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5.1 Commonwealth Government

The Commonwealth Government has pragmatic mechanisms for circumventing the difficulties of whole of government departmental cooperation. It operates special accounts and flexible funding pools which receive contributions from individual department’s budgets for common purposes (Department of Finance and Deregulation 2020). This has worked well for the Working on Country program, which is the main source of Indigenous livelihoods in the catchment areas visited. Working on Country was originally administered by DEWHA (now SEWPaC) using funds contributed by FaHCSIA and DEEWR from a variety of employment, training and post-CDEP transition schemes (May 2010:6-8). In successive years SEWPaC received these allocations directly and this trend can be expected to continue with consolidation under SEWPaC. In this way SEWPaC has managed to present a single funding interface to state and local NRM bodies despite the diversity of funding sources and policy intentions. In general, regional bodies have cooperative relationships with state and region-based SEWPaC personnel. Though they complain about the complexity of reporting requirements, they take a rather fatalist view of these and rely on close relationships with bureaucrats to help navigate them to achieve the best outcomes for their members.

SEWPaC distributes grants directly and also through 56 regional NRM affiliates. These operate in parallel with Aboriginal regional arrangements, and largely fail to engage well with local Aboriginal requirements. These NRM regional management groups gain funding from a variety of sources. They are supposed to be based on catchments or bioregions1, but this is hardly credible. They seem instead to be a response to political requirements. The boundaries were established in State/Commonwealth bilateral agreements during the second phase of the Natural Heritage Trust. The entire Northern Territory is a single NRM region under this arrangement. In West Australia, Rangelands WA similarly covers a vast region. It operates over 1.85 million square kilometres, the majority of the state, approximately east of a line drawn from Carnarvon to Esperance. In contrast, some of the southern NRM regions in WA are measured in hectares2. Rangelands WA initially supported, then abandoned, the Fitzroy Catchment Management Group (FitzCam), leaving the Fitzroy river without an overall management coordinating body. Cape York is serviced by two NRM regions – Cape York and Southern Gulf, which covers the Mitchell River. NRM management groups such as those mentioned here encompass regions with significant Aboriginal populations and large Aboriginal land holdings. Yet the impression gained from field visits for this study is that regional NRM groups do not engage productively with Aboriginal environmental management groups.

FitzCam – A Community-Based Catchment Planning Group

The Fitzroy Catchment Management Group (FitzCam) began with a grant in the final days of the National Heritage Trust, which was channelled through the NRM group Rangelands WA. Rangelands expected a Catchment Management Plan, but the group’s intentions were broader. While a management plan was produced, with the assistance of researchers from the University of Western Australia, the group itself had evolved into a highly-valued forum for the variety of stakeholders in maintaining the health of the Fitzroy River.

One of the great strengths of FizCam was that it brought together individuals and factions that would otherwise not communicate. One proponent of irrigated agriculture on Go Go station told this survey that FitzCam was ‘the best thing ever’ for this reason, and all parties approached for their views expressed enthusiasm for its work and disappointment that it no longer functions.

The group started as a coalition of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal representatives. The Aboriginal language groups belonging to the Fitzroy catchment had two representatives from Ngarinyin and Worora people from the far northern reaches of the catchment as well as Kija from the east near Halls Creek, and in-between Walmajarri, Gooniyandi, Wankajunga, and Bunuba representatives more closely associated with Fitzroy Crossing. The breadth of this coalition demonstrates the extent and importance of the Fitzroy catchment to the West Kimberley. Local pastoralists were also key members of the group with Jubilee Downs, Bulka, and Go Go station cattlemen, attending most of the meetings. The other members included recreational fishers, government departments, mining representatives, environmentalists, and the Shire of Derby West Kimberley. With this core of practical-minded catchment stakeholders, others also found they had a ready-made forum for consultation and communication.

The departments of Water, Environment and Conservation and Agriculture and Food regularly attended meetings. Murdoch University researchers as well as UWA and the CSIRO found the forum useful and it was a frequent focus of Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK) activities in the Fitzroy region.

While this activity had tremendous local support as a way of addressing common concerns and finding common ground around traditional and commercial use of the land and waters along the Fitzroy, it did little practical NRM work. Apart from the management plan the members of FitzCam saw their role as leveraging support and funding for practical land management activities by pastoralists and Aboriginal ranger groups. Unfortunately its funding expired just as some of these groups began to be established. Ranger groups are now either in operation or in advanced planning stages for the whole of the Fitzroy, administered by the Kimberley Land Council Land and Sea Management Unit (see text box). However, the necessary liaison with pastoralists and irrigators is piecemeal and haphazard and the management plan largely in abeyance, in the absence of the coordinating and advisory body that FitzCam became.

It was frequently suggested during this survey that both state and Commonwealth government departments are too focused on short term, localised ‘outcomes oriented’ management activities and the work of FitzCam, though valued, cannot be funded. Yet other major river systems in the north do not face this vacuum in overall management planning. The Daly and Mitchell, subjects of this study, have adequate regional planning bodies supported both by SEWPAC and the relevant state governments. Western Australia and Rangelands WA lag behind with their neglect of this major northern river system, and it is particularly mystifying that they have let a widely supported cross-party management forum fall by the wayside.

There are alternative opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in the catchment areas funded by other areas of the Commonwealth government. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) is one such source that complements but does not overlap with the Working on Country program. In the future carbon trading mediated by the Carbon Farming Fund will become an important alternative funding source. Some elements of the fund will be administered by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, other elements by SEWPaC3. Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) also fills an important niche role.

5.2 State and Territory Government

State and Territory Governments run their own programs that involve Aboriginal environmental management groups. Sometimes Commonwealth funding is absorbed into these under bilateral or National Partnership agreements. Management and funding of rangers in state and national parks under state control is common where there is joint management. There appears to be little cooperation between these state ranger programs and the Commonwealth’s Working on Country ranger groups, though cooperation is more evident in the Northern Territory where the Commonwealth has greater influence. Some state initiatives offer direct grant funding to local ranger groups that also receive funding under the Working on Country program. Queensland’s grant to Kowanyama Land Office as part of its Wild Rivers legislation is an example of this. In the Northern Territory the Malak Malak rangers will be able to expand into a Marine Ranger program for the Daly under an agreement with the Northern Territory government as spin-off from the Blue Mud Bay native title decision4.

Just as the states have varying relationships with the Commonwealth over environmental management, so local ranger groups have varying relationships with the state and territory governments. In Queensland and the Northern Territory there is, at least, an assumption of common aims for environmental protection. In Western Australia the potential for resource extraction (including water) in the Kimberley, particular along the Fitzroy River, leads Aboriginal organisations to sense ambivalence and disengagement from their goals by the State. Nevertheless, the state government has pledged protection of wilderness areas in the Kimberley and the employment of ranger groups under the Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy5.

5.3 Local Government

Local government involvement in the three catchments is also quite structurally diverse. In Queensland Aboriginal local government arrangements have been created under distinct legislation from mainstream local government (Limerick 2010), and both have been the subject of reform in recent years. Aboriginal shires tend to control settlements while mainstream shires control large areas of land covering the state. At Kowanyama there is strong cooperation between the Aboriginal Shire and the Kowanyama Land Office. The Shire provides the office, funds two staff members, and combines some of the Office’s needs, such as insurance, with its own, which offers some administrative relief. There are historical and cultural reasons for this high level of cooperation. On the other hand, the Aboriginal Shire is surrounded by the much larger mainstream shire of Carpentaria encompassing Kowanyama traditional lands and there is some concern that this will raise jurisdictional problems in the future.

The Northern Territory has recently legislated to bring all of its land under some form of local government, much of it covered by new very large shires. This process has centralised resources and functions that were previously distributed to major Aboriginal communities and has caused considerable controversy (for an outline and further sources see Sullivan 2011a:118-9). For the Malak Malak rangers of Wooliana on the Daly River these changes have practical consequences. The neighbouring community of Nauiyu has provided them an office and an administrative assistant. The new shire now owns this office; its staff do not have familiarity with local relationships, and the Malak Malak rangers’ administrative support faces an uncertain future.

The state of Western Australia has historically been covered by areas of either municipal or local government, many of these very large. Local governments, and the state government, have never accepted responsibility for the provision of services in Aboriginal communities. Since the abolition of ATSIC, which funded these functions, the Commonwealth has consistently pressured the State to take responsibility for local government services to these communities through its mainstream shires. A bi-lateral agreement to this effect was eventually signed in 2011, but the shires have been reluctant to comply for reasons of cost. In environmental matters the shires are minor players if they engage at all, and in the Fitzroy region the Shire of Derby West Kimberley, though sympathetic to FitzCam while it was in existence, has little influence over the fate of the Fitzroy River.

The complexity of jurisdictional responsibility provides a range of funding and support opportunities for the environmental management groups in each catchment. Local ranger groups or community councils, and the land and sea units within regional representative bodies, are not always very practiced at accessing this variety of funding for their clients and members. They tend to be fully occupied with the practical tasks of providing outcomes for their existing funding streams and suffer from a kind of inertia where they become heavily dependent on a single program for the bulk of their needs. There is a need to develop expertise in governmental programs within regional bodies, with more active brokering of relationships between clients who have plans for activities on their country and the government departments and programs that are able to assist them. There is a high level of frustration among many local groups that their particular needs are not being addressed by their regional representatives, while the regional representatives feel that they are fully occupied meeting the requirements of existing programs (see text boxes NLC and DRARG).

The Kimberley Land Council Land and Sea Unit

The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) receives about $20m from SEWPaC for the period 2007 to 2013 to pay for Working on Country programs. The Land and Sea Unit has about 24 staff plus about 50 permanent rangers with up to 150 part-time or flexi positions. There are eight Ranger Coordinators. These positions have mostly been filled by non-Indigenous staff based with the ranger groups however there is an increasing number of Traditional Owners taking on Ranger Co-ordinator positions. Three of the eight positions are currently occupied by traditional owners. The KLC has a policy of encouraging traditional owners to take on the role of Ranger Coordinators and is supporting capacity building to ensure the right mix of skills are developed to take on these roles.

The ranger groups are guided by traditional owner cultural advisory groups that are established by the native title holders or native title claimants of a region, usually called the Native Title Prescribed Body Corporate or PBC. The KLC intends to divest management of its ranger groups to the PBCs when they are well enough established to fulfil this function. The KLC sees itself offering region-wide coordination and direct services when it can offer economies of scale.

In a similar manner to the NLC in the Northern Territory the KLC Land and Sea Unit sees the Working on Country programme as having the social and economic aim of increasing sustainable Aboriginal employment, as well as meeting environmental objectives. Its rangers are usually employed as trainees while completing Certificates I to III in Conservation and Land Management. The training is formally delivered by Kimberley Group Training with the KLC acting as the host employer.

The KLC staff encourage trainees in the first year to develop a work ethic and the habit of consistent performance as well as acquiring skills. Under the guidance of the traditional owner cultural advisory group trainees are mentored through difficulties that may interfere with their work due to tensions at home or within the community, or through inappropriate lifestyle choices. Particularly in the first stages of training the program has a supportive youth diversionary emphasis which has proved successful. This success is attributed both to the involvement of elders and the satisfaction the youth feel working in a positive manner for their community ‘on country’.

While encouraged by the success of the programme so far, Land and Sea Management staff are concerned about further training and employment trajectories beyond the Cert III level. They would ideally like to see the next step as transition to tertiary education or to full-time skilled employment, with the KLC or other organisations, at mainstream levels of pay and conditions.

Ranger groups in the Kimberley have diverse funding sources. The Ngurrura, Karajarri, Uunguu, Wungurr, Nyul Nyul, Paruku, Nykina Mangala and Bardi Jawi rangers are funded through SEWPaC’s Working on Country program. The Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) funds developing ranger groups with Jaru/Kija, Gooniyandi and Balangarra traditional owners. The ILC encourages its rangers to engage in fee-for-service activities with the aim of moving on from ILC support. In contrast, it has taken a good deal of negotiation to arrive at an arrangement with SEWPaC to allow thirty per cent of a groups’ activities to be fee-for-service.

As well as those ranger groups coordinated by the KLC there are others employed by the state government’s Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC). DEC employs the Mirriuwung Gajerrong and the Yawuru rangers. Bunaba rangers in the Fitzroy Crossing region are funded under the state government’s Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy. DEC’s relationship with the KLC and some traditional owner groups is cordial but not enthusiastically embraced on either side. DEC only employs Indigenous rangers where it is party to joint-management of conservation reserves, usually as part of a native title settlement. Some Aboriginal groups believe DEC has no long term institutional commitment to community driven Indigenous ranger programs. DEC is reluctant to fully engage with Commonwealth departments such as SEWPaC for the achievement of joint outcomes.

Similarly, the Commonwealth’s whole-of-government Remote Service Delivery (RSD) scheme also fails to engage with the KLC’s Land and Sea Unit. Although all four of the RSD sites identified by the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Service Delivery have, or have had, Aboriginal ranger groups coordinated by the KLC, the plans produced by the RSD Regional Operations Centre (ROC) neglect to find a role for the ranger groups, despite one of the RSD NPs objectives being closing the gap in employment status between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The KLC coordinates the various forms of Commonwealth funding. It renegotiates underspent funds, supervises fee-for-service funds in trust accounts for the PBCs, and sometimes transitions a group from one funding programme to another, or negotiates the transfer of funds from a group that is not progressing to another that is keen to get started.

The KLC has a cooperative relationship with SEWPaC, but spends more than it  is compensated for. Like the NLC, the KLC provides considerable in-kind resources to the Land and Sea Unit from its Human Resources and Payroll sections, to some extent its native title activities, and its financial section that deals with SEWPaC’s complex grant acquittals.

The KLC Land and Sea Unit keeps itself apart from political campaigns over conservation and resource development, which it sees as part of the native title process. For its part the Land and Sea Management Unit intends to concentrate on the establishment and management of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) over areas of mixed land titles.

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