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Chapter 5 : Services to Indigenous communities

All levels of government in Australia have responsibility for providing services to their constituents and all communities and individuals have the right to reasonable access to these services. In many instances there is still a significant difference in the level of access to services by Indigenous individuals and communities compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Indigenous people in context

According to the ABS (cat. no. 4704.0), the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was estimated to be 458 520 or 2.4 per cent of the total population at 30 June 2001.

The age structures of Indigenous populations are strikingly different from that of the non-Indigenous population (see Figure 5.1). Much greater proportions of Indigenous people are found in the age groups under 20 years and noticeably lower proportions are found in the age groups over 40 years compared with corresponding proportions in the non-Indigenous population. The median age of the Indigenous population is 20 years, compared with 36 years for the non-Indigenous population.

Figure 5.1 Age profile of Indigenous and total population, Australia, 2001

Many Indigenous people, especially those living in remote communities, do not have adequate quality housing, reliable supplies of water and electricity or adequate sewerage and drainage systems, all of which have an impact on health. The Indigenous population of Australia generally has poorer health than the non-Indigenous population and compares unfavourably on most other socioeconomic indicators.

Indigenous children were over-represented in child protection systems across most of Australia in 2001-02. The incidence of Indigenous children being placed under care and protection orders and in out-of-home care was around six times that for non-Indigenous Australian children. Almost two-thirds of children in out-of-home care were placed with Indigenous relatives/kin or with other Indigenous care givers. These are the preferred placements under the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle that all jurisdictions have adopted.

While most Indigenous people live in urban areas of Australia, the Indigenous population as a whole is less urbanised than non-Indigenous Australians.

The age structure of the Indigenous population, their level of health and their socioeconomic status has a great impact on the types of services Indigenous people need. Governments at all levels are working to redress the imbalance in access to services by Indigenous people.

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Reporting requirements

The Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1995 requires an assessment, based on comparable national data, of the delivery of local government services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Performance measures have not been developed to assess performance of councils in providing services to Indigenous people, however, all States, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory provide reports on progress in this area.

Full progress reports for 2002-03 from State agencies and for local government associations on provision of local government services to Indigenous communities are at Appendix H.

A summary is provided below. These reports identify a range of priorities, strategies and actions, and a variety of differing approaches.

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State reports

In New South Wales the Department of Local Government supports Aboriginal Network Conferences. These conferences provide opportunities for networking, raising cultural awareness and sharing ideas on local government issues affecting Aboriginal people. During 2002-03 two conferences were held: one hosted by Ballina Council in October 2002; and the other hosted by Liverpool, Fairfield and Holroyd Councils in March 2003.

As at 30 June 2002, 17 (of 172) councils had implemented the Aboriginal Mentoring Program with 24 Aboriginal participants, and 48 councils had established Aboriginal advisory or consultative committees.

Victoria reports there is increasing engagement of Indigenous communities on consultative committees and reference groups established by councils, this being especially effective in environment and heritage areas. Also there is greater appreciation of the contribution of Indigenous communities to cultural events, even in the smaller, non-metropolitan councils.

The Queensland Government is attempting to establish genuine partnerships between government and Indigenous communities through a range of measures including 'Negotiating Tables' and the 'Government Champions' program. Funding has been provided to each community to allow community leaders to consult within their community, revise work done to date and synthesise and present issues to negotiate with the government.

During 2002-03 the State Library of Queensland established the first eight Indigenous Knowledge Centres to provide library services tailored to community needs and act as meeting places for the communities.

In Western Australia a multi-department Memorandum of Understanding has been signed to improve local government services to Indigenous communities. This involves developing a partnership approach for delivery of governance, municipal and environmental health services through shires, rather than the current separate funding arrangements for Indigenous communities. The initiative aims to develop better forms of governance in communities and skill development whilst providing more effective service delivery.

In May 2003 South Australia released a new policy framework entitled Doing It Right. This framework is driven by nine key principles aimed at achieving positive and lasting outcomes for Aboriginal people living in South Australia. This project aims to work in concert with previously established strategies and programs including various Aboriginal networks, a web site, and reconciliation and land use agreements.

Tasmania is continuing to negotiate partnership agreements with individual councils and regional groupings of local government. Through this process the government is seeking to promote links between local government and the Aboriginal community. The process is aiming to identify key issues affecting Aboriginal people in a local government area and developing strategies to address these issues.

The Northern Territory announced the Building Stronger Regions - Stronger Futures strategy during the year. A key element of this strategy is commitment to negotiating partnership agreements. These will be negotiated by the government and regional representatives and will identify service delivery outcomes to be achieved and initiatives to be pursued. They will be monitored and evaluated through a rigorous, formal and transparent process.

The Australian Capital Territory established the United Ngunnawal Elders Council for the Ngunnawal community during the year. Each Ngunnawal family has been allocated a position on the council. This forum will be the major liaison mechanism for the Territory's Indigenous community and to date some of their work has included establishing a register for Welcome to Country ceremonies, liaising with a number of schools to establish an elders program, and contributing to consultations on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

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Commonwealth expenditure and progress

Financial assistance grants

In 2002-03, 90 Indigenous councils were receiving financial assistance grants. Some of these councils are established under mainstream local government legislation of the State, such as Aurukun and Mornington Shires in Queensland and Ngaanyatjarraku in Western Australia. Others are established under separate State legislation such as the Deed of Grant in Trust councils in Queensland. The final group consists of those bodies that the Federal Minister, on advice from the State Minister, has 'declared' to be local governing bodies so they can receive financial assistance grants. Table 5.1 shows the distribution of Indigenous councils by State and by the way in which they have become eligible for the financial assistance grants.

Table 5.1 Distribution of Indigenous councils by eligibility type and by State, June 2003

Established under State local government legislation
Established under separate State legislation
Declared local governing bodies
Total Indigenous councils



Source: Department of Transport and Regional Services, unpublished data

In 2002-03, the Commonwealth provided these Indigenous councils with around $21.3 million in financial assistance grants. Of this, $13.7 million was in general purpose grants and $7.7 million in local road grants.

In addition to these grants to Indigenous councils, the Western Australian Local Government Grants Commission allocated $1.5 million from the financial assistance grants local road component (about 2%) to councils for access roads serving remote Aboriginal communities.

In most States, the methodology grants commissions use 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 help achieve equitable grant outcomes (see Appendix C).

In addition to the grants Indigenous councils receive, mainstream councils whose community is partly made up of Indigenous people also receive general purpose grants in respect of those people. The fifth National Principle requires Local Government Grants Commissions to assess the specific needs of these people when the grants are allocated. It states:

Financial assistance shall be allocated to councils in a way, which recognises the needs of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders within their boundaries.

In the CGC's review of the operation of the Local Government (Financial Assistance) Act 1995, the Commission stated that to comply with this National Principle:

Equalisation assessments [by the Local Government Grants Commissions] should reflect differences in the demand for services by Indigenous people, the cost of providing services to them and the capacity to raise revenue from them - regardless of whether they live in a discrete community or in a mainstream community (p. 27).

Local Government Grants Commissions must recognise the needs of discrete Indigenous communities within council boundaries when allocating grants to councils. This means the general purpose grants the Grants Commission allocates should provide the council with sufficient financial capacity to provide the normal range of services to all people within the council boundaries including Indigenous people in these discrete communities even if the discrete communities are not charged rates.

However, the CGC found, in its review, that Local Government Grants Commissions are not adequately or consistently implementing the fifth National Principle.

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Other initiatives involving local government

The Australian Government is involved in a number of initiatives aimed at promoting Indigenous participation in and contribution to local governance. Three of these initiatives are the National Awards for Local Government, the Local Government Ministers' reconciliation action plans, and the COAG approach to service provision in Indigenous communities.

National Awards for Local Government

The 2003 National Awards for Local Government included a category 'Strengthening Indigenous Communities', sponsored by the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services. This award aimed to highlight initiatives by local government and community councils that demonstrate innovation and/or excellence in their approach to increasing opportunities for Indigenous people to engage and participate in the affairs of the local community. It also aimed to highlight improving community governance and service delivery arrangements for Indigenous people.

There were 12 entries in this category. Projects entered in the category included:

  • establishing formal agreements and/or memorandums of understanding between local governments and the local Indigenous community
  • working in partnership to develop frameworks and strategies for improving service provision
  • increasing involvement by Indigenous people in local government, community life and employment
  • progressing reconciliation issues
  • encouraging education and training opportunities for Indigenous people
  • establishing cultural and sporting events and projects.

The category winner was the Shellharbour City Council for the Koori Bus Driver Training, Employment and Transport Subsidy project. The project recruited 25 Indigenous workers regionally into four community transport projects, three operating from local government. The workers were inducted into existing volunteer transport projects where a core of volunteer community bus drivers supported and encouraged them. The recruits were given training in a series of motor vehicle licences and employed in casual driving positions. The project has resulted in opportunities for the local Indigenous community to hire buses at a subsidised rate for outings, for regular shopping trips, and for youth and elder excursions. The trained recruits are linked with relevant workers with, for example, Centrelink, Transport New South Wales to help them access further employment opportunities.

The Rural winner in this category was the Mapoon Aboriginal Council for the Mapoon Dreaming - Planning for 2000 and Beyond project. This project also won a National Award for Excellence. The project succeeded in engaging the majority of Indigenous residents in identifying needs, building a vision, setting priorities and planning strategies. As a result, Mapoon Aboriginal Council has developed a number of new economic, social and environmental initiatives, resulting in significant employment outcomes, income-generation, capacity-building and greater self-reliance. Issues being addressed are similar to those experienced in other Indigenous communities, including the difficulties of operating in a remote location. Particular attention has been paid to identifying barriers to development, including infrastructure, staffing, training and resource needs.

There were also three commendations in this category for projects submitted by the Bega Valley Shire and Albury City Councils from New South Wales, and the City of Canning from Western Australia.

Some of the other award categories included projects and initiatives aimed at improving service provision and/or participation in local government by Indigenous people. See Appendix I for details on the 2003 National Awards for Local Government, including category winners.

Local Government Ministers' reconciliation action plans

In November 2000, COAG agreed a framework to advance reconciliation with Australia's Indigenous people. As part of this framework, COAG directed Ministerial Councils - including the Local Government Ministers' Conference - to develop action plans, performance reporting strategies and benchmarks to advance reconciliation.

The Local Government Joint Officers Group established a working party, comprising Commonwealth, State and local government officials, to develop a draft Reconciliation Action Plan for Local Government Ministers' Conference consideration. A consultant employed through the Australian Local Government Association coordinated research and drafting of the plan. The working party developed a draft Reconciliation Action Plan for local government.

The Local Government Ministers' Conference has been replaced by the Local Government and Planning Ministers' Council, which held its first meeting in July 2003. A Reconciliation Action Plan, which covers both local government and planning issues, and which incorporates the local government draft Reconciliation Action Plan, is being prepared for consideration by the Local Government and Planning Ministers' Council.

Council of Australian Governments' approach to service provision in Indigenous communities

COAG agreed, in April 2002, to trial a new approach to improving coordination and delivery of government programs and services for Indigenous communities. The relevant governments have agreed to work in partnership with Indigenous communities to support them to develop and implement long-lasting solutions to local problems.

Through discussions and consultations with Indigenous communities around the country, the opportunity for up to 10 nominated communities to develop a different kind of relationship with governments is being offered. Part of this new approach is the understanding that each region or community is different and may have different priorities. An important part of the new approach is that governments help communities identify their local and regional priorities and agree outcomes that are documented in local agreements.

To date, Indigenous communities that have agreed to work with governments in this way include: Cape York in Queensland, Wadeye in the Northern Territory, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands in South Australia and the far east Kimberley region in Western Australia.

A number of Australian Government department secretaries are sponsors of nominated COAG Indigenous trial sites. The Department of Transport and Regional Services is the lead Australian Government agency in the Western Australia project. The Department already had a level of commitment in the Kimberley region through the Kimberley Area Consultative Committee, the Sustainable Regions Program and broader departmental programs.

The Department of Transport and Regional Services, the Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs and the Halls Creek Shire Council will take lead roles in coordinating across government agencies and working with the Indigenous communities in the region.

There are five discrete Indigenous communities involved - Wirrimanu (Balgo), Yakka Yakka, Mulan, Mindibungu (Billiluna) and Kundat Djaru (Ringers Soak) - with approximately 1200 people in a site that covers 26 000 square kilometres.

Communities participating in the COAG projects will be able to use the budgeted funds to initiate a wide range of projects to build capacity and improve social and economic wellbeing. This funding will allow testing and modelling of innovative approaches that will have a potential to be applied more broadly in other areas.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services has engaged Lingiari Foundation to conduct a study to look at the range of issues facing communities in the Western Australian site, and how community members would like to deal with them. Lingiari is currently working with all the communities, helping them develop their skills, making sure all views are heard and collecting information. It is expected the study will be completed by March 2004.

The Departments of Transport and Regional Services and Family and Community Services have combined resources to fund a Community Initiatives Officer to progress this project. The officer started in June 2003 and is based in the Halls Creek Shire Council Chambers. The officer's key responsibility is to support a whole-of-government approach to doing business with communities in the region.

Fortnightly meetings of Australian Government, Western Australian Government and Halls Creek Local Government officials are held to discuss and progress issues. The Western Australian heads of appropriate Australian Government agencies attend monthly meetings in Perth to ensure information is shared and specific issues are discussed and progressed.

Before announcement of the agreement to work together, officers from the Department of Transport and Regional Services, the Indigenous Communities Coordination Taskforce, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services and the Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs visited Billiluna, Mulan, Balgo and Kundat Djaru to discuss key community issues. These included:

  • establishing a Community Reference Group to assist with community governance and overall decision making during the project. The Group would have two representatives from each community and a person from the Shire, the Department of Transport and Regional Services, Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and the Tjurabalan Land Corporation
  • developing a proposal for two Community Consulting Agents from each community who would receive employment and training and provide communities with an avenue for having a 'voice' within the Group
  • developing a 'Community Safety - Grog and Justice' initiative that would include a number of individual workshops tailored to meet community needs
  • establishing an administration centre in Billiluna (communities to confirm the location) that would provide a place for community meetings.

All parties agree that the key issue is for Aboriginal people to be in a position to take responsibility for management and long-term planning of their communities. This means the communities, and all levels of government, must make a serious investment in building capacity and developing effective governance.

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