As the Commonwealth argues over a voice to Parliament for Indigenous Australians, the ACT’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is quietly electing the next round of representatives to ATSIEB, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body.
ATSIEB was constituted in 2008 and represents all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Territory, reflecting that in addition to traditional owners, there are many Indigenous people who have come here for education, work and other reasons.
“We are unique in having a voice to government in the ACT,” says Katrina Fanning, the Elected Body’s chair for the last term and a former ACT Australian of the Year.
“No other mechanism in Australia has the legislative accountability that we have. A few statutory authorities have narrow, specific areas of influence, but the Elected Body’s role is across the whole of government in the ACT.
“We listen to issues in our community, look at what’s happening or not happening and work through a formal agreement and governance arrangements to make the necessary changes.”
Fanning says that ATSIEB has been an important mechanism for giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a seat at the policy table in the ACT. In turn, the Elected Body is accountable to its community.
There are strong in-built mechanisms like public hearings for transparency, and Fanning says there have been a number of measurable improvements for local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a result of the whole-of-government agreement across the 10-year term that governs ATSIEB.
The big picture priorities are around health, wellbeing and education. Important structural changes have been implemented on ATSIEB’s advice, including ensuring that a portion of human services – like out of home care, youth services and drug and alcohol programs – can be delivered by Aboriginal-controlled organisations.
There’s been a focus on understanding where and how Aboriginal people are likely to encounter systemic racism when they engage with government services that in turn leads to training for better awareness among providers.
ATSIEB can also influence practical decisions around Aboriginal people’s lives. For example, Fanning says, they’ve been able to argue for the critical importance of local bus routes that go past Aboriginal health centres, the jail and juvenile detention centre, given high rates of imprisonment and health issues in the community.
Older people’s housing that factors in lower life expectancy for Aboriginal people is another practical outcome, as is re-opening and upgrading Boomanulla Oval and the Aboriginal health advisory group working out of the Canberra Hospital.
“When we get structural things right, we can influence other things,” Fanning explains.
While the broad direction for the Elected Body remains the same under the 10-year agreement with government, candidates at each election bring their own priorities to the table from the local community and can influence the direction the Elected Body takes.
Fanning is encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the ACT to get involved in voting and advocating for changes and a positive impact on the community.
“We work really hard to give people in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community a say. We’re not gatekeepers; we’re trying to build pathways for community leadership and give people experience and a chance to use their expertise”, she says.
There are 18 candidates for this year’s election. Voting closes on 10 July at the end of NAIDOC Week. You can find more information about the candidates and ATSIEB here.