What’s next? Self-determination in the spotlight following NCIE debacle

The government’s calamitous handling of Redfern’s National Centre for Indigenous Excellence highlights why self-determination is the only way forward for First Nations’ communities.

There’s no doubt that Indigenous self-determination is the only way forward for our people.

Redfern’s National Centre for Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) was a beacon of hope for First Nations’ peoples in the Inner-West, advocating for excellence and creating opportunities for mob.

I toured the NCIE at the start of this year. You could feel it in the air – there was something special about this place. The atmosphere conveyed a sense of pride for the community, and the Centre itself remained one of the last landmarks unchanged by the commercial development and gentrification which has gutted the Redfern community over the last decade.

“This place is not just a gym and a pool for us. This place is a meeting point,” said Aunty Margaret Haumono, co-founder and executive director of Redfern Youth Connect.

However, the decision last month by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporations (ILSC) – a Federal Government body tasked with acquiring and managing property assets on behalf of Indigenous communities – to abruptly close the NCIE and subsequently reopen the Centre after community backlash demonstrates what we have always known; that the government isn’t, and has never been, a good steward of our collective resources.

Former Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, who stepped forward last month to mediate between the community and the centre’s managing bodies, notes that the local community deserves a voice in how the centre is managed going forward.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re handing [these services] over to the right mob,” he told Honi. “Something like this is particularly fraught, because my understanding is that the community hasn’t been involved [in the decision-making process].”

This latest debacle, which has engulfed and overwhelmed the local Indigenous community, is the most recent in a long and troubled history of public money being spent on ineffective Western systems (such as the ill-fated ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy) that did not work in order to serve First Nations’ peoples.

Danny Chapman, chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), is demanding an “ongoing subsidy” from the government to ensure the centre’s ongoing viability.

“We can’t have the government cost shifting; we need tangible support,” Chapman said.

This disastrously mishandled situation demonstrates, perhaps more clearly and potently than ever before, that governments and similar bureaucratic institutions are not at all accountable to the best interests of the people of which they are mandated to serve. In the case of the NCIE, a handful of senior bureaucrats within the ILSC decided that the centre should be shut down without consulting or even informing staff and management first – something which could never happen in any other sector without severe repercussions for those involved.

In Honi’s initial coverage of the situation in Redfern, there were reports of staff at the NCIE being suddenly escorted from the Centre by police, with many left crying on the side of the road without any notion of the decisions being made at the highest level by the ILSC.

Now, these same staff members continue to operate the Centre in a limited capacity after community action and political intervention pressured the ILSC into backpedalling on their decision to close the Centre. Like countless people locally and across the country – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – it shocked me that the ILSC faced no consequences for this monumental fuck-up, while the Redfern community was left to pick up the pieces.

This total lack of accountability applies not only within Government departments and affiliate bodies. It extends to the furthest reaches of Australia’s liberal democracy and Western society at large, where First Nations community members who feel strongly about such issues about closing Indigenous-led organisations like the NCIE have no legitimate platform for their voices to be heard by those responsible for making decisions about them.

The issue here is simple. The State and Commonwealth governments cannot fix things for us.

Indigenous people are still far more likely to go to prison, earn lower average incomes, and suffer from higher rates of chronic illness than non-Indigenous people.

Although the State Government has made some – albeit dismally inadequate – progress in recent years (i.e. hanging a flag on a bridge), there’s still a lot to do. Since the 1980s, government interference and the pumping of Indigenous money into non-Indigenous businesses and communities (‘blakwashing’) have been a huge hindrance to closing the disparity gaps facing First Nations’ people.

The recent NCIE controversy only serves to demonstrate the reality that things are progressing in a negative way – we’re going backwards.

Instead of providing constructive solutions and culturally appropriate support for communities to thrive, the Government seems more interested in defending the status quo and keeping us compliant.

The solution is simple as well. We must do it ourselves. Self-determination is the only viable way forward for First Nations’ peoples. Without the power to control our own funding, implement our own policies, and outline our own development roadmap, Indigenous communities have little chance of succeeding over the long term.