Adam Kilgour, CEO of CPR (Corporate Public Relations), writes:

Indigenous Australia needs to promote a new generation of leadership. When Australia’s Aboriginal leaders combine to advocate change, they have a good track record.

The 1967 referendum. The Wik and Mabo cases and subsequent political battles. Corroboree 2000, the largest ever gathering of Australian political and community leaders, staged in Sydney’s Opera House, culminating in 250,000 people walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge for a concept called reconciliation, generating headlines and front page pictures around the world.

Many of those Indigenous leaders are no longer with us, have run out of energy and ideas, or are just so disheartened that they have given the game away. And our bureaucracies, that spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money on supposedly improving the lives of Indigenous Australians, have very few Indigenous senior managers who actually know what their people need.

To promote Australia’s rich Indigenous culture or to improve the lives and life expectancy of Aboriginal Australians, you need articulate leaders. Spokespeople with ideas who can paint a verbal and visual picture. People with energy who connect with Australians at large. Good negotiators.

Throughout the 1990s Patrick Dodson was the pre-eminent Aboriginal leader. He was articulate, passionate and a decent man above all things. But he also happens to fit the stereotype the media wanted to deal in. The hat with red, black and yellow band and the flowing grey beard. Pat’s brother Mick is still boxing on bravely, with his hat too. But there are not many others on the national stage.

There are however, a group of thirtysomethings, with strong Indigenous heritage and a sense of themselves, coming through. Many of them are well educated and in highly regarded positions. Lawyers, academics, corporate managers, NGO managers, ready to be leaders.

The unfortunate cultural barrier this new group faces, as they contemplate leadership roles for their people, means they are often told not to speak out or are chastised if they do. Not by John Howard or the mainstream media, but by their own elders. Older Indigenous leaders whom they respect. Like in most cultures there are leadership egos and a cultural hierarchy. These emerging leaders need to do a brave thing in my view.

On top of all the risks that go with generating a discourse in Australia’s adversarial media, they have to be gutsy enough to endure the likely barbs from some of their own elders. Criticism that will be public and private, that will look like Aboriginal leaders are fighting each other. If I was engaged to educate Australians to understand Indigenous history, culture and disadvantage, I’d want to be armed with some younger, articulate, passionate leaders. There are some brilliant young Aboriginal leaders coming through. We need to see them, listen to them and work with them.

In corporate and political life, successful leaders spend lots of time on succession planning. If they don’t get it right, their businesses and organisations wither. In my view, it’s time Indigenous Australians made a concerted effort to get their new leadership team out there and took a few risks.

Jason Glanville from Reconciliation Australia responds:

Adam’s idea has a lot going for it.

We get to see excellent leadership operating across Indigenous Australia, particularly in regional and local settings, and particularly from women. But at the national level, we have a real problem where non-Indigenous bureaucrats and reporters are too often telling us who our leaders are and creating conflict where there doesn’t need to be any.

Adam’s right that it’s important for mainstream Australia to see up-and-coming Indigenous leaders who are contributing in all sectors of national life. We’ve been able to reach the positions we have because of the struggles fought and won by the established leadership, people like Mick Dodson who continue to support and guide us.

Since the demise of ATSIC, it’s essential that the established and emerging leadership comes together to make sure we are represented at the national level by a new Indigenous body that can legitimately speak on our behalf. That kind of leadership from our side has major implications for governments and others who too often describe Indigenous people in negative terms, and who make decisions that affect us but not necessarily from a well informed place.

Peter Fray

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