Australia’s ATSI communities experience a number of barriers to engaging with government and mainstream Australia. The barriers are a result of a complex combination of historical, geographical, cultural, socio-political and socio-economic factors and that government services and communications are often not accessible to diverse or remote communities.
ATSI communities are diverse: each community is different, often comprising numerous small scale, locally autonomous and sometimes fragmented organisations, each with unique historical and cultural characteristics. This means engaging with ATSI communities is always context dependent, a one size fits all approach to engagement is unlikely to work or be sustainable.
The diversity is demonstrated in the 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey figures.
Australia’s ATSI population represents 2.5 per cent of the total population of Australia (520,350 persons). Just over 68% of ATSI people live outside major cities. 24% of ATSI people live in remote or very remote areas, and of those almost 45% spoke an ATSI language (of which there are 145 spoken) as their main language at home.
ATSI controlled charities
The current ACNC data does not identify which charities are ATSI controlled charities, however we estimate there are 2,000-3,000 ATSI controlled charities registered with the ACNC spread across Australia.
It is important to be aware of the history of ATSI controlled charities in understanding the challenges inherent with community self-management.
Organisations developed out of the need to provide ATSI communities with representation and services that were either inadequately or inappropriately provided by mainstream agencies, or were not accessible through the means available to the wider community.
These organisations continue to play a major role in the delivery of services to ATSI communities, as both community representative bodies and service providers in the areas of health and aged care, housing, child welfare, medical, employment, legal, education, art and cultural services.
ATSI Australians may be reluctant to access mainstream services that are less culturally appropriate.
ATSI controlled charities are often central gathering places for many community members, and provide a safe environment for community members to meet and participate in community decision-making; group or individual activities; as well as utilising their services.
Leadership and structure of ATSI controlled charities
ATSI controlled charities are an important part of contemporary ATSI society and their sustainability is a central factor in reducing ATSI disadvantage. It is important that they are supported to enable them to continue this role.
Whilst some ATSI leaders have a significant knowledge and experience of contemporary western governance practices, many ATSI people who hold positions on boards of management or governing committees of ATSI controlled charities have had little formal (western) education.
Appropriate support in fulfilling their obligations as a Board or Committee member is therefore essential to ensure office-holders understand and are able to comply with the legal requirements.
The development of appropriate engagement and support mechanisms requires that public servants who engage with ATSI communities have an awareness of significant cultural considerations that impact on policy delivery.
ATSI controlled charities provide a variety of services and range from small charities to very large organisations.
The inability of some ATSI organisations to achieve their desired outcomes has, been linked to a poor understanding of western governance systems.
As early as 1995 the report “The Financial Viability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Organisations” identified the key role of sound corporate management in supporting the viability of ATSI controlled charities and services to communities.
This sentiment continues to be reflected in current policy with the focus on strengthening leadership among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a critical component of Closing the Gap including:
- support and encourage good practice engagement
- make sure ATSI controlled charities are well run
- train leaders and encourage strong leadership in communities
- build better relationships with ATSI communities
- support ATSI strengths and ideas
Management and accountability of ATSI organisations
The regulatory environment within which ATSI controlled charities operate is complex as there is a wide range of legal structures used each of which has different regulatory requirements.
Some are incorporated associations or cooperatives regulated by state governments. Others are Commonwealth-regulated under the Corporations Act 2001 or by the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act).
There are also trusts and foundations and some organisations established by statute, such as some land councils, which may have different legal requirements.
A picture emerges in some parts of Australia, particularly in remote areas, of ATSI leaders of organisations commonly trying to manage organisations in two worlds (that of government and that of traditional law and culture).
English may not be their first language and literacy and educational levels achieved may not enable understanding government requirements in the format in which they are usually presented.
Further, management and accountability of ATSI controlled charities is multi-layered, complex accountabilities, including:
- government regulation of the particular legal structure,
- ACNC regulation and reporting,
- funding agreement contractual and acquittal requirements
- community cultural expectations and
- self-determination ideals
which can become intertwined adding a further layer of complexity for Directors and management.
ATSI groups and communities often have well established governance structures but they are not the same as the western governance model for compliance purposes. This distinction is important.
The common western model of regulation through corporate governance does not address the particular ATSI challenges raised above.
Culturally appropriate governance models need to be acknowledged to understand the wide range of circumstances in which ATSI controlled charities operate.
Australian Department of Administrative Services & Walter & Turnbull & Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Housing, Infrastructure and Health Branch 1995, Review of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander housing organisations : the financial viability of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander housing organisations : final report, ATSIC, Housing, Infrastructure & Health Branch, [Canberra]