Healthy Communities through Consultation: An Australian Experience

An Excerpt



During the 1970s, the Australian Government offered to Aboriginal tribes/bands the opportunity to attain a kind of municipal status. This would enable them to set up town councils and to take more responsibility for the development of their communities. Some tribal communities in the Northern Territory assumed the responsibility for policy and planning activities, supported by their community advisor.

One such community was the Tiwi, living on Bathurst Island off the northern coast of Australia. The Tiwi are one of three major Aboriginal tribes which survived to modern times with a definite identity. Living on Bathurst and Melville Islands had isolated them from the Australian mainland. In 1911, a Catholic Mission was established on Bathurst Island. The Mission took on the responsibility of “governing” the Tiwi.

In 1975, the Tiwi community approached the superintendent of the Mission to request assistance in learning to govern themselves according to the Australian model. The superintendent approached an Aboriginal social worker and activist, Margaret Valadian, who then approached IBM for help in training the Tiwi to operate a Town Council effectively.

The Nguiu Council had been in started in the 1960s with the power to make and enforce policies concerning their people and the physical development of their environment. In practice, however, they exercised only a limited control of water, sewage, and power systems, leaving health, education, and agriculture to the Catholic Mission. As Ms. Valadian commented in an interview for the IBM Quarterly (Valadian 1975):

Government policy of self-determination for Aborigines prematurely
removed the strong administrative structures which formerly
operated in tribal communities, without providing the appropriate
information and support systems which would have enabled
tribal councils to know the extent and parameters of their
authority. More importantly, the Government failed to provide
the necessary training and encouragement for these Councils to
accept and actively exercise these responsibilities.
Yet given the pressure and pace of development which is now taking
place on Bathurst Island — 50 homes scheduled for completion
this year; new school and hospital facilities currently under construction;
a rapidly developing bi-lingual education programme—
it is essential that the Council becomes much more involved
in planning the development of the Nguiu community. But this
will not happen as long as the Council is effectively excluded —
voluntarily or involuntarily — from the decision-making process
through lack of perception, confidence and planning skills.
In all three areas, decisions could be made now which could be
quite detrimental to the future development of the community,
but as the Council is not sufficiently geared to assume responsibility
for planning in these areas, it is unable to reflect or protect
community interests.

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