Self-determining the pathway to success

Photo of MDAS men's traditional cultural dance group.

Self- determination for Aboriginal people is an unfinished journey – and, for many Australians, it’s a concept that’s too easily relegated to the “political” basket. But recognition for first Australians and the capacity for self-determination is the basic building block for shifting Aboriginal disadvantage, says RUDOLPH KIRBY. 

What does self-determination mean? It’s a broad debate, with diverse interpretations, often bogged down in heavy political and legal discussion.

But, in reality, it’s nothing more, and nothing less, than the ability and right of Aboriginal people to have choice in the way we meet our social, cultural and economic needs as a community. Distilled down to that simple reality, it’s a concept, a wish, which should be neither threatening nor divisive.

Embedded self-determination is my hope for the Australia of 2030, not only from a philosophical point of view, but from a practical one. The path to self-determination, hopefully underpinned by a Treaty with Australia’s first people, has been – and will be – a long conversation. But it is my hope that by 2030, as a nation, we will have been mature enough to have had the conversation, to have acknowledged and settled the past, and to be moving forward as a nation.

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The path to self-determination, hopefully underpinned by a Treaty with Australia’s first people, has been – and will be – a long conversation.

Self-determination is not “a nation within a nation”. It is a model of success already working in countries around the world – New Zealand, Canada and even the United States – where treaties and constitutional recognition are already in place and carry meaning beyond symbolism.

Australia’s rate of Aboriginal representation in prison is 10 times more than the US. Our community’s youth suicide rate is twice that of New Zealand, and in New Zealand, 85 percent of Maori have a postschool qualification – in Australia it’s less than 14 percent. Australia is making steps forward in some ways, but we lag behind in many critical measures of what makes a vibrant, healthy and strong community.

I lead an organisation that is fortunate to work in Victoria’s isolated northwest. In a sense, our remoteness has been instrumental in allowing us to bring together diverse organisations to empower our community. We are innovating and identifying our own solutions to the challenges we face and it is giving us a glimpse of what the outcomes of self-determination might look like.

As an organisation, we identified five years ago that “parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” wasn’t going to be a solution to the many issues we faced. We began at the beginning. We established the Mallee District Aboriginal Services (MDAS) Early Years program, prompted, in part, by the suicide of a young pregnant woman. This tragedy galvanised the determination of many people within MDAS and the community to create a highly specialised service, delivered by a specialist organisation, which is highly proactive in its approach.

The Early Years Service at MDAS began in 2012, with a complex model of care evolving over four years to provide intensive support to women while they are pregnant, and to families with babies and young children up to school age. The Queen Elizabeth Centre, the Royal Women’s Hospital and the Royal Children’s Hospital all contributed to the program’s development, which encompassed Maternity Services; Maternal and Child Health; family support services; and family capacity-building groups. But at the centre was an Aboriginal Community- Controlled Organisation driving its own solutions.

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Community-driven solutions do work – but issues and problems 200 years in the making will not be resolved overnight.

That work is bringing about clear results in turning around outcomes for some of the region’s most vulnerable children. Independent evaluations of MDAS Early Years has found it is highly effective, headlined by the fact that in the past two financial years, no child receiving MDAS Early Years family support was permanently removed from their parents’ care.

We are innovating and identifying our own solutions to the challenges we face and it is giving us a glimpse of what the outcomes of self-determination might look like.

We are now mirroring the approach we have taken in Early Years to other areas of MDAS service delivery. Together we are strengthening our community through programs that tackle problems at their source, in collaboration, cooperation and driven by our own organisation.

SELF DETERMINATION_Rudolph Kirby

Community-driven solutions do work – but issues and problems 200 years in the making will not be resolved overnight.

The successes MDAS is achieving can be what self-determination looks like in action. Our successes are coming from our ability as an organisation to form partnerships, to collaborate and compromise – to work with goodwill within an overall system that is not based on a model of self-determination.

Successful “self-determination” for Aboriginal organisations and communities is being able to invest in and do things as communities that we see as priorities. Successful self-determination will see Aboriginal communities less reliant on government handouts and set on a pathway to true economic independence. We will have reliable sources of income – generated from our own economic activity – to do the things we see as important. We will be caring for our own in systems of support. For example caring for our young, in out-of-home care, and our Elders, in aged care.

This is not just about what is morally and ethically “right”. Self-determination is the critical practical element needed to shift Australia’s Aboriginal disadvantage in any meaningful and sustained way.

As the first Australians, empowering our choices on how we meet our social, cultural and economic needs is the foundation for building successful and thriving communities. This is what we would like to see as we look towards 2030.

Photos: MDAS CEO Rudolph Kirby as part of the MDAS men’s traditional cultural dance group and opening NAIDOC Week celebrations this year.

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