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Aboriginal Community Control: Local Decision Making in Australia’s Northern Territory

An update from the Northern Territory Government on how they have implemented the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum into The Community Control Continuum project.

Local Decision Making (LDM) is providing a pathway for Aboriginal people and organisations to take control of the delivery of government services and programs in their communities in the Northern Territory of Australia. The Community Control Continuum, based on the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum, is an important tool in the LDM framework, helping Aboriginal people identify the extent to which they wish to be involved in the governance of their community. The spectrum ranges from inform to empower allowing leaders to decide for themselves how things are done in their community and their level of participation moving forward, ultimately leading to greater self determination.

Australia is home to one of the world’s longest continuing cultures with Aboriginal people inhabiting the continent for at least the last 65,000 years. This connection is felt no more strongly than in the Northern Territory where Aboriginal people make up 30.3 per cent of the population, and approximately 50 per cent of the Territory’s land and 80 per cent of the coastline is Aboriginal owned. More than 74,000 Aboriginal people live in communities defined as remote or very remote, with more than 100 Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken, making English often a third or fourth language. Adding to the many different language and culture groups, the Northern Territory is characterised by sparsely populated regions, long distances and harsh climates, challenging the delivery of government services and programs to Aboriginal Territorians.

The Northern Territory Government has an ambitious reform agenda to transform the relationship it has with Aboriginal Territorians in order to support self determination. Underpinning this strategy is Local Decision Making (LDM), a 10 year community driven process under which government is ceding decision making back to Aboriginal communities. LDM is a Whole of Government policy endorsed by Cabinet in August 2018 envisaging Aboriginal Territorians determining their own future through the transition of services and programs from government to community control. The basic premise of LDM is local decisions are the best decisions, acknowledging there is no one homogenous Aboriginal Northern Territory and those in community understand the issues and challenges of their community better than those in the urban capital city, Darwin. The LDM process is guided by five principles, namely self determination, place based, flexible, co design and community control.

A key component of the LDM framework is the Community Control Continuum, adapted from the IAP2 Public Participation Spectrum.

The Community Control Continuum guides the LDM engagement process by recognising different communities have different aspirations, in this context, the level of control members may want for their community. Where one community wishes to run their own health clinic, another may be content with how the service is currently running under government or simply seeking to have input before decisions are made by government. Alternatively, this latter community may have other priorities, for example to build their own houses. The Continuum helps Aboriginal communities identify the level of decision making they currently have as well as articulate the process for greater control. Any service or program owned or funded by the Northern Territory Government is on the table for negotiation from health care, housing, education, jobs and training, women’s/men’s programs to local government and law and justice, although government will work with community to identify how far they can progress on the continuum in relation to a service.

Currently there are nine signed LDM agreements between government and communities across the Northern Territory. In line with LDM’s guiding principles, these agreements take different forms and encompass various service delivery aspirations and associated levels of control. The Groote Archipelago LDM agreement provides a good illustration and demonstrates the possible extent of community led decision making. The Groote Archipelago is located approximately 650 km east of Darwin off the coast of East Arnhem Land and includes Groote Eylandt and numerous small islands. In November 2018, the Northern Territory Government and Anindilyakwa Land Council signed the Agreement outlining identified services delivered by government in the region that would be transferred over time to community and short, medium and long term priorities. The Agreement requires detailed plans to be developed for each priority detailing how the transition from government to community control will occur.

To date, three Implementation Plans have been signed including Housing, Economic Development and Law, Justice and Rehabilitation. The Housing Implementation Plan seeks to see all community housing transfer from the Northern Territory Government to the newly established community controlled Anindilyakwa Housing Aboriginal Corporation. On the Community Control Continuum, this is an example of community involvement at the ‘Empower’ level as decisions will be made by the community through the Anindilyakwa Housing Aboriginal Corporation with little operational involvement from government. In relation to the Law, Justice and Rehabilitation Implementation Plan, the initiatives identified by community include establishing a Cultural Rehabilitation Centre as an alternative to youth detention and a Law and Order Group to advise the Cultural Rehabilitation Centre. Community have also signalled their desire to participate in Community Courts and develop other community safety initiatives. These programs are at the ‘Involve’ level as community seeks to have greater input when Anindilyakwa people have contact with the justice system and the following rehabilitation but acknowledge the need to operate within the existing justice system. Work is now underway developing the next Implementation Plan around Education.

LDM is not a new idea for governments or communities. In the Northern Territory, communities have been successfully assuming responsibility for the delivery of primary health care services from government for over 20 years. Communities have also had input into how their local school is run including adopting flexible school calendars based around cultural requirements and establishing co principal arrangements providing an opportunity for community leadership at the management level. What is new is bringing government and communities together in a genuine partnership for improved services and generational outcomes in remote communities through the LDM framework. The Community Control Continuum is an important tool recognising communities have different aspirations and empowering local people to develop local solutions to local issues.

More information about LDM including the framework policy, tool and templates and signed LDM agreements are available at ldm.nt.gov.au