Hopes for a workable, well-funded Indigenous Congress — once lauded as a turning point in Australia’s reconciliation process— are in tatters, with the organisation set up to unite Indigenous Australians on the brink of folding.
Directors of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples are seeking urgent talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Chairman Rod Little said the Coalition government had not given the Congress enough time to get on its feet and it needed more funding.
“Congress has only had five years,” he said. “There are some things that aren’t perfect for us, but if we look at Indigenous representative bodies around the world, for example the Northern American Indian congress, that took 30 years of development and had a relationship with the US Congress.
“This is the kind of relationship we need to have with the Parliament of Australia so that the First People of this country can be duly recognised and valued and the rights of our people can be represented and acknowledged.”
Mr Turnbull’s office did not respond to inquiries from the NIT. Mr Turnbull met with Mr Little and Congress co-chair Jackie Huggins in Sydney in April.
Mr Little said this week they were having difficulty getting through to the Prime Minister and his office seemed to be biased against them.
“I don’t want to be pointing the finger at anyone, but that is disrespectful of the democratically-elected voice of the people,” he said. “To treat First Australians like this is disgraceful.”
He said the organisation had shrunk from more than 30 employees to a handful of volunteer and part-time workers, hampering its ability to do its job. Its chief executive officer also recently left.
“When we knew we were looking down the barrel of less and less chance of resources then most people including the CEO were looking for other opportunities,” Mr Little said.
In 2011 when the Congress was launched there had been high hopes for its future.
Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said it marked a new beginning for effective national representation of Australia’s First People.
In a statement at the time he said the moment would go down in history as a turning point in Australia’s reconciliation process.
But critics of the Congress have been unhappy with its performance and called for reform.
Mr Little said the Congress received $29 million from the former Labor government for its establishment. Labor had pledged another $15 million to keep it running until 2018 and it had had time to find ways to support itself.
But he said the Coalition government had a different agenda when it came to power in 2013.
“Congress is the only national voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said. “It’s the only body elected democratically by its people.
“We represent almost 9000 individual members and we also have almost 200 community organisations, national peaks, as well as service providing organisations.
“If you think about that network the reach is potentially hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
Mr Little said all political parties needed to collaborate to make sure the Congress was not at the whim of whichever party was in government.
“There needs to be some vision from the Parliament of Australia,” he said. “The Parliament needs to realise the value Congress can do. Change doesn’t happen if you are talking about long-term social change during a term of government.
“That’s what we’re up against. That’s why we want to have a fundamental relationship with the Parliament of Australia and we can say on the international stage that Australia is upholding its obligations on human rights but also the rights of the First Peoples.”
Mr Little said he did not know how much longer the Congress could last. He said it was looking at the possibility of introducing membership fees which could range from $10 for an individual up to $100 for organisations.
“If we don’t have funds in our account to pay the rent we will be homeless,” he said.
In June this year the Congress and other peak Indigenous organisations released The Redfern Statement, which called for urgent government action in overhauling Indigenous strategy, engagement and funding.