In the two centuries following Australia’s colonisation, the First People were at the receiving end of shameful cruelty and brutality. In response to this, many were herded into missions, often under the guise of it being ‘for their protection’.

In the 1970’s, Australia embraced a ‘rights agenda’ coming off the successful 1967 Referendum. The national mood was for righting the wrongs and an acknowledgement of the past ill-treatment.

Despite the following thirty years of goodwill, broad political bi-partnership, rights driven policies and increases in funding, deep disadvantage remained the norm across Indigenous Australia. Indeed, in many ways the lot of First Australians deteriorated. Many Indigenous people started to look back at the ‘mission days’ with fondness.

On Cape York, despair ran deep as we approached the new century. From 1990, the old people of Cape York gathered at a series of summits, determined to stem the tide of misery and build a better future for their children and grand-children. For them, the spiralling dysfunction in their communities stood as a cruel testament to the failure of the rights agenda.

They could now see that the good intentions had robbed them of the very thing they needed – the right to take responsibility. At the final summit, they presented the Premier of Queensland, Peter Bettie, with a Kaban – a formal communique. In it they stated:

From Rights to Responsibility

The welfare system has created welfare passivity in remote Indigenous communities.

In 2008, the communities of Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge signed up to the Cape York Welfare Reform initiative to end passive welfare, restore communal and family harmony, and create more vibrant and prosperous communities.

The Welfare Reform project, articulated in our ground-breaking report From Hand-out to Hand Up, aims to end passive welfare, restore communal and family harmony, and create more vibrant and prosperous communities. The trial focused on achieving gains in social responsibility, education, economic opportunity and home ownership.

The reforms are built around ‘push’ and ‘pull’ mechanisms to get individuals and families to change from passivity, dependence and dysfunction and foster responsibility, self-reliance and functioning through increasing the conditionality of welfare payments. Pull mechanisms include providing opportunities and investment in capability-building.

From Responsibility to Empowerment

When twenty-five Indigenous leaders from eight regions across Australia met at the Garma Festival in 2013, they agreed that one very common, all pervasive and deeply frustrating issue stood out.

The leaders and the communities they serve had very limited power to chart their own destinies– all the power remained in the hands of Governments. The leaders agreed to join forces under the Empowered Communities banner to achieve transformational change.

They committed to develop a proposal to government setting out a framework for comprehensive structural reform of Indigenous affairs in their regions. This reform would articulate a new, more balanced partnership with governments. This was the first time this level of Indigenous Leadership presented a solution to Government that was not solicited.

While the Empowered Communities model is complex, at its heart it is very simple. The problem with the current paradigm of Indigenous affairs is that it is sclerotic. Its centre of gravity is the old disempowerment, based on passive welfare and government overreach into areas where Indigenous  people need to be responsible, and neglect in areas of proper government responsibility.

Empowered Communities is about shifting that centre of gravity.