Story and photo Melissa Hargraves
The editor of the Koori Mail will farewell her position of seven years after being elected female co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
Kirstie Parker (pictured) was elected by members of the congress and hopes to not only grow the membership base but grow engagement among its members.
The peak body has been touted as a replacement for ATSIC which was canned under the Howard government.
The congress has been running since 2010-2011 and although funded by government, acts independently as an advocate for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights and as a generalist body reflecting important issues.
The decision making body is the board which has eight members that include six directors and two co-chairs. The co-chairs are voted in by the whole membership where the directors are elected at every second national conference.
There are two directors from each of the three chambers: one chamber for individuals, one for national organisations and another for local organisations.
With those six directors, three will stay on for another year but three will be up for election this year at the conference which started at Cairns over the weekend.
Ms Parker was voted in last week as female co-chair and Les Malezer as male co-chair.
Ms Parker told Echonetdaily that ‘the National Congress is the only Australian incorporated company to have written into its constitution that there will be a male and female co-chair.
‘It is very progressive as an organisational structure as we know that women are massively underrepresented in board realms. It is remarkable that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation is leading the way for the rest of the country by having a male and female in this role.’
There are currently around 5,800 direct members nationally which includes about 160 organisations which themselves have tens of thousands of members. It is open to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders over 18 years of age and has free membership.
Ms Parker hopes to grow the membership of the congress.
‘Five thousand members is OK for a fledgling national organisation, but nationally there are over 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over the age of 18 so that is our potential pool,’ said Ms Parker.
‘It may be unlikely for us to reach that figure over the next two years but I can’t see why we couldn’t have 100,000 members, which is more than what I understand is with the Australian Labor Party for example.’
Ms Parker recognises that growing an organisation is more than just numbers.
‘People can put their names down, but I also want the community to get active in this organisation,’ she said.
‘I want to till the soil of the congress as we have such expertise, knowledge and experience in our communities in areas such as health, education and housing. I’d like to embed the knowledge of our members into the congress so it is this really informed organisation.’
Currently the Australian Electoral Commission is running a program to close the gap in Indigenous electoral participation.
Ms Parker added ‘that generally our mob does not vote in elections, so one of the first items of business for the new board will be looking at how we can grow engagement at elections and every level of political participation.’
There are many factors causing the low turnout.
‘Our mob is naturally suspicious of formal processes like voting and some people are flat out just getting through life without having to take a more active role in the broader community,’ said Ms Parker.
‘There are incredible levels of disadvantage and disenfranchisement in our community, but you do not need to be rich to stand with your people, getting involved does not cost you anything.’
According to Ms Parker the congress ‘will be political by the nature of the business, we know Aboriginal health is politicised, housing, employment and education are all political issues. They all require Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to engage with government on each level.
‘The first responsibility of the congress is to talk to its members. Although we are a voice, our masters are our communities, not politicians. We are set up as a conduit between the communities and the federal parliament and anyone else who wants to avail themselves to genuine held views of our community.
‘The congress currently has a level of support from the current Labor government which recently re-funded the congress in the budget. I will make it clear that the congress is independent of government, they do not have control of any decisions that are made.
‘It is imperative for the congress to broaden its funding base so I want us to look at that.’
Although the congress is not a political party, it is fertile ground for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are politically active.
‘We have very smart, savvy and visionary people involved in our organisation who are more than worthy of being candidates in whatever field,’ said Ms Parker.
‘All of this is about building the capacity for our people.’
The congress works closely with other key organisations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Racism Stops With Me campaign and the National Community Health Organisation (NACHO).
Having the right to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples has hindered support for many attempts of representation.
‘I am very confident that the congress will represent its members,’ Ms Parker said.
‘Clearly there are people who might not like what we do but it is their right to not be involved. If you become involved in congress I would assume you would become active, and if you don’t like what is happening than you will speak up and have a say.’
Ms Parker is also a director of Reconciliation Australia whose key activity is addressing racism in Australian society.
‘Racism does exist in Australia and we do see it flare up in terrible incidents that are active racism,’ she said.
‘There is also passive racism where people have a disregard for other races or have a feeling that other races are inferior in some way. Now with anonymity online, racism can proliferate easier.
‘I do not subscribe to people saying that Australia is a racist country as there are many fair-minded, honourable non-Indigenous Australians who totally respect our mob as the first Australians and that we have a right to be here and be acknowledged.
‘We also see institutionalised racism where there are high levels of our people incarcerated. People can say it is not about racism, that it is about the criminality of our people, which I absolutely reject 100 per cent.
‘What often brings people into contact with the justice system is poverty and the situation of their life. On every social indicator we are disadvantaged.
‘Racism is fed by ignorance, I challenge you to show me not just an intelligent racist but an intelligent and informed racist. When people are informed they stop fearing it and stop treating it with disdain.’
Ms Parker is a Yuwallarai woman from northwest NSW and lives on the northern rivers and will maintain her base here while commuting to Sydney for her new role.
For more information about the National Congress of Australia’s First People go to http://nationalcongress.com.au