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Issue #1721      March 2, 2016

Congress looking down the barrel

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples is likely to have to close its doors by the end of the year, if it cannot find more funding. Congress, which represents about 9,000 individual members plus 200 organisations, was set up in 2010 as a: national Indigenous representative body. It is independent of government and free to join.

The Koori Mail understands that in 2013, the board failed to accept a $15 million funding offer from the Federal Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs under Labor Minister Jenny Macklin.

After Labor lost the election, the Coalition government made the decision not to fund Congress and it has struggled for a sustainable financial plan ever since. Congress co-chair Jackie Huggins, who was elected to the role in October last year, told the Koori Mail the organisation was running on a shoe-string.

“Because we weren’t funded by the Abbott government, our resources are pretty low. We’ve gone from 30 to five members of staff,” she said. “We have a massive organisation in terms of constituents, nearly 9,000, but unfortunately unless we find some way of bringing in funding, we are probably due to finish at the end of the year.”

A spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the federal government had already provided Congress with $30 million (the money the former Labor government provided for its establishment).

“This is a large amount for a body that sees itself as fiercely independent of government and provides no advisory services to government,” the spokesperson said.

“The Coalition government has already extended Congress’s funding agreement until June 30, 2017, to allow it to use its substantial cash reserves to support its operations and achieve financial independence.

“The government’s position in relation to funding for Congress has been consistent since the 2014-15 Budget.”

Huggins said it was important that Indigenous voices were front and centre in any discussions about a referendum on constitutional recognition and that Congress was in the process of surveying its membership.

“We want to find out what their views are, and opinions,” she said. “I think it’s been a very difficult time and in the past two years some people have changed their minds about Constitutional recognition.

“People are frustrated, wanting to know what is the question, when will it be, which road do we take - do we take treaty, sovereignty, Constitutional recognition?

“I think they’re quite separate items and we can look at treaty as well as looking at if we want to be recognised in the Constitution. Things seem to have become a lot bigger, a lot more complex for our people.

“We would hope from Congress’ point of view, that as many of our members as possible really voice their opinions. We have members and organisations that have very different views. We are depending on information provided by our constituents and members – and that’s what we’ll be saying in this debate.”

Huggins said she and fellow co-chair Rod Little were hoping to reinvigorate Congress’ relationship with members, member organisations and also the Federal Parliament.

Since former Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed the Indigenous Advisory Council, made up of prominent Indigenous people and non-Indigenous business people, Congress has been largely sidelined by the federal government.

“We want to have a relationship with the Parliament,” Huggins said.

“We want to work with stakeholders in the field and we’ve been very buoyed by the reengagement of some disaffected organisations. We’re hoping we can make a difference in the timeframe that we have left.”

Koori Mail

Next article – The homeless are still homeless

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