Fifty young Indigenous people learned about governance and the importance of culture in decision-making at an Australian Indigenous Governance Institute (AIGI) Masterclass late last year.
AIGI CEO Michelle Deshong MAICD says the Melbourne event “deconstructed” governance for Indigenous youth. “A lot of young Indigenous people say they can’t relate to corporate governance rules and expectations. They see their family and community make decisions through a cultural framework, yet the standard governance model does not reflect culture.”
Deshong is seeing the emergence of Indigenous youth who are interested in governance roles. “They are passionate about their culture and people, and want to be leaders in their community,” she says. “They can see that everything flows from getting the foundations right in communities and governance is a big part of that. When the foundation is strong, their culture is strong.”
Some event attendees have asked for more governance information and whether AIGI can run follow-up courses on Indigenous directorship. The next AIGI Indigenous Youth in Governance Masterclass will be held in Darwin in June. The event is run in partnership with the Lowitja Institute, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the Aboriginal Governance and Management Program (AGMP).
“For thousands of years Indigenous people across Australia have talked about decisions, found a consensus, and respected their culture, land and community in that process… Our people have been doing governance well for a very, very long time; our societies wouldn’t have existed without it; it just hasn’t been called governance.”
Deshong expects AIGI and its partners to run more events for both tailored age groups and more broadly for Indigenous people who want to be active in local, regional or national governance. The masterclass program connects, educates and promotes Indigenous peoples to critical themes of governance– and, judging by the continued interest, inspires new approaches to governance and helping our nations and communities.
Deshong says there is not enough recognition of good governance practice in Indigenous communities or the need to develop a true Indigenous governance model and train directors in it: a model that blends Indigenous culture and decision-making with the traditional governance model.
“For thousands of years Indigenous people across Australia have talked about decisions, found a consensus, and respected their culture, land and community in that process,” says Deshong. “Our people have been doing governance well for a very, very long time; our societies wouldn’t have existed without it; it just hasn’t been called governance.”
That view is not to downplay problems in Indigenous governance in some organisations over the years. Or to suggest that greater interest in Indigenous governance, among young and older people, is a shortcut to reducing Indigenous disadvantage in Australia.
As in business, Indigenous governance is a multi-decade journey. It is not about starting a new journey but embracing a great culture that has underpinned governance for thousands of centuries, and creating a more tailored, effective governance model for the need of Indigenous communities.
Deshong is a former adviser in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has held other senior positions in government and the not-for-profit sectors, run her own consultancy and served on Indigenous boards, including Supply Nation, of which she is currently a director. She joined AIGI as CEO in September 2016.
Deshong was named in the Australian Financial Review/Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards in 2013 and awarded a Australian-American Fulbright Scholarship in 2015 and a Winston Churchill Fellowship in December 2017 to research and apply best-practice global Indigenous models to Australia. She is currently a PhD candidate at James Cook University in Queensland.
Here is an extract of the Governance Leadership Centre’s interview with Deshong, who comes from Townsville in North Queensland and draws her connection to Kuku Yulanji nation.
GLC: Michelle, how do you define Indigenous governance?
Michelle Deshong: Indigenous governance is a form of governance that recognises what makes our culture unique: our beliefs system, knowledge holders and our laws and rules for our society. Indigenous governance combines cultural governance with corporate governance.
GLC: What are the main problems with the traditional corporate governance model for Indigenous communities?
MD: The Western model of governance has been a real challenge for Indigenous people. The corporate model works on a hierarchical system, where you have management reporting to the board, and lots of rules and compliance. An Indigenous board may have knowledge holders or elders who make decisions through their culture and belief systems, for the good of the community. Directors of Indigenous boards are usually very close to the people they serve. It’s a different form of representation that does not always sit well with the standard corporate governance model.
GLC: How does Australia broadly compare to other developed nations on Indigenous governance?
MD: If you compare Australia to the United States, New Zealand and Canada you have to conclude that we are a fair way behind. Indigenous people in those countries have been able to embrace a process of self-determination for a long time and in many cases have been afforded a particular jurisdiction to live in, acting as their own governments. Those tribal nations have made significant inroads with Indigenous governance because they are able to determine how they live and govern themselves; however, in Australia our legal and political position limits our jurisdictional responsibility.
In Australia this century, there has been a chorus of individuals and groups working hard to reclaim the conversation about a nation-building approach for Indigenous peoples. We need to find a hybrid model of governance that is put through a lens of cultural legitimacy, innovaton and leadership for our people.
We need to change the narrative about Indigenous governance in Australia and look more to the global experience and what we can learn from it. Rather than expecting Australian Indigenous groups to fit a Western model of governance, we need to ask how that model can fit our people’s needs.
GLC: At a grass-roots level, how are Indigenous groups overcoming governance challenges?
MD: The big ones are incorporation and becoming financially more self-reliant. A lot of problems over the years have come from Indigenous organisations being heavily reliant on government funding for survival. With that funding has come rules and expectations about what Indigenous organisations must do on governance, to secure and keep that funding.
I see more Indigenous organisations being brave and stepping outside the usual incorporation approach (a company limited by guarantee). About 30-35 per cent of applicants to the Indigenous Governance awards are registered through ORIC (Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations - an independent statutory office that administers the CATSI Act) but a large percentage are opting for other incorporation models.
Funding is another driver of governance change. Most Indigenous organisations still require federal and/or state government funding to varying degrees, and with that comes a lot of governance rules and expectations.
I see more Indigenous organisations focussing on securing other forms of funding, so they are more sustainable and less reliant on government. With that comes greater freedom to implement a form of Indigenous governance that best meets their community’s needs and priorities.
GLC: Michelle, right or wrong, there is a perception that Indigenous governance has been full of problems over the years and, collectively, is in need of repair. Is that view, as Indigenous governance stands today, overstated?
MD: Yes I think that view is overstated and outdated. I’m not saying that everything is perfect in Indigenous governance or that we don’t see problems, or won’t. These organisations usually deal with complex societal problems and have to govern to a model that is not well suited to Indigenous governance.
The lingering perception that Indigenous governance has suffered from misappropriation of funds, or bad leadership or bad governance, goes back to the ’80s and ’90s. This view does not reflect modern Indigenous governance today.
The trouble is, examples of bad governance in Indigenous organisations get lots of media coverage. We rarely hear about the many good examples and the Indigenous Governance Awards are one way we try to champion that success. There are some fantastic case studies of how Indigenous boards are showing exceptional leadership in strategy, diversity and results for their communities, often in very difficult circumstances.
The general public does not realise the amount of great governance work underway in Indigenous communities and the gains being made.
GLC: What can boards of ASX 200 companies learn from the best Indigenous boards?
MD: The biggest learning is that what directors “bring with them” affects their decision-making. With big company boards, the conversation about what directors bring with them is usually framed around skills and work experience. In Indigenous governance, we acknowledge that a director’s cultural values and beliefs will shape their decision-making and work on the board.
For example, when Indigenous people meet for the first time, we will say who we are, our mob and where we are from. That’s how we position ourselves to others. That’s how we embrace culture in decision-making. I think for a long time about the most revered models of governance are that of corporate Australia, but as the banking Royal Commission demonstrated, this is not always the case. A culture ethos has been central to Indigenous governance for thousands of years and is the one thing that will continue to drive our success in the future.
Another learning is the importance of being close to the people you serve. An Indigenous director will usually live in their community and know and understand the people they represent. If a particular service is not good enough, someone in the community will tell a director or they will see it for themselves. That’s very different to a director in an ASX 200 company who is often a long way away from the people they are serving.
The timeframe in Indigenous governance decision-making is another difference. Indigenous boards often think about what a decision means for generations to come and for their land. We think about a decision through lots of perspectives, with a focus on sustainability.
GLC: Can you take us through the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute’s journey and its contribution to Indigenous governance.
MD: The AIGI began as a concept around 10 years ago, but it’s only in the past five years that we have been incorporated. After a few years of developing, we have really started to hit our straps in the past 12 months. Demand for AIGI’s services is building very quickly.
We have an Indigenous Governance Toolkit on our website, we have been a key partner in the biennial Indigenous Governance Awards program, and are undertaking research and developing case studies on outstanding Indigenous governance to get the message out. Tailored workshops and training courses are a growing focus for AIGI.
Long term, we want to do a lot more research and advocacy on Indigenous governance and work with other groups to deliver tailored, comprehensive Indigenous governance courses.
Most of all, we want to get a positive message out and inspire younger people, women and more Indigenous people generally to get involved with Indigenous governance, if not through boards then through governance in their community.
GLC: Do you have personal aspirations for a career in governance?
MD: Right now I’m loving my work at AIGI and have a lot to do here. I have been on various Indigenous boards over the years or government advisory committees, and still serve on the Supply Nation board (Australia’s largest national directory of Indigenous businesses).
Longer term, I hope to join the board of an ASX 200 company. Experienced Indigenous directors can add a lot to board diversity and bring a different perspective. I would like to think ASX 200 boards could benefit from the approach of Indigenous boards to culture, value, sustainability and deeply understanding the needs of people for whom directors serve.