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This report suggests that whole-of-government coordination to support environmental services and sustainable Indigenous livelihoods has not been achieved, and is unlikely to be achieved. However, sustainable Indigenous livelihoods have been notably improved since the introduction of a single Commonwealth program, Working on Country, which combines the activities of SEWPaC, the Indigenous Land Corporation and the Northern Territory Government. Field consultations for this report indicated no noticeable level of coordination across institutional boundaries outside the Working on Country program. In keeping with the Aboriginal local and regional organisations that were approached for this study this report takes a pragmatic view of this lack of progress. It sees jurisdictional fragmentation as presenting opportunities for diversification of the funding base, despite the administrative overburden.

The report finds that local and regional Aboriginal environmental management is working well in most locations, with sincere commitment to balancing cultural needs with environmental outcomes and ensuring consistent work practices. The success of local responses to local circumstances in each of the locations should be recognised. The complexity of management tasks, with their social and seasonal variations, demands that local groups work flexibly with a high degree of autonomy. This is a good environment for relational contracting where some of the administrative burden of planning and reporting can be open ended because all parties are committed to a long-term relationship to meet commonly agreed goals.

While improved coordination across government departments and jurisdictions is not a realistic expectation, improved communication between the various levels of environmental management is. Although relationships are generally good, communication between local groups and regional representative bodies could be improved, as could communication between both of these and the public servants who oversee their programs. Most of the recommendations of this report relate in one way or another to supporting engagement based on trust. To some extent this can be improved by ensuring Aboriginal environmental managers have the technical support necessary to meet reporting requirements; to some extent it can be improved by introducing more flexibility to these requirements; but more importantly it requires participants at each level of the joint endeavour to be allowed to do what they do best.

New models of public management are required to deal with the complexity of environmental management in Australia’s remote river catchments, these must also include encouragement of a new economy partly based on standard wage labour, partly based on commercial income and partly grounded in traditional pursuits. This is the sustainable path for Indigenous livelihoods.

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