It’s important to be open to different ideas – to see what works best in your circumstances Experiment with ways of developing solutions that are culturally legitimate, as well as practically effective It’s...
- Understand Indigenous governance
- Your culture
- Assess your governance
- Build your governance
- Your people
- Systems and plans
- Conflict resolution and peacemaking
- Governance Stories
- Useful links
Understand conflicts, disputes and complaints
In this topic, we define conflict, dispute and complaint– including how they differ. We also look at some common causes and reasons for conflicts, disputes and complaints.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- What conflicts, disputes or complaints have happened in your group – both recently and in the past? Are the conflicts internal or external?
- Are there any areas of your governance where conflicts, disputes or complaints are more common?
Defining conflict, dispute and complaint
Governance is about working together. Working collectively towards anything creates potential for differences between people. These differences can happen in people’s interests, perspectives, opinions and values. If these differences are not understood, conflicts, disputes and complaints can happen.
As with all areas of society, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are likely to experience conflicts, disputes and complaints.
The value and meaning given to conflicts and disputes varies between cultures and places. For example, in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, conflict is accepted as a normal part of social life. It happens openly and directly, rather than something troubling that people shy away from or feel shame about.1 Morgan Brigg, Paul Memmott, Philip Venables and Berry Zondag, “Gununa peacemaking: informalism, cultural difference and contemporary Indigenous conflict management,” Social & Legal Studies 27, no. 3 (2017): 350,[link]
Every group has cultural norms and protocols to consider when managing conflicts, disputes and complaints. Your group should customise peacemaking processes to meet your unique needs and circumstances.
To build and maintain strong and effective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance, it’s important to understand:
- what conflicts, disputes and complaints are
- how they differ
- what causes them.
Conflict and dispute
A conflict or dispute is a disagreement or clash between 2 or more parties. It generally results from a difference in opinion, attitude or idea of how things should be done. A ‘party’ or ‘parties’ in this context refers to the various individuals or groups involved. We also refer to ‘third party’ to describe a neutral peacemaking practitioner, such as a mediator or facilitator.
Conflicts and disputes may occur:
- within a group’s membership
- within and between a group’s board, committees, staff and management
- between organisations, communities or nations
- between a group and its external stakeholders.
The terms dispute and conflict are closely related. They are often used to describe the same kinds of situations. While both are types of disagreements that occur between individuals or groups, they do have some differences.
A dispute is a disagreement where the issue could be resolved. For example, when rules or laws apply to the situation.2 Timothy Keator, “Dispute or Conflict? The Importance of Knowing the Difference,” Mediate, August 2011, [link] These rules or laws could be set out in a charter, rulebook or policy. As a result, disputes are often short-term disagreements.
A conflict usually refers to a disagreement or argument that is longer term. For example, there is more than one issue that could be seen as unresolvable.3Timothy Keator, “Dispute or Conflict? The Importance of Knowing the Difference,” Mediate, August 2011, [link] A conflict may occur when 2 families within a community have developed poor trust and cannot agree on any issue. It may not be clear whether either family has done the wrong thing. There may not be a clear solution to re-establishing trust.
A complaint is a statement of dissatisfaction where a response is sought, and is reasonable to expect or legally required.4 Commonwealth Ombudsman, Better Practice Complaint Handling Guide, February 2023, [link] A complaint is when someone expresses they are unhappy about something. They are looking for accountability for something they believe has been done wrong or that has not been addressed.
For example, when someone makes a complaint about not having the opportunity to apply for a position, even though their organisational policy says that they should have that opportunity.
You might have also heard the word ‘grievance’ when talking about complaints. A grievance is a formal complaint. Grievances can be real or imagined and are often around feelings of unfair treatment. The terms complaint and grievance are sometimes used interchangeably.
Complaints are about something that has happened – or continues to occur – that is believed to be wrong or unsatisfactory. In contrast, disputes and conflicts are generally the result of differing opinions.
In this Toolkit, the term ‘conflict’ often refers collectively to conflicts, disputes and complaints.
Internal and external conflicts, disputes and complaints
When thinking about how to resolve a conflict, dispute or complaint, it’s helpful to identify the scope or boundary of those involved. For example, including the right people or having a deadline. This can help you identify any consequences if the issue cannot be resolved.
An internal dispute, conflict or complaint involves 2 or more parties within the group. For example, when 2 directors cannot agree, or an employee makes a complaint against their manager.
Groups should have a policy for managing and resolving internal issues. For example, negotiation or mediation. By law, some internal disputes, conflicts or complaints require external involvement. For example, Fair Work Commission or police.
An external dispute, conflict or complaint is one that involves a party or parties outside the group. For example, when someone makes a complaint to ORIC or ASIC about your group or someone within it. Or when a traditional owner in a native title organisation disagrees with a pastoral leaseholder.
To resolve these issues, you may need to follow processes set by external organisations – such as local council, a regulatory body, or a court.
Common causes of conflicts, disputes and complaints
Ineffective governance arrangements can cause conflicts, disputes and complaints. They can also involve multiple parties. They can happen when people’s actions, decisions, beliefs or values differ, or when people simply do not get on.
Keep in mind that conflicts, disputes and complaints may not always have an obvious cause. It’s common to have different personality types and leadership styles in your group.
Sometimes, disagreements or tension can arise because of personality clashes. It’s important to handle these differences appropriately. If people cannot find ways to work together, issues can become deeply entrenched.
Every organisation experiences internal conflicts, disputes and complaints. It’s important your organisation has ways to resolve these issues so you can carry out your functions and achieve your goals.
There are some common sources of conflicts, disputes and complaints. Most have to do with the roles and relationships within and between the board of directors, management and staff.
“Internal disputes and complaints are managed in line with the organisation’s Staff Grievance Policy and Board of Director Grievance Policy; and supported by the Code of Conduct and our values. Staff are made aware of, and given full access to the relevant policies and procedures at induction. Staff are encouraged to first address their concerns with their Supervisor or Manager who will direct and support them in line with the procedure. The procedure includes allowing the staff the option of having a support person attend any meetings with them.”
– Wungening Aboriginal Corporation, Application to the Indigenous Governance Awards, 2022
While differences of opinion are normal, ongoing conflict between board members can undermine the board’s capacity to govern well. Conflict within a board can result from:
- a lack of capacity, fairness and honesty
- inaction or disinterest
- lack of leadership from the chair when there is disagreement among directors
- not attending meetings
- not respecting decisions
- applying pressure or persuasion to influence decisions
- not following codes of conduct or the organisation’s values
- unhelpful disunity – for example, not presenting a united front, undermining board representatives
- bullying or politicised arguments at meetings
- intimidating or insulting staff (or other board members).
This kind of behaviour shows a poor example to staff and community members. It can impact an organisation’s good reputation and effectiveness. It may even result in demands for greater accountability or intervention by external agencies.
“Board members are commonly recruited to bring diverse views on issues to board debates and decision making. Constructive disagreements between board members are encouraged in a well-functioning board. They can generally be managed by following proper rules of procedure and encouragement of good listening skills. However, in the heat of board debate, disagreements sometimes degenerate into serious conflict on issues or between personalities.”
– Policies for First Nations
Canadian Institute on Governance
Good communication, trust and mutual respect between a board and its chief executive officer (CEO) or top manager are essential for effective governance.
A lack of trust is a big issue in the board–CEO relationship. When a board gets involved in overseeing operational decisions – even when invited by the CEO – trust can be lost. In contrast, when a board is involved in strategic decisions, the trust is greater.
Governance is more successful when trust and respect are part of this relationship. Trust helps your board and CEO agree on each other’s position, and it reduces the risk of interference or misunderstanding.
Conflict between the board and management team – including the CEO – can result from:
- tension and unresolved issues between the board and CEO
- differing views related to the boundaries of each other’s roles and responsibilities
- board interfering in the daily management or giving direct instructions to staff that differ from policy and plans
- managers taking over the board’s role and authority without delegation
- managers failing to communicate relevant information to the board and staff
- decisions not implemented and reported on
- lack of trust.
Conflict between management and staff can result from:
- poor conduct and dishonesty
- harassment and tensions
- poor management communication and leadership
- inconsistent decision making and application of policies
- poor work performance
- operating without delegation
- confusion about roles and responsibilities
- failure to report on actions and progress.
Resolving or dealing with this conflict can keep an organisation’s internal culture strong. It can also improve decision making, teamwork and outcomes.
Conflicts, disputes and complaints can come from an organisation’s members. Many of the leaders involved in the Indigenous Governance Awards see complaints from members as positive. It helps them improve their governance and services. Others pride themselves on getting very few complaints.
Common sources of conflict around membership are often related to:
- Identifying who are the ‘right’ members of your organisation. This can be a particularly contentious issue if your membership rules are not clear or are open to interpretation.
- Leaders having a lack of experience in setting directions and developing policy.
- Leaders not communicating or consulting with members.
- The legitimacy and fairness of decisions made by leaders.
- The impact of family factions and dominant families overruling others.
- Contested rights and interests in land ownership. This is particularly an issue for PBCs, Native Title Bodies Corporate and cultural heritage bodies.
- Access to and quality of services, or unfair distribution of resources, funding and benefits.
- Members having a lack of participation and a voice in governance arrangements.
When conflict happens, your organisation needs clear, well-understood processes for fair dispute resolution. These processes must be locally supported and effective.
“We welcome feedback about services we provide. Our CEO brings external disputes to the attention of directors. Those that require immediate attention are dealt with as per CAAPS Complaints Policy. Information about this policy is provided to us at our induction. We review this policy annually to ensure it continues to meet our needs.”
– Council for Aboriginal Alcohol Program Services (CAAPS), category A shortlisted applicant, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2016.
Within communities and nations
As with organisations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and nations experience conflict. The cause may not be clear – especially if the situation has been going on for a long time.
It’s important that your community or nation resolves conflicts in culturally legitimate and customised ways. And in ways that suit the needs of your group.
Conflict or disputes in communities or nations can be internal or external. Internal conflict happens:
- within a family group
- between different family groups
- between members.
External conflict happens between the community or nation and external stakeholders. This can include neighbouring nations or communities.
Internal conflict in communities or nations can result from:
- Who has the authority to speak on or make decisions about a particular issue.
- Native title rights – including who can be involved in a native title decision, or who has the authority to speak for a particular area of Country.
- Who is consulted by government – or a perception that the ‘wrong’ people have been consulted.
- Feuds between families or individual family members.
- Relationship issues – including jealousy, rumours, gossip and unfaithfulness.
- Leaders lacking capacity, authority, fairness or honesty.
- Deep-seated issues that have been played out over generations.
- Financial issues – including a lack of economic opportunities for organisations within the community or nation, or competition over employment opportunities.
- Having particular families take over the running of community projects to the exclusion of others.
External conflict in communities or nations can result from:
- Governments or policy makers not involving the community or nation in decisions that affect them.
- A lack of cultural awareness or safety when engaging with communities or nations.
- Not giving all relevant parties the opportunity to be involved.
- A failure in the capacity, fairness and honesty of governments and their officers.
- Uneven power balance between parties – for example, between a community and a mining company.
- Differing views between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, governments and private sector partners about what constitutes ‘good’ governance, financial management and leadership.
We’ve translated our extensive research on Indigenous governance into helpful resources and tools to help you strengthen your governance practices.
Subscribe to AIGI news and updates.