministers' Council in response to the Council of Australian Governments' directive, each jurisdictions was asked to participate in a working party to develop a draft working paper for consideration by the Local Government Ministers' Council. With Commonwealth funding, the Australian Local Government Association agreed to take a lead role by engaging a consultant to work with the working party.

The working party has representation from the Commonwealth, each of the States and the Australian Local Government Association and is being assisted by an officer from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. At the first meeting of the newly formed Local Government and Planning Ministers' Council, the Council is expected to consider the draft action plan prepared by the working party for Local Government Ministers.

Achieving reconciliation will require that positive and effective steps are taken to address Indigenous disadvantage so Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the chance to share in the range of opportunities available to Australians. The Council of Australian Governments' meeting in November 2000 committed the Federal Government, the States and Territories and local government - through the Australian Local Government Association - to the reconciliation process by agreeing to collectively pursue measures to address Indigenous disadvantage. Although the work of Local Government Ministers and of councils in support of the reconciliation process will be but one element of a much larger process, the effectiveness of this work will be important to achieving the desired outcome for Indigenous people.

The development of performance reporting strategies and benchmarks are key elements of the framework required by the Council of Australian Governments. That is, measuring and comparing the progress made towards achieving particular reconciliation outcomes. This is also an area identified by the Commonwealth Grants Commission in their review of the financial assistance grants arrangements. The Commission said that the Commonwealth, together with the States and Indigenous organisations, should work to develop the performance measures that measure the performance of councils in providing services to Indigenous people. Once these have been developed, the Commonwealth Grants Commission said, they should be applied and the results published in the National Report (Commonwealth Grants Commission 2001, p.27). This will be a key task for Local Government Ministers.

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