Ngaanyatjarra Council ‘Voices’
Submission to: ) Professor Dr Marcia Langton AM and Professor Tom Calma AO
Co- chairs, Voice Co-Design Process Senior Advisory Group
National Indigenous Australians Agency
Charles Perkins House
Woden ACT 2066
Title: ) ‘Ngaanyatjarra Council … ‘Voicing’ our concerns’
From: ) Gerard Coffey, CEO, Ngaanyatjarra Council
Date: ) 30 April 2021
The Ngaanyatjarra Council believes it is essential that governments hear and are inclusive of
Indigenous voices in their decision-making, policy creation, and operations in transparent and
accountable ways. This encapsulates our vision for government-Indigenous relations and is a
substantial shift from what we have experienced in dealing with governments over the past four
decades. We seek to be heard instead of being the usual background noise.
We look forward to forging a closer working relationship with the Federal Government. Our vision is
for Ngaanyatjarra Council to have a regional agreement directly with the Federal and Western
About Ngaanyatjarra Council
The Ngaanyatjarra Council (Aboriginal Corporation) is one of Australia’s largest Indigenous
Council’s and is based in central Western Australia. We are the principal governance organisation in
the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, an area the size of the United Kingdom.
Ngaanyatjarra Council represents the interests of about 2,000 people - Ngaanyatjarra, Pintupi, and
Pitjantjatjara Traditional Owners (Yarnangu, that is, people from WA’s central desert). These people
live in the Ngaanyatjarra Council’s 12 member communities in areas classed as extremely remote.
The Council is by, for, and made up of Indigenous peoples on the Ngaanyatjarra Land and offers an
exemplary model of Indigenous self-determination. Ngaanyatjarra members live, study, work or have
other meaningful roles in their communities. We socialise and engage in recreation ‘on country’. We
have agency in when, where, and how this happens - Ngaanyatjarra people own Ngaanyatjarra
Council. We employ as many Ngaanyatjarra people as possible and have a strong apprenticeship
program creating a local talent pipeline for Council’s work. The only services we don’t provide for our
people are policing and education.
Our current model is robust and has stood the test of time, with the Council having
been incorporated 40 years ago under the Aboriginal Corporations Act. Ngaanyatjarra Council’s
programs and businesses turn over more than $100 million a year.
What the ‘Indigenous Voices’ proposes for us
Other organisations have made submissions relevant to our region. They are the NPY
Women’s Council and one of the ten government-run regional organisations called ‘Empowering
Communities’. There are significant differences between their approaches and ours. To assist
consideration, we have referenced those submissions with a focus on the points of difference rather
than the commonalities.
The NPY Women’s Council focuses on health, social and cultural services covering youth, child,
family, aged, disability, domestic and family violence, traditional healing, and a social enterprise. It
also runs youth and domestic violence prevention programs on the Ngaanyatjarra Lands.
Meanwhile, the other organisation, ‘Empowered Communities’, is an organisation that seeks to
combine voices from Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. From an ideological stance,
we support the intent of ‘Empowered Communities’, but not the structure.
The commonality between Ngaanyatjarra Council, the NPY Women’s Council, and Empowering
Communities is that they are about First Nations people. Superficially, we are all operating from the
same ‘cultural block’. However, the three organisations significantly diverge in their
geographical representation, philosophy, operational range, governance, and, even, views on
Organisation Geographical Organisational aims/goals Governance Sticking points
Ngaanyatjarra Only the Ngaanyatjarra Supports members’ development in ‘all Incorporated 40 years Has distinctive views which
Council Lands (2,000 people ways’ - health, training, ago (in 1981) don’t align with the other
living in 12 employment, housing, tenancy, housing Wholly Aboriginal two organisations - there
member communities) maintenance, swimming pools, power owned and operated are minimal natural
The whole area of the station, law, justice matters, finance, land organisation. affiliations.
lands is variously held management, commercial enterprises Strongly believes a
under native title and ranging from mustering/ selling feral Accountable to our region’s voice should be
strong leases. camels and transport services (does not community members based on state, not
Comprises an area of provide policing or education). because the council is tristate boundaries
250,000 sq km run by, for, and A tristate voice would
with community silence, or at best dilute,
members. Ngaanyatjarra community
members’ voices due to our
isolation and small
NPY Women’s Tristate, spanning WA, Youth, child, family, aged, disability, Led by women’s law, It excludes 50% of the
Council NT, and SA (covering domestic and family violence, traditional authority and Ngaanyatjarra
350,000 sq km) healing, and a social enterprise (weavers). culture. people, i.e., men.
It runs youth and domestic violence Aboriginal women Has multiple interests
prevention programs. from 25 desert Has diverged from
communities in three Ngaanyatjarra
states govern and interests/policy positions in
direct it. the past.
Has been funded to Operates tristate, meaning
run community Ngaanyatjarra’s WA-only
services since 1993. voice is diluted.
Empowering Tristate, spanning WA, A Government-formed Attempts to represent many
Communities NT, and SA government structure involving voices from in 2016 eight regional Indigenous communities.
Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara ‘organisations’ However, their
Yankunytjatjara Lands as well as other representation is not
regions. beneficial for the
Ngaanyatjarra Lands due to
fundamental schisms on
Attempts to represent
We believe that the approach adopted by those other two organisations would effectively not give the
people of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands a voice and that tristate solution to finding representative
Indigenous voices are not the way forward. Policies driven across state borders, let alone three
states, are too complex and tend to be ineffective. It is difficult to deal with a State, and the Federal
Government - dealing with four governments is even more difficult. Combining our organisation’s
perspective/views/voice with those of the other groups would, in practice, silence the voice of
Ngaanyatjarra people, the very community we, as a council, represent.
To have Ngaanyatjarra Council’s voice mediated through a tri-organisation bloc, including NY
Women’s Council and Empowering Communities, would significantly curtail our ability and opportunity
• Be active and equal participants in Australian societies, and
• To maintain Ngaanyatjarra Lands’ community members’ cultural traditions, which are
embedded in the way the Ngaanyatjarra Council operates.
To ensure the Ngaanyatjarra people have a representative voice to governments, our voice needs to
be undiluted, in other words, direct.
Ngaanyatjarra Council wishes to build on its strong position to ensure governments hear the voice of
our remote and disadvantaged region. The Council is the voice for Ngaanyatjarra Lands. It has been
for 40 years and is widely accepted as so doing. In this time, we have worked with multiple Australian
federal governments under a series of 10 prime ministers. However, our experience in dealing with
governments is that no one is listening - we are not heard. The proposal to create 25 to 35 artificial
Indigenous groups, including across state borders, would further exacerbate this problem.
There are, however, remarkable parallels between how the Ngaanyatjarra Council operates and the
intent of the Local and Regional Voice proposal. That proposal seeks to create a regional-level
governance structure that’s community designed and led; advises all government levels about
regional issues; partners with governments about community needs and delivering local priorities;
plus offers local views to the National Voice to feed into national issues.
Ngaanyatjarra Council can tick ‘yes’ for each of these attributes. We are doing this now, but the issue
is, we need a shift in government to ensure our voice is heard, taken into account, and, where
reasonable, acted upon. Ngaanyatjarra Council does not have confidence in the Voices Co-Design
process unless it leads to real change in governments’ capacity to take on board, to hear Indigenous
voices, and to respond to them. There is a real risk that distilling voices from 500 Indigenous clans
into a collection of regional groups would effectively nullify authentic Indigenous voices rendering
them meaningless, allowing governments to claim that they have ‘consulted’ Indigenous people.
A call to shift the onus
We believe governments need to look at themselves to build upon their capabilities, then revamp their
processes to improve how they listen and ‘hear’ Indigenous voices, what capacity they have to
respond to those voices. The onus should not be on Australia’s Indigenous communities to negotiate
among themselves to create new flexible structures to coalesce and embody local and regional voices
that feed into government-demanded artificial constructs. Such demand requires each separate
Indigenous organisation to bring on board in-house experts on policy and consultation to ensure their
voices are heard. It is a cost that few Indigenous organisations could bear. It is also essential to
consider if the government is asking any other minority group in Australia to combine their voices into
artificial constructs of a limited number. Why then impose this on our country’s First Peoples?
Suppose the government looks to the rich tapestry of existing Indigenous organisations. In that case,
it will find that, like Ngaanyatjarra, each has a structure with in-built flexibility and strengths, honed
over time, for its needs. For example, our narrative is empowered thanks to Ngaanyatjarra community
members owning and driving our organisation. To then have to blend our voices with those from other
organisations is an extra skillset, money, and time-hungry process that we, as an Indigenous
representative organisation, simply cannot entertain. This takes us away from our core business of
directly supporting, empowering, and being an Indigenous community.
We maintain that any representation proposed for the Ngaanyatjarra Lands needs to be area-specific
and ‘voiced’ by the Ngaanyatjarra people, not grouped with other service providers with differing
views and limited Ngaanyatjarra interaction. We maintain our Council speaks for our people; no more,
The practical outcome for us would be a regional agreement between our Council, and state and
federal governments would allow our authentic, representative voice to be heard on behalf of our
community members. Ngaanyatjarra Council and its communities operate under significant difficulties
due to our location in a remote desert of Western Australia. We do not believe that requiring our
region to work tristate would enable effective engagement with governments.
Thank you for considering our submission.
Ngaanyatjarra Council … Be country, for country, on country, are country.