• National Congress of Australia's First Peoples former co-chairs Rod Little and Dr Jackie Huggins with former CEO Gary Oliver. (National Congress of Australia's First Peoples )Source: National Congress of Australia's First Peoples
The advocacy body went into voluntary administration at the beginning of last month after announcing it was in “serious financial trouble.”
Shahni Wellington

24 Jul 2019 - 2:53 PM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2019 - 4:34 PM

The co-chairs of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples have been stood down following the peak representative body going into voluntary administration at the beginning of last month.

Bidjara and Birri-Gubba Juru woman, Dr Jackie Huggins, and Amangu and Wajuk man, Rod Little, have been stood down from their positions after joint administrator, Alan Walker, who was appointed to manage the affairs of the organisation, revealed it can no longer afford to pay the co-chairs.

“We are still working with various stakeholders to put together a rescue package that will see National Congress survive into the future,” said Mr Walker.

“In order to reduce costs whilst we work to restructure Congress, the co-chairs have been stood down.”

Since being incorporated in 2010, National Congress had grown to be the largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation in the country with over 10,000 members and 180 organisations.

The organisation's funding was cut in early 2014 by former prime minister Tony Abbott. The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, has not made a decision about future funding and it appears the organisation will fold unless funding is renewed.

Dr Huggins is a celebrated historian and author who has documented the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for over thirty years. She received the Member of the Order of Australia for services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, including her work in reconciliation, literacy, women’s issues and social justice.

Mr Little has been a Director of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples from 2011, taking on the co-chair role in 2015. He was an elected member of the ACT Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body and participated in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory group. 

Both have been contacted for comment. 

Ongoing discussions

Discussions have been on-going between the administrators of Congress with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. A meeting with Mr Wyatt also took place last month.

In an email to members, the administrators outlined the expectations of the company if it is to secure funding from the federal government.

The email detailed a whole-of-company restructure with specific emphasis on amending the organisation's constitution; appointing a new national Board of Directors; altering the internal governance structure; and setting out the delivery of the Company’s strategy over the next 12 months. 

The last creditor meeting that was meant to provide an update was scheduled for the 9th of July. It was postponed by the administrator for 45 days.

In a statement, The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) – the new agency responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy and service delivery – said it has not yet reached a decision for on-going funding.

“The National Indigenous Australians Agency continues to work with the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ administrator through this administration period,” said the statement.

“The Agency is yet to receive a proposal from the administrator on next steps.”

“Future funding for the Congress remains under consideration.”

The potential end to the National Congress of Australia’s First People’s has drawn continued criticism from the Labor Party.

Both WA Senator and reconciliation spokesman, Pat Dodson and Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, voiced their concern over the government’s perceived inaction.

In a statement, Ms Burney, echoed those calls today.

“It shouldn’t come to this. The government needs to step in and work with the Congress, the only national Indigenous-elected representative body,” she said.

Financial struggles

Former CEO, Gary Oliver, said in an email to members last month that the organisation has struggled financially since the beginning of 2014.

In that same email he also made a public plea for help.

“Unless a very significant lifeline appears in the immediate future, I regret to say that the administration process will lead to the National Congress being wound-up.”

The email was not endorsed by the administrators.

When the Howard government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 2005, there was little advocacy for Indigenous people at the Commonwealth level.

In 2009, the Rudd government agreed to establish the peak representative body but did not agree to the recommended funding model, choosing instead to retain government oversight of all expenditure.

One of the first actions of the Abbott government was to establish an Indigenous Advisory Committee and funding to Congress was cut in the first budget after the election of the Coalition in 2013.

The federal budget has included no allocations for Congress since that time.

While there has been seemingly no correspondence with the body's 10,000 members aside from the two notices, the administrator has flagged intent to host a members meeting in the coming weeks.

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