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- Understand Indigenous governance
- Your culture
- Assess your governance
- Build your governance
- Your people
- Systems and plans
- Conflict resolution and peacemaking
- Governance Stories
- Useful links
Governance and government sound really similar, but they are not the same thing. We explain why. We also explain the difference between organisational, corporate, community and Indigenous governance.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What is the difference between governance and government?
- What is community governance? What does this look like in your community?
- What is the difference between an organisation and a corporation?
- What is nation building?
- What are some examples of how your organisation, community or nation is implementing each type of governance listed above? Are there any areas that you can improve on?
Governance is not government
Governance and government sound really similar, but they are not the same thing.
Governance is when people with common interests come together and complete activities to achieve their goals. These actions are informed by formal rules and laws, as well as networks, institutions, cultures and ideas within the group. It includes the 8 elements of governance.
Governments are formal structures responsible for making rules and decisions within a specific community or state. The authority of governments comes from written rules – such as constitutions and legislation. In Australia, the government is a body of representatives who are voted in by the public.
Governance is the big picture. It encompasses all the different processes, ideas and structures that allow a group to get what they want. Governments are just one of these institutions.
Organisations and corporations
Organisations and corporations are often described in similar terms, but they are different.
An organisation is a group of people who work together to pursue shared goals. Organisations may be informal or incorporated.
A corporation is an organisation that is incorporated. It carries more legal obligations.
A group can choose to become incorporated under different types of Australian legislation. Or, it can be less formal and decide not to incorporate.
Indigenous governance is different from organisational or corporate governance
Indigenous governance is not the same thing as organisational or corporate governance.
Cultural governance is concerned with a family, community, or nation’s way of doing things. It is about how you create ways of knowing and how this knowledge is passed onto the next generation. Cultural governance is made up of the laws and rules that guide everyone to do the right thing by your group. These rules are often not written down but are passed down from one generation to the next.
Corporate or organisational governance is a system of rules that directs an organisation, community, or nation. It is the regulations and guidelines that come from the wider environment you operate in. These rules are often written down into a rulebook for everyone to see.
In this toolkit, Indigenous governance is about how these two ways of governing come together – this is what we also call two-way governance.
Indigenous governance can be seen at work every day at many different social and political levels. For example, in:
- the way people own and care for their Country, arrange a ceremony, manage and share their resources, and pass on their knowledge
- networks of extended families that have a form of internal governance
- the way people develop alliances across regions, arrange a community gathering or festival, or coordinate the activities of a community program
- the way a group decides to share benefits and resources among themselves
- the voluntary work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within their own communities, and as governing members on a number of informal local committees and advisory groups.
A community is a network of people, organisations, or both, with shared links such as:
- personal relationships
- cultural identities
- political connections
- social and economic conditions
- understandings and interests.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are extremely diverse in their cultures, histories, locations, size and local conditions. They’re subject to different national, state and territory government laws.
Communities can be at different scales, for example:
- residential community
- community spread-out over a region
- national or global community.
Community governance describes the complex set of relationships, cultural protocols, practices, and so on. It includes a range of organisations, corporations, nations and governments.1Toni Bauman et al., Building Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance: report of a survey and forum to map current and future research and practical resource needs (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2015). Although a group’s governance may not encompass a whole community, both community and organisational governance reflect the culture of their members.
The Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) was a Finalist in Category A of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards and Joint Winner in Category A in 2018. Adrian Carson, CEO, and Jody Currie, former Director of Operations and Communications, describe the ‘vibe’ of community-controlled governance at IUIH. This video was filmed in 2014 at the Indigenous Governance Awards.
“It’s a feeling – and that’s okay because what we talk about in terms of community control is it’s hard to measure. So, we can talk about governance, and tick boxes and it is often compliance stuff, or it might be strategic planning and other really important business processes but for us, that’s more on the western side of governance. Then, for community-controlled governance, it is about feelings and about how people feel when they walk into a clinic, or walk into a program, or when they attend a school program like deadly choices and how those kids feel when they graduate. Those things, that feeling, is something we want to be able to measure and it is okay that we can’t measure it because the concept of measurement is kind of like a western construct anyway. So, we say that’s community control.”
– Adrian Carson, CEO of IUIH
Nation governance and nation building
A nation – in a general sense – is a group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent or history. A nation can be:
- a single common territory with physical boundaries and government
- within another larger nation.
“In the hearts and minds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, our ‘nationhood’ has always survived and continues to be acknowledged between us.”
– Mick Gooda (former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner), Social Justice and Native Title Report 2014, page 114.
In Australia – more specifically – understanding of a ‘First Nation’ might include:
- a small clan, language-based group or tribal unit
- a native title–holding group or traditional land-owning group
- people spread out across a region, city or multiple communities who see themselves as a single cultural unit
- a discrete community whose differently related residents want to collectively govern themselves.
Not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collectives think of themselves as nations or First Nations. It’s important that they freely decide how they identify and what they pursue. In other words, how they collectively self-determine.
Nation building is how a First Nation enhances its own foundational capacity for:
- effective self-governance
- self-determined community and economic development.
Governance for nation building is about the practical mechanisms that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples use to collectively organise how they go about getting the things done that matter most to them. It’s how they govern in a way that maximises their ongoing self-determination.
“The most effective way for governments to acknowledge and respect Indigenous nationhood would be to pursue structural reform that facilitates First Nations self-determination and self-government. An Indigenous Voice to Parliament may be one step towards this goal … If Indigenous Nation Building is embraced by Australian governments and First Nations, there is an opportunity for real change, as envisaged by Indigenous nations for generations and reaffirmed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.”
– Excerpt from ‘Establishing a Voice to Parliament could be an opportunity for Indigenous Nation Building. Here’s what that means’ (2022), The Conversation, co-authored by Daryle Rigney, AIGI Board member
For more information and tools, see Nation building in practice.
We’ve translated our extensive research on Indigenous governance into helpful resources and tools to help you strengthen your governance practices.
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