Interview: Sean Gordon: Establishing governance structures to empower Indigenous communities

We speak with Sean Gordon, Managing Director of Gidgee Group and Chairman of the Barkly Regional Deal about the constitutional, social, economic and governance strategies to empower Indigenous Australians and reverse historic disadvantage

On 26 May 2017, 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates came together in Uluru to sign a historic statement inviting Australians to create a better future for the First Nations people and called for ‘the establishment of a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution’. It also sought a Makarrata Commission for treaty making and truth telling.

The second signature on the top left-hand corner of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is that of Sean Gordon. Sean is the Managing Director of Gidgee Group a specialist Indigenous consultancy business. He sat in the restaurant in Uluru early on the morning of the release of the statement with Noel Person and the late Jimi Bostock, reading through the statement and working out whether a particular sentence should come at the start of the statement or at the end of the statement. ‘To be involved in that process and to have it read out at 9:30am that morning by Professor Megan Davis, was amazing. When you bring people together like this, people don’t always agree. There were a lot of conversations being held away from the forum, working with people to be able to bring them on board to support this new direction that we took regarding the Uluru Statement.’

Sean is a Wangkumarra/Barkindji man. His people are from the Corner Country, the area around the NSW, Queensland, and South Australian Borders. He grew up in a foster home, with 42 other children on the Brewarrina Aboriginal Mission. ‘It is ironic that I grew up on the Old Brewarrina Mission because it is also where my great grandparents were forcibly removed on the back of cattle trucks from Tibooburra to the Brewarrina Mission. Three cattle trucks with all the Aboriginal community on board — husbands, wives, children — driven to the Brewarrina mission over a three-day period. It is quite a drive from Tibooburra. This all took place in 1938.’

‘When I think about my life, and I think of the despair of the people of Aboriginal communities, it goes back to the day I was born and to my parents and the experiences they had; two generations. What I try to do today is to ensure that my kids don’t experience the same type of challenges and traumas that I grew up with as a young person. Since then, I’ve gone on and done exceptionally well for myself. I own my own home; I have a couple of degrees - one from the University of Technology Sydney and one from the University of Melbourne.’

Sean established his own business and works in the Indigenous advisory space. He is Chair of Commonwealth Bank’s Indigenous Advisory Council and sits on CommBank’s CEO Advisory Council and on Woolworth’s Advisory Board. He is Chair of the Max Solutions Indigenous Advisory Council and the Insurance Council of Australia’s Indigenous Advisory Council. He is also the Independent Chair of the Barkly Regional Deal and sits on the University of Newcastle Council. Sean also chairs Uphold and Recognise, which is focused on bringing conservatives on the journey of Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. ‘I have not allowed my circumstances growing up to hold me back and prevent me from advocating for what I believe is right, particularly, and specifically for Indigenous people. And what I believe to be right is true and proper recognition of our people’s rightful place as Indigenous people of this country.’

Government commitment to the Uluru Statement

In his victory speech on the night of 22 May 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said ‘Together we can embrace the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We can answer its patient, gracious call for a voice enshrined in our constitution. Because all of us ought to be proud that amongst out great multicultural society, we count the oldest living continuous culture in the world.’ This was the first time that any prime minister has come out and clearly stated their position. ‘To do that in your maiden speech on the night of the election sends a powerful message that Prime Minister Albanese is absolutely committed to Indigenous constitutional recognition and what the Uluru statement calls for.’

‘The challenge for the newly appointed minister Linda Burney is to ensure that we get the ‘how to’ right. That for me is the most important. The very first step is for the government to gain bipartisan support of the Parliament.’

‘When you think of the task ahead the challenge will be to bring all Australians on board. We will only get one opportunity to get this over the line. If we fail, then the chances of a referendum on Indigenous Recognition coming up again in the next twenty years or even in my lifetime may never occur.’

Sean believes that the key will be for Australians to feel that they have been engaged and consulted on this; and educated to ensure that they understand what this is and what it isn’t about. ‘It is a non-binding body that we are looking to establish. It is to have a say over legislation, policies and programs that impact on us specifically as Indigenous people. And I believe that is not unreasonable for us to ask. This is about making sure that we get Indigenous input early in the decision-making process to avoid the impacts of past legislation, policies and programs.’

Governments need to step back, and Indigenous people need to step up

Sean’s work takes him across the country to work with Indigenous communities and leaders. One of the biggest challenges in these communities, is government overreaching. Sean says, governments have overreached in their roles and responsibilities in our communities. ‘Governments need to step back, and Indigenous people need to step up and take ownership and responsibility of those things that we are responsible for. Indigenous Constitutional Recognition is about our people taking responsibility for the things we should be responsible for; making sure our communities are safe, that our children and women and older people are being looked after. That the opportunities for our communities to develop culturally, socially, and economically are equally provided to them.’

Sean believes that one of the principles that should come out of this referendum process is the principle of subsidiarity. It is about getting decision-making as close as you can to those people who are impacted. At the moment Sean says, those people are so far removed from the decision making, that policies and programs forced onto them without any input. ‘And communities are having to adapt and shift their lives to try to fit into those policies and programs as they are introduced, without a clear understanding whether they will have a positive or negative impact. So, the principle of subsidiarity I believe critical to drive substantive change.’

Of the $36 billion allocated in the name of Indigenous Australians, large parts are directed to mainstream services housing, health, education, infrastructure, justice etc. ‘So, to be clear $36 billion does not go directly into the pockets of Indigenous people or communities. In fact, the direct spend on Indigenous people is $6 billion/year. When you look at the direct spend, a large portion of it is taken up by the bureaucracy itself.’ As it then filters down through states territory and federal government programs and services with small amounts provided to Indigenous organisations to delivery programs and services to Indigenous communities. Sean points out that, a very small amount actually hits the ground inside the Indigenous community where you can have direct impact and drive substantive change.

Governments must be enablers, not doers

The most urgent areas for investment, Sean says, are social development, and governance structures. ‘We need to look at what good governance looks like in the communities. How do we then support the development of those governance structures within communities that don’t just give voice to Indigenous people but also to non-indigenous people and bring government agencies to the table as enablers. Historically however, governments have been in our communities as the doers. We really don’t need governments to be doers. We need governments to be the enablers. We need non-indigenous and Indigenous communities to come together because many of our challenges aren’t just an Indigenous challenge. It is a community challenge.’

Sean is the Chair of the Barkly Regional Deal, which is partly an initiative of the Federal Government under the Stronger Places Stronger People program. It is about establishing governance structures to empower communities to address the social, cultural, and economic development issues that currently challenge the region. The Statement of Intent between the Commonwealth and Northern Territory Governments and the Barkly Regional Council speaks of the vision and aspiration to build a ‘stronger, prosperous and inclusive region for current and future generations.’ This, the Statement says, will be dependent on the determination and leadership of local community and recognition of the connection of the Indigenous people to the country as owners and custodians. It seeks their involvement in shaping the deal to meet their priorities and needs. ‘The intent is to help design a regional governance model that gives voice to all groups in the community to ensure that their concerns are heard and acted on and supported by all levels of government. And policies, programs, and funding are implemented based on the needs of the community at a position of place and not because someone in Canberra or someone in the capital cities believes that this is the best thing to do.’

Infrastructure alone does not drive social change

The Federal Government have committed about $84.7 million into the Barkly region for infrastructure projects. But infrastructure projects alone won’t drive social change, Sean points out. ‘You can build the infrastructure, but if you haven’t got community engaged, if you haven’t got community buy in for the types of programs and services that will run out of that infrastructure, then, essentially you are building a white elephant. So, we need to be sure that community are engaged at the pre-planning phase, they are engaged during the construction phase, and they are engaged at the post-planning phase to ensure that their people can get access into these facilities.’

‘It’s taken 200 years for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (Australians) to get to this place of severe and substantial social disadvantage. Where governments have developed a social indicator to measure Indigenous outcomes through Closing the Gap.  We are not going to fix our circumstances in a five-year period. We are not going to fix it in a ten-year period. It is going to take a long-term commitment from governments at all levels, from communities and corporates and it’s going to take long term investment.’

The corporate sector must play a role in this space. ‘When we think about the history of Aboriginal Peoples’ dispossession from the land and we consider those who have benefitted from that dispossession like the banks and the mining and pastoral sectors, they have a responsibility, to invest in addressing Indigenous social disadvantage to help move our people into prosperity.’ There are many ways in which the corporate sector can contribute. Sean points to the Jawun model which shifts the focus from welfare to upskilling and capacity and capability building among the Indigenous communities. Where corporates invest in bringing their skilled people into Indigenous communities to train and transfer skills and build capacity, so that the community can have the agency to continue its own development journey.

‘Governments must become enablers and not the doers and allow Indigenous communities an opportunity to develop governance structures based on traditional ways of doing business. Then and only then will we see a shift from despair to prosperity.’

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