30th September 2020
By Katherine Everest
Blake Baxter is a Wiradjuri man who grew up in the small town of Billimari in NSW, and attended high school in Forbes, NSW. After completing high school, Blake studied and learnt Wiradjuri language, and has worked as a dancer and performer, educating others on Aboriginal culture across a variety of schools in NSW, and at the Waradah Australian Centre in Katoomba.
Waradah Australian Centre’s Cultural Performance works through a chronological timeline of Australia’s history, starting with a depiction of Indigenous Australian culture, and working its way through historical events such as the arrival of Captain Cook, and the Gold Rush.
Reflecting on the timeline of events in these performances, Blake said, “As an Indigenous man watching that, it’s in black and white. The culture shift, and the culture change has just done a 360.”
He feels the cultural shift has meant Indigenous Australians’ history and culture is excluded from community dialogue, and “not even had a conversation about”. For Blake, this includes within local governments across Central West NSW, who he feels do not adequately represent, or take into account the voice of Aboriginal Peoples.
“They just say they do. They don’t. They don’t talk to the people in the community. They just say they represent them.”
“So then as a people, if you’re not being heard, then it leads to a lot of lateral violence. So, with lateral violence comes your drug addictions, and if you’re the minority and you have a drug addiction, you’re two massive steps behind.”
Blake has future aspirations of hosting joint corroborees between Aboriginal, and non-Indigenous community members. Whilst recognising he is still learning Wiradjuri culture, in the future he intends on opening up dialogue with Forbes Shire Council to discuss issues important to him as a Wiradjuri man, including greater representation of Aboriginal Peoples living within the council region.
“In respect to Indigenous Australians, it’s what we are saying, which is respect the land, and the water.”
In the latest statistics released by the NSW State Government Office for Local Government in 2017, the number of elected councillors who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander decreased from 27 councillors in 2012 to 24 councillors in 2017, despite an increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidate numbers from 103 to 110 in the same timeframe. In 2012, only 16% of NSW councils had elected representatives who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. And in both 2012 and 2017 there were no mayors who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
“Some groups are currently under-represented and we need to do more to ensure councils reflect the diversity of their communities. Clearly, some voices are not being heard,” quoted the NSW Government in their ‘Stand for Your Community Candidate Guide’.
This trend of underrepresentation is evident within local government councils across Central West NSW; situated predominately on Wiradjuri Country, as well as Dharug, Gundungurra, and Ngunawal Country.
Bathurst Regional Council, Blayney Shire Council, Cabonne Shire Council, Forbes Shire Council, and Orange City Council each have no councillors who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Mid-Western Regional Council is unaware as to whether they have any councillors who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Lachlan Shire Council, and Lithgow City Council each have one councillor who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, while Parkes Shire Council has two. Oberon Council, and Weddin Shire Council each declined to comment on the issue.
According to the NSW Government, local councils state-wide, spend close to $10 billion per year on services, facilities and employment for their local communities. If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ voice is underrepresented in local councils across NSW, this could mean specific services, facilities, and employment programs catering to the specific needs of their communities are not being facilitated.
This is particularly important when taking into account Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples’ wishes to bring about equitable development for their Peoples, be self-determinate, overcome racism, and actively involve Australian political, business, and community structures in the path to reconciliation. And furthermore, taking into account the role historical political power imbalances have had on their ability to do so after having their land, culture and voice stripped from them post-colonial settlement in Australia.
Of course, the availability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to apply to be on local government councils is there, however statistics suggest there are significant barriers preventing this from happening.
“I think a lot of reasons for that are lack of confidence. Community dynamics play a big part in that as well. If your community doesn’t have a good relationship with Shire Council, or with the broader community anyway, they’re just not going to feel confidence in coming forward. And it’s a bit of a shame factor if they don’t get on,” said Cr Leeanne Hampton, a Wiradjuri/Ngiyampaa woman who is currently serving as the NSW Aboriginal Land Council Councillor for the Wiradjuri Region, and was the first female Aboriginal Deputy Mayor of the Bland Shire Council.
It is also local government councils’ responsibility to adequately represent the diversity of the council regions they represent. Whether or not councils have councillors appointed who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, it is their responsibility to be in regular contact with all members of their community to ensure they are catering to their needs.
Local Government Council Consultation
Different councils across Central West NSW are putting varying efforts into conducting consultation with Aboriginal community members and groups living and operating within their respective council regions.
Currently Bathurst Regional Council, Blayney Shire Council, Cabonne Shire Council, Cowra Shire Council, Forbes Shire Council, Lithgow City Council, and Mid-Western Regional Council do not employ anyone specifically to engage with Aboriginal community members and groups living and operating within their council region. Nor do either of these councils have a consultation group, advisory committee or working group set up within council, to be in regular contact, and obtain the perspective of Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region.
Lachlan Shire Council, and Orange City Council currently don’t employ anyone specifically to engage with Aboriginal community members and groups, but have set up an advisory committee within council to obtain the perspective of Aboriginal community members and groups.
Parkes Shire Council is currently fulfilling both of these obligations.
Bathurst Regional Council
Bathurst Regional Council were unable to verify how often they engage with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region.
The Bathurst Local Aboriginal Land Council stated, however, they meet with Bathurst Regional Council roughly once every two months. Bathurst Regional Council said this year they intend to employ a liaison officer to work specifically with Wiradjuri Elders within the region to improve the strained relationship that exists between them.
“They [the Bathurst Local Aboriginal Land Council] seem to have blended in with the community. It’s the Elders. They don’t work very well with the Land Council, so that’s where the difficulty comes in when you’re dealing with two lots,” said Bathurst Mayor, Bobby Bourke.
Blayney Shire Council
Blayney Shire council has very irregular consultation with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region; consulting only five times in 2019 with a Wiradjuri Elder, Nyree Reynolds, on council matters.
Cabonne Shire Council
Cabonne Shire Council conducts very limited consultations with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region. Their consultation consists of a representative of the Wellington Valley Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation addressing council once a year, or at times more regularly if they are speaking about specific issues.
Cowra Shire Council
Cowra Shire Council has no regular consultation set up with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region. They consult only with community members and groups on a case-by-case basis.
Cowra Shire Council has, however, recently partnered with the Cowra Local Aboriginal Land Council, and community members to participate in a Justice Reinvestment research project, led by Dr Jill Guthrie of the Australian National University. The project explored a framework to divert funding from the criminal justice system into community-based initiatives to decrease the number of Indigenous youth in incarceration. However, progress on implementing findings from the study has been stalled due to a lack of funding for the initiative from the State Government, of which Cowra Shire Council has been trying to secure funding from for at least 18 months.
Forbes Shire Council
The Mayor of Forbes Shire Council, Phyllis Miller said council consults with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region on a “needs basis”, in addition to meetings held with the Forbes Aboriginal and Community Working Party on a quarterly basis.
However, when asked about consultation, head of the Forbes Aboriginal and Community Working Party, and Wiradjuri Elder, David Acheson, said the group had not met with council for in between 18 months and two years.
“Two years ago we had council representation at our meetings but no- I’ve had nothing to do with council for a very long time. They seem to have ignored me,” said David.
Cr Steve Karaitiana is a Councillor for Forbes Shire Council, and has worked extensively with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and New South Wales. He believes Aboriginal community members should be included in the day to day decision-making of council. He also feels a lack of cultural training, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach by councillors has meant the needs of Aboriginal community members have been overlooked by council.
He is currently encouraging two Aboriginal community members to run for council in local elections- now to be held in September of 2021 after being postponed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The biggest issue is including the Indigenous in our day to day decisions, and having other councillors with that mindset, listening and supporting Indigenous views, ideas and making them feel part of the community. Whether it be the health at the hospital, or Joe Blow that’s wanting to build some sort of industry here.”
“There are so many pluses in having an Indigenous person on your committee because they look at things completely different. They’ve got a whole different perspective, and it’s quite often they come up with these fantastic ideas that you just don’t think of. And at the end of the day whatever is done and completed, the benefits then go back into the betterment of their people.”
Lachlan Shire Council
In the past, Lachlan Shire Council has had no regular consultation with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region.
In his new role as the Community Engagement and Communications Officer, David Lornie said council officers had plans to develop a protocol for consultation, however council has “not endorsed the preparation of a protocol at this time”.
“Should council be supportive of this initiative then council officers will consult with the local Indigenous stakeholders to prepare the protocol,” he added.
Lachlan Shire Council developed an Aboriginal Advisory Committee in 2018. The committee consists of 11 community representatives and two council representatives, and advises “on how Council’s services are developed and delivered so they are culturally inclusive, sensitive, appropriate and accessible to Aboriginal people,” said Mr Lornie.
Lithgow City Council
Lithgow City Council predominately consults with Mingaan Wiradjuri Aboriginal Corporation in relation to NAIDOC celebrations, and a piece of Crown Land under council control, however primarily managed by Mingaan, Maiyingu Marragu.
In the past Mingaan has sought to develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between their group and council to determine how council consults with Mingaan, and what matters they consult on. In doing so, they hoped to include other Aboriginal groups in Lithgow within the MOU to collectively act as a voice on behalf of the Aboriginal community within council. However, to this date, Lithgow City Council has not actioned the development of an MOU.
Matthew Johnson, Lithgow City Council’s Community and Culture Manager, admitted, “It’s an area which could have- a lot more could be done, given the history of this area, and the history of post 1788 settlement and contact”.
Mid-Western Regional Council
Corporate Communications Officer, Elle Watson, stated Mid-Western Regional Council’s Community Services Team regularly interacts with representatives of Local Aboriginal Land Councils from the region, however was unable to provide details on how regularly these interagency meetings are held.
Mid-Western Regional Council does not employ anyone specifically to engage with Aboriginal community members living within their council region. Nor do they have an advisory committee.
Declined to comment
Orange City Council
Orange City Council meets with the Orange Local Aboriginal Land Council at least once a month, and holds monthly meetings for their NAIDOC committee which features sub-committees that discuss issues such as health, education, and youth awards.
When asked if Orange City Council employed anyone specifically to engage with Aboriginal community members and groups within their council region Orange Mayor, Reg Kidd, said they did not.
“We don’t have a specific avenue. I think that’s a ridiculous question, does the council have a specific group that reaches out to the Italian community? We have a huge Indian population, over 400 to 500 families.”
Parkes Shire Council
Parkes Shire Council officially meets with an Elders and Aboriginal Advisory Committee, set up within council, on a quarterly basis. They are also in frequent informal consultation with members from the Advisory Committee.
Parkes Shire Council has also entered into a Joint Funding Agreement with Northparkes Mines to fund an Aboriginal Project Officer that works under the auspices of community-based organisation, Neighbourhood Central. The Aboriginal Project Officer works to address issues in access to key services such as health and employment, and works closely with the Parkes Aboriginal Community Working Party to promote the cultural development of the Aboriginal Community of Parkes Shire.
Weddin Shire Council
Declined to comment.
When speaking with Aboriginal community members and groups living within, and operating across Central West NSW, majority felt local government councils were not adequately meeting the needs, or appropriately representing the voice of Aboriginal community members in their respective council regions. However, they were hopeful that increased consultation, and improved relations in the future could act as a key step in overcoming this.