The Minister rightly recognised that the governance, structure and culture of the jointly managed parks required in-depth review. She established the Senior Advisory Group to recommend a pathway to a better future for the parks, ensuring that the Traditional Owners of the land were front and centre of future discussions on joint management arrangements.
The best and brightest future for the parks is one where first, local traditional culture flourishes and heritage is protected and second, the Director of National Parks (DNP) is an effective manager. That requires a strong relationship between Traditional Owners and Parks Australia. There isn’t one. Parks Australia has lost the trust and confidence of the Traditional Owners.
Relationship change is crucial and must be an immediate focus. Traditional Owners have felt disempowered. Repairing decades of deteriorating relationships is not enough. Recognition of the cultural importance and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has moved forward very significantly over that time, not only in Australia, but around the world. The highest priority must be given to absorbing this new understanding and balance of relationships into the culture of Parks Australia, both on the parks and in Canberra, so that it permeates not only its thinking but its action on the ground. Parks Australia needs to truly understand traditional ownership and culture and that the Commonwealth is not the owner of the land.
Despite the well-intentioned work of many Parks Australia staff on the ground, there is too little understanding of the value that can only be provided by Traditional Owners of the land. Only Traditional Owners can explain traditional lore and culture to visitors to the parks. Only Traditional Owners can understand the importance of sacred sites and the rituals and land areas set aside for women’s and men’s business. Only Traditional Owners possess the understanding of caring for Country including fire and pest control. And central to this is the importance of providing support to help Elders pass on traditional lore and practice to the younger generations before it is lost.
This practical cultural knowledge and value that only Traditional Owners can provide leads to a higher aspiration. Traditional Owners have a close identification with their Country together with a deep sense of responsibility for its management. Symbolic recognition of cultural traditions and knowledge, as well as the provision of jobs and infrastructure funding, is highly important but not enough. Traditional Owners want to use their ecological and land management skills to become more self-sustaining, to be part of business opportunities over and above assistance from government. Recognition of the very real worth of culture in a practical sense must be at the heart of the relationship and woven into the fabric of all business on the parks.
The upcoming generations on park are its future. The next generation should have the capacity, desire and expectation of playing a significant role in managing and getting jobs on Country. They should be provided the training to help them to do so, including the job-ready skills Traditional Owners may need in computing, business, or English language. Traditional Owners must have pride and enthusiasm for showcasing the parks and Australia’s unique cultural heritage.
The reverse is the case. Traditional Owners are concerned that younger generations don’t see opportunities for work on Country and that valuable traditional lore and practice will be lost. Lack of appreciation of the importance of local traditional knowledge, ineffective training, and thoughtless job design and recruitment practices have meant Traditional Owners are too often excluded. It is a sad irony that Traditional Owners may end up training a non-Indigenous person in the local traditional knowledge that is absolutely integral to the job.
Special mention must be made of non-Indigenous workers who go out of their way to mentor and assist young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. But it is extremely hard to motivate people in an environment where they feel set to fail. Not being able to see possible pathways from school to a future on the park is extraordinarily demoralising and there has not been a concerted practical effort to put such pathways into place.
It’s not just the younger generation that are disillusioned. Traditional Owners have become frustrated that commitments have been made but not delivered, that the business model hasn’t changed despite the many promises that have been made, that plans on paper haven’t been converted into practical realities and that the nature of their roles as the legal owners of the land has so often been overlooked, causing a snowball effect.
As a result, there is an almost complete lack of trust in Parks Australia and thus in the Commonwealth. Traditional Owners of each park feel that Parks Australia comes first and they come, not so much second, as last. They certainly do not feel equal partners. On land that is legally their own and where their traditional culture and knowledge is fundamental, this is an untenable situation. Over time the relationship has deteriorated to a deplorable state. The slow creep of bureaucratic fog has taken its toll.
The problem cannot be laid at the feet of the occasional bad choice of personnel. There has been a systemic failure in Canberra to truly appreciate both the reality of Traditional Owners’ legal ownership and the intrinsic value of local traditional knowledge and culture. It appears as though many see Traditional Owners’ legal ownership of the land as a mere book entry rather than a legal right. In its day-to-day park operations, Parks Australia has behaved not as a lessee but as the de facto titleholder.
In its management of the parks, Parks Australia has been woefully Canberra centric. While there is an understandable requirement for a bureaucratic employment framework, Parks Australia has tried to make the parks fit the overlay without using the flexibilities allowed to make the overlay fit for purpose. Bureaucracy has spiralled out of control to kill common sense. Shifting Canberra based jobs to the parks would assist the bureaucracy to understand the day-today practicalities of life on the parks and to prioritise efforts towards park improvement. The Public Service often operates in silos and this does not make for a complete understanding of what response is required of Government.
To compound the problem there has been a failure by the Commonwealth over the decades to live up to the funding promises made. This has impacted on all aspects of park operations, including infrastructure, roads and land management, which have deteriorated rather than being enhanced. Understandably central agencies are even more removed from the parks than Parks Australia but they cannot be completely exonerated. They too must understand the implications of the advice given to government.
It is inevitable that many Traditional Owners have gradually lost trust.
The attached advice recommends changes in relation to employment, park management, infrastructure and more. These are practical things that can be done to help rebuild trust. But the benefits will only flow if cultural understanding and the relationship between Traditional Owners and Parks Australia is fixed. Cultural change within Parks Australia is the first priority. Traditional Owners care deeply about the parks and are willing and keen to work together, on the basis of an equal partnership, to protect and enhance these cultural and environmental icons. It’s that kind of resilience and determination that explains why Aboriginal people have the oldest surviving culture on the planet.
But commitments have been made before and not delivered. It’s important to note the precarious state of the relationship and warn that immediate remedial action, strategies and supporting funding particularly around infrastructure is addressed in the next budgetary cycle. If something is not done immediately it may become irreparable.
It is essential that action is taken now to deliver a new beginning.