Aboriginal Advisory/Consultative committees offer a proactive and collaborative method of facilitating genuine and meaningful participation in council decision-making by local Aboriginal communities. To operate successfully, they should be based on two key principles:
Dignity and Respect
It is critical to ensure that Aboriginal people are treated with dignity and respect. Tangible recognition of Aboriginal history, heritage, culture and protocols is paramount. The guidelines provide some baseline advice, but it is important for individual councils to have a good understanding of their communities at the local level.
Positive engagement requires mutual understanding and shared objectives. To make sure all participants are on the same page, it is recommended that all issues, including priorities, limitations and benefits to the community, are clearly articulated. Care needs to be taken to cross check that all participants have understood these issues. Similarly, any limitations and constraints on outcomes need to be clearly articulated. There may be legal, financial or policy restraints that will limit what is practically achievable.
Terms of Reference
These should include a clear statement of the objectives of the committee, link to the goals of the council’s Delivery Program, and align with council decision-making practices. Basic governance and accounting standards must be in place, and activities subject to critical oversight, as for other committees established under section 355 of the Local Government Act 1993.
It is recommended that the Committee be chaired by a council representative who is acknowledged and respected by Aboriginal communities, and perceived as a person with strong ability to influence council policy.
Council membership should include elected representatives and key senior council employees who have an interest and are committed to participating in the process to enhance outcomes for the Aboriginal community.
Community membership needs include key Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders who have an interest in and commitment to Aboriginal matters. Membership should also encompass the diversity of opinions and issues within Aboriginal communities. It should also be flexible. Aboriginal communities do not elect representatives in the same way as councils, so there should be sufficient flexibility to allow different Aboriginal people to attend meetings, depending on which issues are on the agenda.
Meeting frequency and times should be fixed and regular. However, it is important that the schedule allows Aboriginal representatives opportunities to go back to their communities and canvass opinions.
Venues for meetings will need to be negotiated with community representatives. In many areas council offices may be entirely appropriate – and may well be expected by community members. However, in some areas there may be strong cultural and historical reasons why this is not the case, so it is wise to ascertain members preferences for meeting venues.
There is also the potential to meet within Aboriginal communities, sending a strong symbolic message while allowing council committee members to see local conditions and gain a greater first-hand understanding of issues to be discussed. However, such opportunities need to be by community invitation.
When seeking the input of Aboriginal communities it is essential to have a well-resourced committee, particularly in relation to administrative support. Council should also consider the resource requirements for community members. For example, assistance with transport or childcare may be critical in supporting the participation of the right people and commitment.
Agendas for meetings should be open and reflect the issues raised by committee members. They should be distributed well in advance of scheduled meetings to allow sufficient time for Aboriginal representatives to consult with their communities. Time investment in this stage of committee meetings will facilitate the smooth operation of the committee and help ensure discussions are productive, thereby saving councils time in the long run.
It is highly recommended that the committee negotiate a Meeting Code of Practice with Aboriginal representatives. Ensuring Aboriginal committee members have a direct say in how the meeting will be managed is a concrete demonstration that their views will be given weight, and helps build ownership and commitment. Where possible the Code of Meeting Practice should be consistent with the principles of the OLG’s recommended Code of Meeting Practice. It is also appropriate to ensure consistency with the Model Code of Conduct for councils.
Transparency is key, and community members must be clear from the start on how the committee deliberations will impact on council decision-making. The creation of false expectations will significantly damage the process, undermining true collaboration and damaging future community relations.
While it is acknowledged that decision-making processes and the impact the Committee can have on outcomes may vary from issue to issue, transparency must be maintained. The reasons for the difference should be clearly articulated and understood, so participants know and understand when decision-making is to take place, how their contribution will be incorporated, and how it will be acknowledged.