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We are not just passing through

Alistair Ferguson, chair of the Aboriginal Community Working Party, was born in nearby Brewarrina, reports the Griffith Review. He’s lived in Bourke most of his forty-six years and he loves it. The Bourke ACWP has been established for nearly twenty years, with Ferguson chair for the past ten. He’s also current chair of the Bourke Aboriginal Health Service. He’s been around the block a few times and comes from a long line of Aboriginal activists. His great-grandfather, Bill Ferguson, was an organiser of the Aboriginal Day of Mourning in Sydney on Australia Day 1938. The Ferguson name is symbolic, being associated with the likes of William Cooper, Jack Patton, Pearl Gibbs and Sir Douglas Nichols, all strong Aboriginal pioneering activists.

The ACWP has an admirable list of achievements including: implementation of the Wangkumarra language program, the first in the NSW High School curriculum; initiation of an alcohol management program which has received two national awards; lobbying for a child safety review through the NSW Ombudsman’s Office; and negotiating an overarching service-level agreement with the NSW Department of Family and Community Services. It has initiated sporting and recreational program and moved beyond traditional government funding sources to engage with the corporate sector in jointly developing an innovative, best practice Aboriginal housing and home ownership model. Importantly, six members of the ACWP have completed accredited governance training. This has provided a platform for members of the ACWP being involved in other Bourke non-Aboriginal associations.

Bourke, Ferguson says, ‘has been resource rich and outcome poor. We’ve been massively funded for little positive return.’ The community working party has developed and recommended a new approach to the provision of services and the governance and accountability of that provision in Bourke. This recognises that while the level of funding for service provision has been strong, the level of accountability has been weak.

The Maranguka Proposal, as the new approach is known, is a grassroots vision for true empowerment of the Aboriginal community. ‘The vision has been there for many years,’ according to Ferguson. ‘It was shared by our forefathers.’ The vision was spurred into action with a 2011 NSW Ombudsman’s report, Addressing Aboriginal disadvantage: the need to do things differently. Maranguka, which means ‘caring for others’, is all about doing things differently. ‘It’s time for the community to move beyond the existing service delivery model,’ Ferguson says, ‘a model which has clearly failed.’

Maranguka is designed to create better coordinated support to vulnerable families and children in Bourke. It involves establishing a community-led and multi-disciplinary team initially focused on family case management with the necessary support services working in partnership with relevant government agencies and non-government organisations. It will also, Ferguson believes, eventually build social capital and strengthen bonds with the wider community. Creating a place that is safe, enjoyable and a model to others.

Maranguka is based on extensive research, input and expertise from other Indigenous communities in Australia, North America and New Zealand, while building its own capacity. This includes an approach known as collective impact, a different form of collaboration with dedicated staff and a purpose-built rather than an off-the-shelf structure. It also focuses on the development of evidence-based policy.

ON ALMOST ANY issue in almost any place, local decision-making is held up as the panacea. The locals always know best, is the catchcry. This, though, can overlook the tendency for tunnel vision, or short sightedness, where local people may be too close to a problem, or it may be too difficult. This does not appear to be the case here. The ACWP has been responsible for a number of past initiatives, shining lights into uncomfortable places. And while developing Maranguka, Ferguson and one other member of the ACWP went on a study tour of Cape York and other Queensland communities. ‘We wanted to look at innovations and learn from others, not re-invent the wheel,’ Ferguson says. ‘While we were in Queensland, having meetings in many small communities, I often excused myself from meetings, went outside and asked people in the street what they thought about things, such as the Family Responsibilities Commission.’ This commission empowers local elders to make decisions about families that come before it. ‘I asked how they thought it was working for them and their community. That was enlightening, I learned a lot from that.’

An earlier strategic plan of the ACWP articulated the desire for local decision-making by local people: those people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who choose to live in Bourke – people who are not just passing through – and have a personal commitment to its future. Kelly Edwards and Phil Parnaby provide good examples of what individuals can achieve. ‘Change is needed throughout the community,’ Ferguson says, ‘not just in the Aboriginal community.’ And, unlike a number of people who told me, off the record, they believed there was no real commitment to change – among those service providers identified as ‘poorly integrated and inefficient’ – Ferguson believes people will change when they are involved in the change.

The Maranguka Proposal was endorsed in principle by the ACWP in August 2013, with a foundation stone of overturning society’s historical deficit-based approach that views Aboriginal people as ‘the problem’, rather than as people ‘having a problem’. It is not about reinforcing Aboriginal people and communities as victims. Maranguka proposes an annual ‘community report card’ to offset concerns that agency reporting is always at a state level, concealing the true state of affairs at a local level. This will also go some way towards increased accountability and transparency. Its approach is aligned to the NSW Government’s Office of Aboriginal Affairs (OAA) commitment to the development of staged local decision making. The OAA has committed to funding a temporary position with Maranguka to collect and analyse data that will drive evidence-based policy development. This is one of the foundations of Maranguka.

A key component of Maranguka is support for legislative change to enable local Aboriginal leaders to undertake community conferencing with identified vulnerable Aboriginal families. This proposed intervention would have teeth. Its focus is the welfare of children and it will not require the consent of the identified families. It does, however, require legislative change, similar to that in Queensland that established the Families Responsibilities Commission. ‘We live in hope for this,’ Ferguson says, ‘otherwise it’s more of the same.’

Maranguka also supports the Justice Reinvestment Campaign, which aims to convince the NSW Government to shift policy and spending from incarceration towards prevention, early intervention and treatment for young Aboriginal people at risk. Young Aboriginal people, the campaign says, are twenty-eight times more likely to be placed in juvenile detention, at an average cost of $650 a person a day. For young people from Bourke, detention is in Dubbo, four hours’ drive away. In Bourke alone, Ferguson says, juvenile detention costs more than $2 million each year. The campaign argues for the diversion of a portion of funds currently spent on incarceration to be reinvested into education, program and services that address the underlying causes of crime and meet community need.

Justice Reinvestment, Ferguson says, has attracted philanthropic support, which is expected to fund a caseworker in Bourke to work intensively with young people and their families. The evidence of their impact will be used to strengthen the argument for a state government diversion of funds away from incarceration and into early intervention programs.

There might be a case for accepting that some people might only ever have welfare as an income, but it’s important that that income be used wisely and that people have some purposeful activity, a meaning in their lives. ‘But,’ Ferguson says, with his passion, dedication and determination, ‘we should never give up on people. While Bourke has been good to a lot of people, this vision is about giving back. Bourke’s worth fighting for and it’s now better placed to get it right.’ And he sees good reason for optimism. Bourke’s tennis elbow might have more improvement to come. He also knows it will be a slow process and understands the importance. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘if Bourke can’t get it right, the rest of Aboriginal Australia has no hope.’

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