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Issue #1569      17 October 2012

Congress leaders look to the future

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has a strong future but must grow its membership base, firm up future funding arrangements, and garner more broad community support. That was the assessment of the two-year-old representative body by its leaders two weeks ago.

NC12 delegates with National Congress directors and staff and local representatives. Photo by Joseph Mayers (Courtesy of the National Congress) and Kirstie Parker.

About 80 delegates drawn from three Congress “chambers” joined the organisation’s board and its ethics council in Alice Springs for a second annual national policy meeting dubbed “NC12”. Discussions centred on engagement and advocacy with government and the community around the priority areas of health, country, sovereignty, justice and education.

The opening ceremony began with a performance by girls from local youth drumming outfit Drum Atweme, followed by a welcome to country by Arrernte traditional owner Marie Ellis. Ms Ellis pleaded for the scrapping of the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention (rebadged by the federal government as “Stronger Futures”) and NT super-shires. She said such measures had caused “nothing but suffering” and injustice for Aboriginal Territorians, especially those living in remote communities.

Director of Norway’s Sami Parliament, Rune Fjellheim, was the keynote speaker. He outlined the groundbreaking Indigenous parliament’s history, spoke proudly of the gender equality achieved amongst its membership, and urged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be proud of their political representatives.

Congress co-chair Jody Broun said the organisation had built an active membership base of 4,500 individual members and 146 organisation members – themselves representing more than 50,000 people.

“Membership is growing, our public and political profile is increasing,” she said. But she queried how many delegates had met the challenge thrown out at last year’s annual meeting to recruit 100 other members. Ms Broun said she would focus during the next year on extending the influence and authority of the Congress, including through the new National Health Leadership Forum.

“Supporters accord”

And she announced the establishment of a “supporters accord”; a signed agreement that would enable non-Aboriginal organisations to demonstrate their support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Congress and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The first such agreement was signed the preceding week by the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils, Ms Broun said.

Co-chair Les Malezer said the Congress board had worked hard to build a credible organisation, forming partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and networks “without creating any threat to their autonomous existence”.

But he said key challenges during 2013 would be preparing for any transitions that might result from the next federal election, lobbying for funding for Aboriginal languages and other initiatives in the next federal budget, and attracting the financial support necessary for continued functioning of the company, given that the federal government’s initial three-year commitment ends next financial year.

Congress was likely to be dependent upon government for a further grant to continue its operations, Mr Malezer said. The three-day NC12 also saw two members of the inaugural National Congress Youth Lobbying Committee, Brisbane business student Jared Hutchison and Perth arts and journalism student Kimberley Benjamin, present to delegates. They said the fact that more than 20 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was aged from 15 to 25 made it important for youth to have a greater role and influence in policy direction.

“With such a large youth population, it makes sense for those youth to have input into policies that not only impact on your lives, but our lives as well, for we have a shared future,” said Mr Hutchinson.

Ms Benjamin said the youth committee’s members recognised that they needed to work alongside their Elders and respect past challenges and achievements as well as cultural protocols.

On the final day, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue and Professor Mick Dodson became the first recipients of the “Congress Medal”, which acknowledges individuals who “further the purpose, vision and principles of Congress” around representation, the protection of rights, leadership, relationship building and identifying solutions.

Koori Mail  

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