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In this topic, we look at the important role members play in an organisation, community or nation. We also focus on what it means to be a member of an organisation and discuss some of the rights that people have as an organisation member.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- Who are your members at the heart of your governance? How are they connected to each other? Where are they living today?
- Are the members different in different contexts? For example: Who is the collective ‘self’ in your nation? Who are the different member groups of your community? Who are the members bring served by your organisation?
- Are there ways you can support your members to be able to participate and have a voice in the governance arrangement across all these different levels?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Australia operates across a complex and interconnected governance environment of:
- traditional land-owning groups (nations, clans, tribes, extended families) with varying legal rights and interests
- residents of communities, towns and cities who are not living on their traditional lands
- returning group members who have been removed from their families
- a network of incorporated organisations with their own legally established functions.
At the heart of each of these overlapping layers of governance are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the group members of the organisation, community or nation – and how they work together as a group to get things done. Members are the foundation for your group’s collective governance. They are the people who elected you. They are also the people you are representing and working for when you make decisions, develop your strategic plans and rules, and then put them into practice when governing.
The role of your members
It is not only the leaders of your group who have governing roles and responsibilities. Your members have a vital role to play by ensuring they:
- choose people to represent them who will fairly work for the whole group’s interests, and not be swayed by selfish interests
- turn up to have their say in voting and s/election processes
- ask their leaders the hard questions
- hold their leaders to account, using agreed standards
- back their leaders to get the job done.
Your members are a crucial part of running an organisation, community or nation. Having informed and motivated members who are keen to play their part helps ensure your governance arrangements work effectively.
Today, there can be confusion and sometimes conflict around who the members of a group are. This is a result of the impacts of colonisation, and more recent western court decisions which dictate who has rights and interests in lands and waters, and who does not.
This is leading many groups to take on the work of rebuilding their groups and their internal governance. An important first step in this work is to encourage members to engage with each other in a deep conversation about the shared roots of their self-governance. Your members are the real starting point for building strong, sustainable governance because they have overlapping interests and rights at every level.
Focusing your governance conversations on identifying the internal strengths and shared values of your members can spark a renewed sense of solidarity and lead to the design of culturally credible solutions for:
- healing and managing internal conflicts or divisions
- internal peace-making
- reconnecting with dispersed members
- rebuilding relationships and trust among members and leaders
- strengthening collective action.
One way the members of a community or nation can begin this internal reunification work is to talk about and map the journey of their own governance history. The same tool is also useful for an organisation, which will have its own governance journey.
“…leaders are not the only critical driver for community governance; instead, it is the community as a whole…….citizens [nation and community members] play a vital role in the design and exercise of their own governing structures. This is an opportunity for them to exercise real-life self-determination… it is the member—individually and collectively— who takes on one of the most essential roles and responsibilities in the governance process: that of exercising their participation and voice.”
– Jamie Sterritt, Instilling Good Governance for Community Prosperity: A Canadian Perspective.1Jamie Sterritt, “Instilling Good Governance for Community Prosperity: A Canadian Perspective” in Developing Governance and Governing Development: International Case Studies of Indigenous Futures, eds. Diane Smith, Alice Wighton, Stephen Cornell and Adam Vai Delaney (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield, 2021), 293-299.
Members have a special place in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. They hold the organisation accountable and help to make sure it’s meeting the needs of its members, beneficiaries and wider community – now and into the future.
In this context, a member refers to a person who has met the requirements of formal membership in a group. This is different from a community or nation member, although a community or nation member can also be a member of an organisation.
Organisation members have rights. This gives them a pathway to play an active part in the group. Through active participation, members can:
- help grow and shape the direction of the organisation
- have a say in how they feel the organisation should deliver its services
- have a say in how the organisation should manage its budget
- provide grassroots support to the organisation
- hold the organisation accountable by attending events and meetings.
Some groups only have a small number of members. This may be the board directors and no one else. Alternatively, some groups have a large number of members, and even different levels of membership.
Membership levels can include tiers – such as ordinary member, junior member and life member. For example, the Lowitja Institute offers the following membership options:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation members
- Associate organisation members
- Lowitja Institute Alumni members
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individual members
- Non-Indigenous Friends of Lowitja Institute.2“Members Community options,” Lowitja Institute, accessed 2023, Members Community options | Lowitja Institute
Have a look at your rule book or constitution, and at the company register, to see what your group’s membership looks like.
Becoming a member of an organisation
For incorporated organisations, the process to apply to become a member should be in the rule book or constitution. A copy of the rule book or constitution should be available at your organisation’s registered address. All members are entitled to a copy so they know the rules.
Usually there’s a membership registration process that requires a person to meet specific criteria. For example, members may need to:
- be 18 years of age or older
- be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
- live in a specific community or area, or have a connection traditionally or culturally to a specific community or particular area.
Some organisations may require potential members to be a client of that organisation. For example, they may get a service, advice or a product from the organisation. In some cases, an individual may need to be endorsed by other members or an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
Some types of organisations have strict rules around who can become a member. For example, becoming a member of a Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) may involve showing that you’re a descendant of a particular person (apical ancestor) or from a family group (descent group). You can read more about membership requirements of native title organisations on the Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) website.
You can also read more about membership of Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (Cth) corporations in this ORIC Factsheet.
Your organisation’s rulebook or constitution sets out the process to apply to become a member. For example, traditional owners are not automatically members of a PBC. A clear application process is key to making sure potential members meet your eligibility criteria.
Often, this application process involves:
- filling out a membership form
- submitting the form to your organisation
- your organisation (usually the board of directors) deciding whether to accept or reject the application.
Your rule book or constitution may also say how your board communicates this decision back to an applicant, including whether the applicant has a right to request a review of the decision.
Incorporated organisations are generally required to keep an up-to-date register of members as part of their company records.
Members may have to pay an annual fee. This is up to your organisation, and should be included in your governance documents.
Membership can be a source of revenue for your organisation to cover general operation costs – such as administration, printing or catering. It’s also an opportunity for members to strengthen their commitment to your organisation.
A person’s membership may end for several reasons. This depends on the rules in your organisation’s rule book or constitution. For example:
- through formal resignation – following your organisation’s process for ending membership
- by not paying the membership fees
- by special resolution of members at a general meeting – for example, if the member has remained uncontactable for a period
- by not following your organisation’s rules
- the person has passed away.
Organisation member’s rights
Members have many rights and obligations. These look different depending on your organisation’s legal structure and rule book or constitution.3“Managing members,” Justice Connect, updated 25 May 2022, [link] If your organisation is a charity, then it’s likely your members have different rights compared to the members of a PBC.
Members’ rights can include the right to:
- attend and vote at general meetings
- be notified of upcoming meetings
- request or ‘call’ a general meeting
- propose a resolution at a general meeting
- elect or nominate people (directors) to the board
- put forward a resolution at a general meeting to remove a director
- access information or certain company documents
- make an application to a court about the organisation’s conduct or affairs
- amend the rule book or constitution.
One member alone cannot make changes to the rulebook or constitution, or elect or remove a board director. These decisions must follow your organisation’s decision-making rules.
Significant decisions at members’ general meetings sometimes need to be passed by a ‘special resolution’. This is a resolution that can only pass when at least 75 per cent of the votes are in favour of it. For CATSI Act corporations, amending the rule book or constitution, for instance, must be done by passing a special resolution at a Special General Meeting.
Check your rule book or constitution to see whether this applies to your organisation.
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