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Interview — Sean Gordon: A quadruple bottom line model for Indigenous governance

Watching the banking royal commission unfold reinforces Sean Gordon’s conviction that there’s plenty to learn about governance from Indigenous people.

‘Indigenous governance doesn’t just focus on the bottom line or shareholders,’ he says. ‘When we talk about Indigenous governance, we talk about our cultural and social responsibilities first and making sure whatever we are doing also improves the lives of individuals and families, and not necessarily just the bank account.’

Gordon was recently appointed the inaugural chair of the Commonwealth Bank Indigenous Advisory Committee and says one area of his focus is about bringing a social conscience back to corporate governance, something he believes has been missing for a long time.

‘There is so much focus on returns that we tend to forget about our social responsibility to our staff, community and the country,’ he says.

Instead of CEOs of large companies backing initiatives because they are directly affected (for example, Qantas’ Alan Joyce’s support for same sex marriage), Gordon would like to see them backing them because they are important issues for Australia, such as Indigenous recognition.

‘I genuinely believe Indigenous recognition in our Constitution and giving Indigenous people a voice will benefit the whole country,’ he says.

‘In the Indigenous space, the concept of individual wealth is something that our people struggle with. It goes completely against the grain of who we are. That’s why we are struggling in a modern-day society.

‘Governments are spending $34 billion annually to address Indigenous disparity. But they haven’t quite understood that when they introduce policies that benefit individuals, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our people will take them up because we just don’t think in that way.’

Gordon grew up on the banks of the Barwon River on the Old Brewarrina Mission in Western NSW, near the Baiame’s Ngunnhu fish traps, one of the oldest manmade structures on earth which is considered an engineering marvel.

‘This complex net of linked weirs and ponds along 500 metres of the river provided an abundance of fish and made Brewarrina one of the great inter-tribal meeting places of pre-European eastern Australia. It remains a source of light for all of us,’ he says.

His memories of growing up in Brewarrina underpin his commitment to advocate for proper and meaningful recognition, empowerment and development of Indigenous people.

‘I am the product of five decades of political combat between Indigenous people and the Commonwealth of Australia, which, in turn, was built on the billions of tears that flowed from the diseased eyes of generations of Indigenous people over the preceding 200 years.

‘We all know that where we are today falls way short of where we need to be. We know that the terrible gap between the life outcomes of Indigenous and white Australians is completely unacceptable. We know that continuing to do what we have done to date is not going to get us anywhere. Nothing changes if nothing changes.’

‘Sure, we get responses when there is a crisis, or we protest publicly and get attention to our issues, but the day-to-day functioning of government systems doesn’t work with us to resolve our problems and enable us to seize opportunities.’

Gordon has been working on improving the lot of Indigenous people for the past 23 years. He is CEO of Gidgee Corporation which he set up to create partnerships for Indigenous employment and empowerment.

He is also chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Dance Academy and of Uphold & Recognise, which promotes discussion on how Australia can recognise Indigenous Australians without disturbing the way the constitution operates.

Gordon believes Australia’s failure to achieve progress in Indigenous affairs is ultimately due to the widespread disempowerment of Indigenous people.

‘One aspect of this disempowerment is that our people, in the normal course, cannot get government to work for us as citizens of the Australian system of democracy and government,’ he says.

‘Sure, we get responses when there is a crisis, or we protest publicly and get attention to our issues, but the day-to-day functioning of government systems doesn’t work with us to resolve our problems and enable us to seize opportunities.

‘Attention and service fluctuate. Interest and enthusiasm wax and wane. Often it seems that the default position of government systems is antipathetic to the interests of our people.

‘This failure is in no small way a consequence of our extreme minority status: the three per cent mouse dealing with the 97 per cent elephant. The current approach to Indigenous affairs doesn’t enable our people to lead our own development by taking responsibility for our lives, families and communities.’

Gordon says this unfair power balance in the relationship with governments was the genesis for the Empowered Communities (EC) initiative, which he helped establish.

‘EC is led by Indigenous peoples, as it is Indigenous people themselves, those whose lives are directly affected, that should be empowered to have a greater influence and control over their decisions that impact on their lives,’ says Gordon.

One of its objectives is to drive better results for Indigenous people from the huge existing bucket of money that is currently directed towards that end.

‘Another is to push hard for a mechanism that brings both the Commonwealth and the states to the table with us, so we can talk about the policy settings for the funding pool,’ says Gordon.

Instead of ‘leading by example’, EC, which advocates on behalf nine regions around Australia, calls on governments to ‘enable’ Indigenous-led reform.

‘Successful implementation relies partly on the Commonwealth using its levers and influence with the states through the Council of Australian Governments or otherwise to arrive at an agreed whole of government approach in EC regions,’ says Gordon.

‘This could tie in with the Closing the Gap refresh process or a broader shift towards regional governance arrangements. Whichever path is agreed upon, some mechanism to move forward together is now critical; the current situation of states not being on board, or only on board on a project basis (for example, Victoria and Western Australia), has been debilitating and too hard.’

Driving system change within government has been challenging for EC.

‘We felt there was no appetite from government for structural change,’ says Gordon, noting there was also a lack of support for the various mechanism suggested to help the government and regions to work together in new ways.

Instead, ad-hoc arrangements between the EC national team and the Prime Minister and Cabinet taskforce have been established to fill the gap. And, Gordon says this arrangement in no way provides the structural reforms necessary to deliver on EC objectives for their regions.

‘Our view remains that to really drive whole of government change, legislation is a crucial mechanism to provide stable authority. Appropriate structures, from a national to regional level, must then be put in place to support the implementation of that authority.

‘The crucial point is that the partnership model needs the scaffold of a legislative framework. It won’t work without it.’

While the EC model is still being developed, Gordon believes it is getting closer to a quadruple bottom line model of governance than any other model out there.

Firstly, it looks more broadly at those three aspects of development that he focuses on: cultural, social and economic.

‘It also incorporates environment because of our connection to land. When we look at the challenges our people face with mining, it’s not necessarily about money or jobs. It’s because our connection to the land is so strong. It’s very difficult to justify your land being dug up miming for purposes to create wealth. That wealth creation generally goes to individuals or shareholder or a company, which goes completely against the ethos of indigenous culture.’

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