All posts by Trevor Van Weeren

Hopes for moving forward

The main thing to emerge at Ntaria in the last period of the project was that people identified social issues as inhibiting development in the community. This concern ranges across people of all ages and across agencies. It includes concern about bullying/ teasing, how children are cared for, domestic and family violence, alcohol use and abuse, partying, loud noise, dangerous driving. People are very interested in finding ways to do something about these issues, however there is no consensus as to how to go about it, nor is there agreement as to what lies at the heart of the problems. For example, some people think that there are not enough jobs and that people are idle because of a lack of opportunity, and so think that Tjuwanpa (the local CDP agency) should do more to support people and help them get jobs. Others feel that there are work opportunities in the community and feel that people are not taking them up due to the fact that they are not motivated.

Discussion about these disparate but related issues coalesced with a sense that some way of bringing them together was required. This needed thoughtful and in-depth discussion and some people thought that Wurla Nyinta might be able to take on this role. However it was also noted that Wurla Nyinta’s capacity to undertake this coordination work has been compromised since the demise of the LIP. As such one proposal that has been put forth for consideration is for the Wurla Nyinta to work in partnership with an organisation that can seek funding to initiate a LIP style process to identify critical community issues and to develop actions plans to put them into place.

Such a process may also work into another possibility raised during the project, that of forming an incorporated body that would then be able apply for funding to undertake projects in the community. Again Wurla Nyinta was identified as a potential body to take on this role, however people were aware that such a move should be undertaken cautiously, noting that if it were to become an incorporated entity that much work would be required to negotiate the governance arrangements so that it could deliver community benefit outcomes.

To date the following have been discussed in terms of next steps:

  • Representative of Tangentyere attend a Wurla Nyinta meeting to provide final feedback ;
  • Discuss and gauge support amongst all Wurla Nyinta members for their interest in developing a LIP style document around current issues. If there is interest (and preliminary discussions indicate that there is) then;
  • Hold subsequent meetings to determine an action plan for the development of a LIP style document and to formalise partnership arrangements with an appropriate body.

Issues of concern

The research conducted by Tangentyere for the Indigenous Governance and Leadership Development Project (IGLDP) gave people an opportunity for them to reflect on governance and leadership, and its role in producing change in the community. Community level governance was seen to have grown in recent years, with many government and non-government agencies seeking to work in cooperative ways with people, and wishing for local people to play advising roles in their work. This revealed itself as having impacts on local people, particularly a small group of people who were seen to be important leaders who are thus approached to provide their advice and input on a broad range of issues.

The main areas of concern for people in Ntaria appeared to revolve around what structures are in place that actually give power to local people to make decisions for the community. Some of the observations included:

  • There are a number of community level structures in place that take up peoples time
  • Community level structures without resources are impotent
  • There is a strong belief that each individual is self determining, so people are loathe to directly try to make others change even though they disapprove of their behaviour
  • Some people believe that Traditional Owners are the main decision makers for the community, while others think that better decisions are made when people work together
  • The LA is for making small decisions about community infrastructure; it is not seen as a forum for addressing social issues. Yet as individuals they are concerned about social issues and the flow-on effects social problems have for the community

Throughout these discussions there was a desire to ensure that Aboriginal interests play a decisive role in the ongoing development of Ntaria (in social and economic terms). There remains a belief that some kind of ‘encompassing’ community level structure is one of the best ways to do this, with the accompanying knowledge that resources are critical. From the preliminary discussions, and the interest within Wurla Nyinta about ongoing discussions around community level governance and community led change, it is clear that people feel alienated from decision making processes.

The other area of concern regularly expressed was that governance and leadership is about making change- people don’t want to govern for the sake of governing, they want to see things change. In terms of the research most of the people were concerned about social issues, and the difficulty they face in trying to change them in the current framework that sees leadership mostly in terms of existing organisations and institutions. The inability of these groups and their leadership to address social issues is seen to feed into the production of social problems that people experience (lack of jobs, people drinking and fighting, kids teasing each other).

Of concern to people is that the absence of organisations at the local level who are seen to be accountable and responsive in Aboriginal terms. This regularly results in ‘action’to address issues of concern being driven by organisations that are seen to be accountable elsewhere (e.g. the school, the clinic, the Police). This feeds a perception that outside agencies are taking on the role of trying to effect change in the community, reducing the agency of locals to act on issues of concern. The difficulty is that the lack of organisations also reflects a lack of resources to implement action, the result being that that the collective capacity of Ntaria residents to identify and take action on those things they care about is reduced under the current arrangements.

Recent changes

Shires, Intervention, Wurla Nyinta Council

Ntaria, like all other communities in the NT has undergone a raft of significant changes in the last 10 years, all of which have a strong bearing on how governance and leadership are understood in relation to the ongoing life of the community.

The NTER began in 2007, with a three step program (stabilise, normalise, exit) designed to radically shift how Aboriginal communities would be dealt with by the government. Part of the change saw greater investment and oversight of Aboriginal communities, something that ran counter to the prevailing tendency of governments to withdraw from active presence in communities. It also saw greater being placed (at least rhetorically) on engagement and practices to identify and support Aboriginal people to become more involved in managing their own affairs.

Ntaria was at the front line of the NTER, with a visit from John Howard in the early days of the implementation of the policy. People were nervous about what it meant, and frightened of the presence of the army in the community, nonetheless as time went on people sought to make what they could of the change that the NTER had brought about.

One of the significant changes was the quite central role that local leaders were seen to play in the development of communities. In Ntaria, following on from work done over the previous four decades in thinking about and enacting community level governance, people were keen to ensure that the right people were in position to guide the infrastructure development that was promised with the NTER. As a result they took the formation of their Local Reference Group seriously, and named it Wurla Nyinta (all together, in a group), reflecting their desire to work together for the good of the community. This is an interesting development, given the five Land Trusts that cover the land in the area, as it demonstrates a willingness on behalf of the Ntaria group (Traditional Owners of the land on which the community sits) to share power with other Traditional Owners for the benefit of the community.

Other changes that occurred at the time included the dismantling of the Community Government Councils and their subsequent incorporation into Shires. This change occurred around the same time as the NTER and heralded significant changes in how affairs were managed at the local level. No longer was a local body responsible for running the community replaced instead by an authority that had its main office in Alice Springs, and which had two representatives from the community on a Shire board that covered the bottom half of the NT.

A final change that took place was the dissolving of Indigenous Community Housing Associations and the handover of housing management responsibility to the Northern Territory Government. This meant that the local community had an decision making power in relation to housing and its management in Ntaria, instead being subject to a process run by the NT Department of Housing.

Community set up

Present day Ntaria is home to around 650 people, with the community divided into a number of precincts, including three distinct and separate residential areas (Sandhill Camp, Middle Camp and Top Camp). There is also an historic precinct and two service zones, with shops, school, clinic, child care, council and other offices, and accommodation for service providers located in these areas. On the other side of the Finke River is the Tjuwanpa Outsation Resource Centre, established in 1984 to provide services to outstations. Today it supports a variety of programs including Rangers and a Safe Communities for Children program.

History, location

Ntaria, also known as Hermannsburg, lies on the banks of Lhere Pinte (Finke River) in the country of the Arrarnta people, who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years.

The current settlement began its life as a Lutheran mission in 1877, when missionaries from Germany made their way north from what is now known as the Barossa Valley to establish a mission in central Australia for Aboriginal people. The Arrarnta people would have, by the time the missionaries arrived, already encountered white people entering their country, with the Overland Telegraph line being established 130 km to the east in the early 1870s, followed by the expeditions of Giles and Gosse in the mid 1870s who ventured further through Arrarnta country, including in the region of the modern day Ntaria.

The German missionaries were interested in Aboriginal people and made efforts to learn the local language and to translate materials into Arrarnta. They began schooling children and welcomed people from around the area, many of whom were being pushed off their land by pastoralists.

The mission endured many tough times, including droughts and disease, and on more than one occasion it appeared that the mission would close down. After the building of a pipeline from Kaporilja Springs in 1936, Hermannsburg finally had a permanent water supply and this allowed the mission to expand.

In the 1960s some of the missionaries, recognising the demands of local people that they should be more involved in the running of the mission, started working on developing local governance for this to take place. This gained momentum in the early 1970s with the arrival of what is now known as the self-determination era. This saw moves to hand the land back to its Traditional Owners under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory ) Act and the accompanying rise of the outstation movement, with people moving out from Ntaria back to their traditional lands. It was during this period that the land surrounding Ntaria was allocated to landowning groups through the declaration of five separate Land Trusts: Ntaria, Uruna, Roulpmaulmpa, Rodna and Ltalaltuma.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s structures to support people on homelands grew. This included organisations, such as the Tjuwanpa Outstation resource centre, but also included programs such as CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) that enabled people to be paid for performing work on their own country.

The 2000s saw the dismantling of many of the systems of the ‘self determination era’, and the introduction of what has been called the ‘shared responsibility, mutual obligation’ era. This era has seen more direct intervention by government, and probably best exemplified by the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) which began with much fanfare in 2007, and included a visit to Ntaria by the then Prime Minister John Howard to explain to people firsthand the rationale behind the policy. This heralded in new changes for community governance, with the setting up of Local Reference Groups to guide the development of Local Implementation Plans. In Ntaria this LRG was renamed by local people the Wurla Nyinta (reference group).


Resources for some Western governance concepts

We made some supporting visuals and other documents to help in explaining Western governance concepts. We used these in all three communities in Arnhem Land.

The role of Boards Role of Boards pdf

Processes for thinking about Vision, Preamble, Principles and Objectives Vision, Preamble, Principles, Objectives pdf

Governance Diagram for School Council Governace diagram pdf

Steps to register an Aboriginal Corporation Steps to register pdf

Ramingining data tables

Governance in Yolŋu communities is complex and often is negotiated in the moment according to the issue at hand and most importantly who is involved. In Ramingining we started to map some of this information in an excel spreadsheet. While on one level it shows the arrangements of clans, leaders and places it does not take into account the gurruṯu system of governance arrangements. The data also shows which Yolŋu are involved in particular Balanda agencies and how some of these agencies organise their governance across cultures.

Download the Excel Spreadsheet Tables for Ramingining

Community recommendations

By the end of the project, a number of the people we had been working with for the last two years were very clear and insistent that they wanted to deliver a set of recommendations to government.

These recommendations come from elder and emerging leaders in the community, as they sought to have their voices heard beyond the life of the IGLDP project.

These recommendations are as follows:

  • That funding be provided for the re-establish and formalise the Skin Group Meetings, and develop a work unity to carry out this function.
  • Tiwi social concerns/ grievances to be dealt with through Skin Group structure.
  • Aboriginal business Tanyah Nasir Consulting Service to support and assist the Tiwi Skin Groups design and development of their resources, structures, procedures and processes and train Tiwi people and build their capacity in how to manage and work this type of cultural infrastructure.
  • That the Skin Group meetings develop a Working Group – 4 Skin Group x 2 women and 4 Skin Group x 2 men = 16 to continue the conversations about Tiwi Way and Skin Groups and in doing so to develop a shared understanding and ownership for this.
  • That service providers be supportive of these working group members allowing them to participate in Skin Group meetings when required.
  • That local Tiwi people be trained for real employment and for all Tiwi positions
  • That all people and/or service providers on Island are to a complete Tiwi Cultural Awareness Program. This is compulsory.
  • That government and service providers work with a cultural approach, observing Tiwi Way
  • That support is offered to develop and deliver training so Tiwi people can implement a Tiwi Cultural Awareness Program.
  • That support is offered to strengthen capacity and confidence of Tiwi people. For example, all RJCP trainees to complete the full training of Tanyah Nasir Consulting Services Rise UP Program, Be Your Best, Own your Future

Sketch 4: Developing new board practices with TITEB

The Tiwi Islands Employment and Training Board (TITEB) was created in 1994 as an initiative of the Tiwi Land Council. The Council had become concerned about the ad hoc nature of training the employment training being offered to Tiwi people and funded TITEB so that it could introduce a Tiwi focus to the provision of training, and deliver programs which might lead to real and lasting jobs for Tiwi people. These aims remain core to TITEB’s business and working vision, and TITEB now provides a range of services and programs for the Tiwi people, including

  • As a Registered Training Organisation
  • As a Group Training Organisation
  • Delivery of Literacy and Numeracy training through the SEE program
  • Money Management
  • Delivery of the RJCP program, now called the Community Development program
  • School attendance program

TITEB is more than ever a key enabling organisation for the Tiwi people, with the potential to have a strong Tiwi board showing strong Tiwi leadership.


Our work with the TITEB board began with a request from the CEO Norm Buchan, as he attempted to provoke a general revitalisation of TITEB’s board of directors. He was interested in carrying out a review of the board manual and policies, and taking advantage of any opportunities for mentoring of new board members as they were elected. Initial meetings and discussions would focus on this task of contacting board members and electing new members to positions of retiring members. Then after this, other governance work could begin.

In our first workshop with the board, we began with the question ‘what is governance?’ However, as the newly elected board members began to display their knowledge of Western governance language and practices, it became clear that they were all very well versed in the relevant terms and concepts. As members of other boards and organisations they had received training before and could recount to us issues and responsibilities around compliance, reporting and conflicts of interest. If it was training that we were there to offer, then it seemed that our students had little left to learn.

However, moving through these initial questions of ours, the TITEB Board members began to ask questions of their own. These were not to do with compliance or reporting, but were much more concerned with how TITEB’s different programs related, and the ways that the Board could work to strategically guide and shape programs in ways that would benefit Tiwi people.

It was in response to these questions and concerns that Mike Harrison – the key facilitator carrying out this work – has been able to work with the board and TITEB management, setting out a plan for the development of a number of new board policies and a shareholders agreement for the company. In addition, the board have been interested in exploring the ‘Tricker Model’ (1994) as a way of carefully working with the dual needs of compliance and performance has been requested by the board as they look towards ways of steering the organisation in ways which are in tune with the needs and visions of Tiwi people.


Sketch 3: Community Workshops at Wurrumiyanga

During the community workshops we were focussed on the major objectives of the project and there were specific expectations. However, the process was more organic and unfolded via the community driven expectations and priorities. We worked in a very holistic manner ensuring that the participants were provided with the opportunity to share their knowledge and understandings, raise any community concerns or issues that wished to share as well as learn about governance and leadership.

Some of the other learning shared and topics discussed included the following:

  • Identifying businesses at Wurrumiyanga (private and Tiwi)
  • Identifying service providers (government and NGO)
  • Identifying the boards, LA and Tiwi Island Shire Council
  • Shared the history of Tiwi Island Shire council
  • Discussion about issues Tiwi people experience and how to work with them to resolve them
  • Tiwi aspirations and hopes for community in the future

At the same time we found that focussing on ‘governance and leadership’ tended to obscure some of the therapeutic development work that was needed to get people to the stage of readiness, where they could begin to work on these issues.

Prior to being able to speak about governance and leadership in ways which did not isolate or alienate people, and which did not simply reinforce feelings of inferiority, we needed to engage with where people were at, beginning a learning and development journey which had the potential to open up new and safe possibilities for Tiwi people to articulate narratives which were different to those which they often offer to Western researchers and facilitators.
Sketch3It was important to prepare people for the learning and the discussion that was to follow. We invested time in encouraging and building the Tiwi people’s confidence and capacity to actively participate in a meaningful and positive way. The shared learning was very cooperative and collaborative in a caring, safe, fun, open and non-authoritarian learning environment which ensured real engagement and learning.

By being guided by Tiwi people, as well as working through empowerment and confidence building people began to see themselves our confident and capable human beings who are knowledgeable in their traditional governance system and who understand that there is a need for the Tiwi governance and western governance to work in partnership.