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A vision for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples

By Kerry Arabena - posted Monday, 1 November 2010

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples is the most recent addition to the national self-determining infrastructure set up to deliver that promise that Charlie Perkins and others fought so hard for: that we are all equal, all free and all deserving of a chance to pursue our opportunity and experience happiness.

The Congress must have high and uncompromising standards. It must have the capacity to influence all Australians and it must be a beacon for years to come in the service of both the First Peoples and Australia. We are to choose hope over fear and unity of purpose over conflict. We must value who we are as First Peoples, where we have come from, and, given the opportunity, all we can be in an unprecedented period of change in the world.

In Australia, it appears that natural and cultural diversity is not viewed as a source of wealth nor a resource for modernity nor for current political models. We find it difficult to view our own diversity with the respect it deserves - let alone get respect from others.


We see a system of service delivery to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by governments at both the federal and state levels that still struggles to deliver the most basic of services. We see a system that does not want us to be decision-makers, one with too many bureaucrats who do not see themselves as accountable to our people or as having responsibilities to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people benefit from their efforts. And we have seen limited engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the setting of policy and programs.

There is a sapping of confidence in and by our communities - a nagging fear that failure is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights. These and other circumstances are unacceptable and form part of the reasoning why a national representative body like the Congress is needed. What is demanded is a return to the truth and the certainty of the values that have underpinned our resilience throughout our history.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has been established as an independent organization intent on creating a legacy. This Congress is a long term proposition which will evolve and change with the input of its membership. We have built the organization on elements that worked well in ATSIC and other national representative bodies and have used company law to allow for more entrepreneurial thinking and action.

All of our leaders at this time in history will need to have integrity, determination, charisma, vision, technical and interpersonal expertise, adaptability - and even the often overlooked quality of being an experienced follower. All these characteristics are crucial to helping us deal with and successfully come through particular times of adversity.

Membership and Vetting


To become a Congress member you must be over 18 and have the heritage (in that you must identify and be accepted by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community). In terms of organisations seeking to be members, agencies need to have at least 51% of the members and Board to be Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander; and the principle purpose and activity of the organisation needs to be in service to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Ethics Council will then be responsible for ensuring the ethical conduct of representatives of the organization (based on the Nolan Principles of public office).

What can the National Congress be a vehicle for?

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This is an edited version of the Charles Perkins Oration delived by Kerry Arabena on 28 October, 2010 at the University of Sydney.

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About the Author

Dr Kerry Arabena is the Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples.

Related Links
Charles Perkins Lecture (full text)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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