Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

National Indigenous Representative Body workshop

Location: Adelaide

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I would like to begin by acknowledging the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians of this land where we meet today. I am very pleased to be here at this event organised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the Steering Committee he established to guide consultations on a national representative body. An event organised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on an issue that is critical to the future of Indigenous peoples.

Your being here and participating in this workshop is the strong demonstration of your desire to get this right. I want to get it right too. I want your advice about the best way forward. This is not an easy task and I expect that there will be a great diversity of views about the role of the new national representative body and who should be on it.

People have told me that to succeed it must bring divergent views to the table, including the voices of the most powerless. Many have also raised the way in which those organisations which have major national roles will link with the new national representative body. Organisations including National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages, the National Native Title Council and land councils will continue to have important roles.

The states and territories also have different approaches to representative models – some are appointed, some are elected. The question we need to ask is should these many and varied stakeholders play a role in the national representative body and if so how?

The national representative body can also provide a new platform on which to build new partnerships.It offers us an opportunity to build on the impetus of the Apology to work together to overcome the legacy of the past – the entrenched disadvantage and marginalisation of Indigenous people.

As you know, the Government has set six national targets to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – in health, in housing, in educational attainment, in employment. And we have established mechanisms, through the Council of Australian Governments, to measure the rate of progress by all governments against these targets. This is another important area that people have raised with me – how will the national representative body hold governments accountable.

In November last year, all Australian governments signed up to an historic investment to start to close the gap – $4.6 billion for health, housing and economic participation. Of course the money is essential – to provide the health services and build the homes, to get the kids a better education and see adults getting jobs. But to make it effective, high-level, strategic advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is needed so that we spend this money in the best way to benefit as many people as possible.

It is often put to me that the Government has a pre-determined approach for the national representative body. This is not the case. I am determined to give Indigenous Australians every opportunity to contribute to the debate on the nature of the new body. It’s role, structure, functions and operations are matters for Indigenous people to discuss and provide recommendations to Government.

From July to December last year, my Department consulted with many, many people. In fact, over that time, more than 2000 Indigenous people put their ideas forward through meetings and written submissions. This has given us a rich source of views and ideas from across the country. And it’s revealed strongly consistent themes.

We know that people want change in the way governments do business. They want governments to be more engaged with local people to support the development of community capacity. They are also strongly supportive of a structure which encourages the broadest possible representation – a clear gender balance and across various age groups. The need to be truly representative has been a common theme in the submissions we have received. Through our consultations we also know that Indigenous people want the new body to be sustainable even as governments change. And that its members should be leaders of integrity who represent their communities and who are able to inspire and support their people.

As you are aware, during this first phase of consultation many people asked for more time to consider the issues. I thought this was fair enough given that this new representative body will have such a critical role in the future of Indigenous Australians.

So on 1 December I announced a second phase – very importantly led and guided by Indigenous people. I asked Tom Calma to convene a steering committee, to build on the outcomes of the first phase and to provide me with a report in July. This report will incorporate the conclusions drawn from this workshop and any further consultation meetings. The Government is committed to its promise of establishing a representative body in this term of office. I agree with Tom that we should aim to have this body established by the end of this year.

This process underlines the significance of this workshop today. I don’t expect anything other than robust, challenging debate over the next few days. People are telling me that to achieve their goals they will not only need to influence Government policy, but also to help non-Indigenous Australians better understand the challenges and priorities that Indigenous Australians have. Nowhere is this more evident than on the issue of constitutional recognition. We all know how hard it is to get constitutional change in Australia.

It will take a lot of concerted effort. Creating this new representative body will too. New approaches need to be taken and new alliances forged. Your work here, over the next three days, is very important. As I said at the start, I know you are here because you want to get this right. I wish you all well and look forward to receiving Tom’s report in July.