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Indigenous decision-making can sustain democracy - and humanity

By Shann Turnbull and Anne Poelina - posted Thursday, 28 October 2021

Indigenous Australians have for tens of thousands of years practiced a far richer form of democracy than did the city-state of ancient Athens. Our First Nations inhabitants achieved this with a similar population to Athens, less than a million, but over an area of land 16,000 times larger.

Indigenous wisdom and practices of self-governance and environmental care provide a survivallesson for modern society. These lessons can also help us reduce the degradation of the air, water, soils, bio-diversity and improve the wellbeing of humans who may survive the emerging "Ghastly Future."

While universities teach engineering students how to design self-governing automobiles, self-governance is not taught at graduate schools of business, management, or government. Instead, our most gifted future leaders are educated to manage the top-down command-and-control hierarchies used by political dictators.


Authoritarian bureaucracies undermine democracies and are unable to reliable manage the complexity of environmental threats. As result the number of democratic nations in the world is decreasing, with those remaining being degraded. The inability of hierarchical management structures to manage complexity has resulted in regular public inquiries into the failures of banks, casinos, aged care and other institutions.

Indigenous practices follow the self-regulating, self-managing and self-governing practices of all forms of life. For this reason, it can be described as ecological governance. Adoption of this wisdom and practice would promote democracy with reliable wellbeing for businesses, civic, educational and other institutions.

While scholars have identified global environmental risks as "the most important mission for universities in the 21st century", the un-integrated silos of academic knowledge make them impotent to identify and teach solutions. The solutions require integrating the knowledge of engineers and system scientists with the practices of Indigenous Australians.

Words are the tools of thinking, and the English language lacks words to describe the complex indigenous relationships to nature that governs the lives of indigenous people. Rather than being owners of their "Country", they are "of" a place as "ownees". Nor do Aboriginal languages have words for "value", "price", "cost", "markets" or "hierarchy". These words are embedded in modern minds to drive our actions. However, these words are not required to sustain indigenous life. In addition, they are irrelevant for understanding how other living things become self-regulating, self-managing and self-governing.

As a result modern society has become subject to market failures and the "group think" of hierarchies. Modern governance processes have put at risk the wellbeing of humanity: Lord Stern advised the UK government in his 2009 report that "Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen".

Indigenous thinking introduces difficulties for modern society as it involves new ways of understanding, feeling, hearing and participating in reality. The English language "speaks about" nature and environments as if these concepts are separate from people. However, Indigenous languages describe complex networks of relationships that are place-connected, physical, cultural and intuitive. Transformative learning is required to recognize humans as a part of multispecies ecosystems.


Bottom-up self-governance is fundamental to the way Indigenous Australians govern their communities and larger regions. One of us witnessed and reported to the Australian Parliament about how competing clans demonstrated a contested, distributed type of decision-making in order to manage mining royalties. Political scientist Elinor Ostrom described distributed contested decision making as "polycentric" governance in her 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Ostrom identified how pre-modern societies self-governed their life-sustaining resources among competing interests to avoid "the tragedy of the commons" without markets or state hierarchies.

Ecological governance is a form of polycentric governance that is radically different from the command-and-control systems in modern societies and management education. It introduces the paradoxical contrary ~ complimentary "Yin ~ Yang" relationships that required to survive complexity. Ecological governance provides a process that can constructively manage the systemic conflict between shareholders seeking to maximize their profits at the expense of benefits for other stakeholders. This arises because both types of stakeholders share corporate resources that Ostrom refers to as "Common Pool Resources".

Ecological governance would create "A new model of corporate governance" wanted by fund-manager Larry Fink to benefit all stakeholders. Fink is the CEO of BlackRock, which manages 10% of global listed equities. This allowed Fink to persuade his CEO colleagues of the US Business Round Table to adopt as their corporate purpose, "benefit to all stakeholders".

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Authors

Dr Shann Turnbull BSc (Melb); MBA (Harvard) is the Principal of the International Institute for Self-governance based in Sydney and a co-founding member of the Sustainable Money Working Group established in the UK. He is a founding life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Senior Fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia, Fellow of the Governance Institute of Australia and Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management. He co-authored in 1975 the first course in the world to provide company directors an educational qualification and wrote Democratising the Wealth of Nations. His bibliography reveals he is a prolific author on reforming the theories and practices of capitalism.

Dr Anne Poelina is a Nyikina Warrwa Indigenous leader, human and earth rights advocate, film maker and a respected academic researcher.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Shann Turnbull
All articles by Anne Poelina

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

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