In 1972 the Whitlam government established an advisory body, the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC), which was the first national body elected by Aboriginal people. The NACC was short-lived and replaced by the Fraser government in 1977, which established the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC). The NAC was also short-lived and replaced by the Hawke government in 1990, which established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC lasted a little longer but was disbanded in 2005 by the Howard government. The abolition of ATSIC removed advocacy at the Commonwealth level from an Aboriginal point of view and was a serious blow to service delivery in our communities.

Start-stop funding plagues our organizations. Because of this history of successive governments establishing and disbanding our national representative bodies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recommended that any new body be established as a company so that governments could not easily disband it. It was also recommended that an endowment fund be established to fund the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (National Congress) in order to give it independence from governments.

The design of the National Congress was also influenced by criticisms of ATSIC. Because around 80 per cent of the ATSIC councilors were men, the constitution of the National Congress requires gender equality in all elected positions. And because of controversies about its last chair and its financial management, an Ethics Council was established to watch over all aspects of National Congress’ operations and ensure that its actions were consistent with its values and mission. In addition, police checks are required for all elected officers of National Congress.

In 2009, the Rudd government agreed to establish National Congress as a company but did not agree to the recommended funding model and kept National Congress on a very tight if adequate funding leash whereby it approved all expenditure.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples is the result of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community meetings throughout the country, peak body talks, a national forum and written submissions. Very importantly, we wanted a credible body independent from government and properly resourced to “give advice, advocate, monitor and evaluate government performance on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, but not to deliver services or programs as ATSIC did.

One of the first actions of the Abbott government was to establish an Indigenous Advisory Committee and cut funding to the National Congress. The federal budget has included no allocations for National Congress during the life of the present Coalition government. Further, in recent months, the Indigenous Land Corporation has reneged on an agreement to divest to National Congress the accommodation where it ran the national secretariat in Sydney and following completion of the lease, the premises were allocated to the NSW Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. National Congress has received some federal government assistance to move its HQ to Canberra.

In short, National Congress is doing it tough. However, because it was established as a company, we have managed to hold on. We rely on a small army of dedicated volunteers to assist us with policy analysis and development, media relations, and member engagement. Running on a tiny budget as it does, these services are necessarily limited. Due to its funding limitations, National Congress’ reach to remote communities and its ability to engage in state and local issues is extremely limited, but it is still alive and functioning. National Congress is still a young organization, and it is the fourth attempt to establish a national representative body for our peoples. We count on you to help ensure that it reaches maturity and becomes a force in fighting for the rights of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples.


At this point, it might be useful to review the objectives set for ATSIC:

  • to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in government policy,
  • to promote Aboriginal self-management and self-sufficiency,
  • to further Aboriginal economic, social and cultural development, and
  • to ensure co-ordination of Commonwealth, state and territory and local government policy affecting Aboriginal people.

In order to achieve its objectives, ATSIC was to

  • advise governments at all levels on Aboriginal issues,
  • advocate the recognition of Aboriginal rights on behalf of Aboriginal peoples regionally and nationally and internationally, and
  • deliver and monitor some of the Commonwealth government Aboriginal programs and services.

Except for the final point, all of these points remain relevant today and any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander national representative body must be funded adequately to achieve these goals and activities. Further, we must insist on independence from government for both funding and operations.