New model for State and Indigenous agreements

Mouth of the Murray River ©MDBA Photographer Michael Bell
Mouth of the Murray River ©MDBA Photographer Michael Bell

The South Australian Government’s commitment to environmental restoration of the Coorong Lower Lakes grows out of a new model for agreements between governments and Indigenous people that is attracting national and international attention, according to two Flinders University academics.

Announced at Camp Coorong by Environment and Natural Resources Minister Paul Caica on June 6, the Ngarrindjeri Partnerships Project pledges long-term State funding for regional environmental programs in which the local Ngarrindjeri people will play a central role.

Associate Professor Daryle Rigney, Dean of Indigenous Strategy and Engagement at Flinders University’s Yunggorendi First Nations Centre, said that Flinders has played a major role in negotiations of a wider agreement that will increase Ngarrindjeri capacity across health and economic development.

“The Ngarrindjeri Nation’s approach to ‘closing the gap’ is quite unusual and is sparking international interest,” Associate Professor Rigney said.

Researcher and lecturer Mr Steve Hemming said the Coorong environmental program is one outcome of a whole-of-government agreement between the State and the Ngarrindjeri Nation in which the Government formally recognises the Ngarrindjeri as the traditional owners of lands and waters.

“It’s quite ground-breaking: it’s using contract law to set up a formal relationship between an Indigenous Nation and a State government,” Mr Hemming said.

“That’s really been the platform that has enabled all of this to take place.”

Speaking at the Camp Coorong ceremony, Professor Andrew Parkin, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), said that the agreement has managed to transcend numerous deep issues.

“Agreements like this have been reached in very few places around the world. So it is no exaggeration to say that what has been achieved is significant in international and historical terms,” Professor Parkin said.

“The Ngarrindjeri Partnerships Project agreement serves as a model for what can be achieved through mutual respect and goodwill,” he said.

“Flinders University’s role in this process has been as a willing host, collaborator and partner, engaged in a process of mutual learning, understanding and support, and Flinders is proud to continue in this collaborative venture.”

Both Associate Professor Rigney and Mr Hemming have a long history of working with Ngarrindjeri leaders, elders and community, and acted as a “think tank” to advise the nation on the establishment of its governing body, the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority, in 2007.

The advisory role was formalised with the set-up of the Ngarrindjeri Research and Planning Policy Unit, based at Yunggorendi. The NRA now funds two positions at Flinders, a research officer and a policy and planning officer.

Long years of research, community engagement and negotiation are now bearing fruit, Associate Professor Rigney said.

“Effectively, the Ngarrindjeri have a responsibility to care for country as part of our belief, and so the argument is that the Ngarrindjeri must engage with programs, research, management and land care practices and heritage within that region,” Associate Professor Rigney said.

“We have seen a major increase in the Ngarrindjeri Nation’s ability to engage with government and to take a role.”

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