Inara Walden

Postgraduate Research Student

Research Topic: Talking back to policy: Aboriginal participation in policy making
Supervisors: Professor Eileen Baldry, Dr Jennifer Skattebol
Co-Supervisor: Dr Trish Hill
Graduation Year: 2016

Description: Past Australian government policies have controlled, disenfranchised and infantilised Indigenous people, strongly contributing to their ongoing disadvantage and poverty. During Australia’s formal policy phase of self-determination, 1972 to 2004, Aboriginal people emphasised their fundamental desire to define and control their own priorities and destinies. This desire continues today, however the policy landscape is now more ambiguous than ever about the role of Aboriginal people in policy making.

This thesis makes a case study of processes taking place when a remote NSW Aboriginal community asserted its right to participate in policy planning and decision-making. The research focused on negotiations between the Aboriginal community and government as a particular policy was implemented. The study aimed to investigate the extent to which Aboriginal people desire and pursue participation in policy making, and whether this is valued and enabled by governments. The methodology is informed by grounded theory and Indigenous research methodologies.

Data was collected primarily via semi-structured interviews with Aboriginal community representatives and government officers over a three year period, along with policy analysis and observational data. Reciprocity and relationship building were vital to sustaining the researcher’s collaboration with the community over time. Now enshrined in the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, participation is an emerging concept and site of debate within the scholarship and practice of Indigenous policy making. This thesis makes a timely contribution to that scholarship by applying concepts of participation developed through four decades of practice, critique and theorising in the sphere of international development. Debates about what constitutes participation are salient to analysis of everyday negotiations between Aboriginal people and governments.

The research reveals a strong drive and commitment from Aboriginal community representatives to participate as local decision-makers, and a range of imperatives that urge governments to strive to enable this. However structural and resource challenges undermined the level of Aboriginal involvement and quality of participation achieved. The study indicates that Aboriginal participation in policy decision-making may be essential to re-empower those affected by colonization, and enable Aboriginal agency in setting goals and aspirations to improve their own lives and livelihoods.

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