Townsville-based consultant and Supply Nation director Michelle Deshong MAICD is one of Australia’s foremost Indigenous governance experts.

    When it comes to the role of Indigenous directors on boards in Australia, Kuku Yalanji woman and former CEO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute (AIGI) Michelle Deshong MAICD doesn’t pull any punches. “We’re not just limited to Indigenous affairs and I quite like being on boards where I get to shake things up, and have courageous or uncomfortable conversations,” she says. “Indigenous people have to be on boards all over the country — and not in tokenistic ways. We have a great depth of knowledge across many things.”

    Completing her doctorate at James Cook University, she now runs Deshong Consulting from Townsville, specialising in leadership, governance, Australian and international politics, and human rights. “I work a lot with Aboriginal communities, and one of the things around that is harnessing the cultural governance conversation,” says Deshong. “For a long time, we’ve known our organisations have looked at agencies like ORIC (Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations) as the regulatory body and model by which our people have had to incorporate. That means we’ve adjusted the way we do governance and it’s really important to step back into a space where we can validate our own governance practices, but also to make sure we’re doing that through a cultural lens.”

    Deshong points to examples of success in changing governance practices and making a difference. “I’ve worked with women of the Kimberley region in WA and the Torres Strait for about nine years, investing in their leadership and governance capacity. It’s led to women standing for election in some of those places, the development of women’s councils and supporting them on what that governance journey can look like.”

    She also does a lot of work with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. “I was an alumna of that program. Over the course of 20 years, we’ve worked hard to embed cultural practices and to get cultural content and engagement with Indigenous peoples across the country.”

    First Nations MPs

    Deshong’s doctorate topic — the participation of Aboriginal women in public and political life — is timely, given this year’s change of government in Canberra and the election of more First Nations MPs to parliament than ever before — eight in the Senate and three in the House of Representatives. Out of 11 First Nations MPs elected to federal parliament this year, nine are women. She hopes the trend may be a catalyst to seeing greater representation across the country, in the different states and territories, as well as continuing in Canberra. “In politics, things have changed significantly,” says Deshong. “It’s the largest number of First Nations representatives across a number of different parties in federal parliament. Ten or 11 years ago, we only had one. ”

    So where does Australia stand in the world context with Indigenous governance? “I wouldn’t say we’re way behind,” says Deshong, “but there are substantial differences. If you compare Indigenous Australians to the First Nations people of Canada, the US and New Zealand, we have minimal control over our jurisdictional authority.”

    She welcomes the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament to ensure accountability at a national political level. “It’s recognising Indigenous peoples have a part to play in our democracy and we can’t rely on a system that doesn’t have the most appropriate ways of engagement. Our electoral system doesn’t necessarily support minority interests. We have an opportunity now that we have a collective and an Indigenous caucus able to address some of those issues.”

    Supply Nation

    As a long-term director of Supply Nation, an agency that promotes Indigenous procurement, Deshong has seen substantial growth in Indigenous businesses and contracts awarded to First Nations firms. “Ten years ago, Supply Nation had 350 indigenous businesses and now we have 3500,” she says. “With that comes investment back into our communities. Most of the time, it’s set up with the intent to employ Indigenous people and also to put money back into our communities and benefit from that self-reliant income.”

    Supply Nation’s verification process ensures all businesses listed on Indigenous Business Direct are not only Indigenous-owned, but are regularly audited for changes in the company structure.

    RAP test

    On Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs), Deshong says some corporates have truly made advances, but she’s sceptical about setting targets, and challenges common assumptions. Some big companies and sectors have been committed to RAPs for a long time, especially those at the highest level (in the “Elevate” group).

    “Some have moved beyond having to be accountable to a RAP,” she says. “We can see lots of examples of things they’ve done really well over a long period of time that have actually changed the relationship. But people default to the idea that once they have a RAP, somehow that’s enough. Sometimes I challenge people — what if you did it the other way round — if the RAP was the last thing you did and you did the other [Indigenous engagement] work first? It’s about relationship building and agreement making, but RAPs are not the only tool.”

    Setting targets for Indigenous employment and procurement can be a two-edged sword. “One of my challenges is always that once you set a target, that’s all you’ll aspire to. I don’t think five or 10 per cent is substantial enough in a community the size of Townsville.” (Indigenous people make up about eight per cent of the Townsville population.)

    She says there must be cultural change in the way an organisation works, which has to come from leadership. “I wonder whether many of these non-Indigenous businesses with RAPs have actually embedded cultural ways of knowing, being and doing into the way they work.”

    So, why is governance so important to First Nations communities? “For a long time, much of the Indigenous governance we were involved with was really in relation to those Aboriginal corporations in service delivery and arms of government,” says Deshong. “Since then, we’ve seen Indigenous governance take on a much broader role, particularly in terms of native title, but also around many different facets of our lives. So we’re not just restricted to doing what the government wants us to do and that’s enabling us to have more freedom in how we operate, how we set priorities and how we control decisions that affect our communities.”

    Indigenous governance is fundamentally different because Indigenous culture works in a collective way, she says. “By our very nature, we are more inclusive and consider decisions based on the collective, rather than the individual. That’s where the difference lies — between a hierarchical system and one based on knowledge transfer and cultural authority.”

    Deshong sees hope ahead, but not necessarily smooth sailing. “One of our greatest challenges is always that other people make decisions for us. Governance is the ability for us to be at the table and to decide the principles on our own — to develop our own priorities and to have control over the decision-making of those things that affect us. That’s where it all starts and ends.”

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