Self determination

Self-determination is the right of all peoples to 'freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development' (article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Self-determination is a collective right (belonging to a 'people' as a group) rather than an individual right. The claim by Indigenous peoples to the right of self-determination raises two questions: (1) Do Indigenous groups satisfy the definition of 'peoples'? (2) Does self-determination give Indigenous peoples the right to break away from an existing nation?

Most Indigenous people in Australia want self-determination within the existing nation. This would require recognition by the government of their distinct cultures and forms of social organisation, governance and decision-making. It would mean transferring responsibility and power for decision-making to Indigenous communities so they can make decisions that affect them.


  • Aboriginal people hold a wide range of views about their goals for self-determination and how to achieve them.

In relation to services:

  • Many Aboriginal people want and prefer Aboriginal services to mainstream services.
  • Many Aboriginal people don’t want to be treated separately - they see it as going back to the thinking of ‘in the mission’ - a backwards step.
  • Service providers need to talk with communities about they best ways of providing services to Aboriginal people.




Implications for service providers

1. All staff working with Aboriginal clients will benefit from having a general understanding of the principles of self-determination, as the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to effectively participate and make decisions on issues that relate to them and to manage their own affairs. Self-determination may have a different meaning for every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person. These differing views occur because of people’s different experiences and their different levels of access to resources. These factors may increase or limit an individual’s ability, or that of an organization, to make decisions and speak on their own behalf.

2. The Government has historically implemented policies which have not recognized the needs of Aboriginal people. These policies were developed with little understanding of aboriginal culture and their way of life. In many cases these policies acted to exclude Aboriginal people from many aspects of Australian life; including regulation of residence, employment, marriage and social life. As a result of these policies Aboriginal people were often sent to live in designated areas, away from their country and families and were pressured to assimilate into the European way of life.

The Government started to move away from these policies in the early 1970’s as the demands for social justice and equity for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people were acknowledged. In 1972 the Commonwealth Government proclaimed a policy of 'self-determination' for Aboriginals, whereby they gained the right to make decisions about matters affecting their own lives, including the pace and nature of their future development within the legal, social and economic framework of Australian society. The Government also supported Aboriginal land rights. These policies were subsequently adopted by the New South Wales Government. More information on these policies. It is important for Workers to understand the consequences of colonisation, government policies, practices and racism, and consider what effects this continues to have on Indigenous society today.

3. Reconciliation

Reconciliation is about finding ways for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to connect with one another and work together to address the disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people in areas such as health, employment, education and housing. It involves justice, recognition and healing. It’s about helping people to move forward with a better understanding of the past and how it affects the lives of Indigenous people today.

It is important for Workers in the Human Services sector to develop protocols and strategies to support reconciliation and address issues of disadvantage. These strategies may include attending meetings, networks, events, celebrations and collaborative partnerships that contribute to capacity building within your Aboriginal community. These types of strategies put your Aboriginal community in a stronger position to overcome disadvantage while respecting their cultural values.

For more information on Reconciliation

One of the strategies used by Muswellbrook Shire Council to demonstrate their commitment to reconciliation was to adopt a Statement of Principles.

The Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee of Muswellbrook Shire Council proposed the development of these principles and Council supported the process. It took a year to write the principles and it required extensive consultation with the Aboriginal community to ensure the content was appropriate. There was also widespread discussion concerning who would sign the ‘Statement of Principles’. The final document was signed by Elders and other representatives of the Aboriginal community and adopted by Council. The ‘Statement of Principles’ is currently displayed in the foyer of Muswellbrook Shire Council and the Hunter Valley Aboriginal Corporation.

4. An important part of showing respect for any different culture is to observe their cultural protocols and customs. One way of demonstrating respect for the customs and laws of your local Aboriginal community is to use Traditional welcomes and Acknowledging Traditional Owners.

Traditional Welcome or Welcome to Country – This is a traditional welcome speech that is usually done by an Elder or senior representative of your local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community. It welcomes people to visit and meet on the traditional area.

Acknowledgment of Country – This is a welcome speech that is made in acknowledgment of the local Indigenous people of your area. It is done when an Elder or appropriate member of the Aboriginal community is not available to give a Traditional Welcome or during less formal gatherings. This example was developed by the Muswellbrook Shire Council Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee, it is said at every formal Council Meeting as well as significant events such as Australia Day:

“I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Local Aboriginal people who are the Traditional Owners and custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place.”

5. Service providers should consider supporting Aboriginal communities in cultural celebrations that focus on developing pride and self-esteem in their communities and individual identity. Talk to local Aboriginal organisations about days of significance to them. Ask how you can support them by having these days recognised and acknowledged. Attend functions that recognise the struggle and celebration of Aboriginal people, including Sorry Day, NAIDOC week, Reconciliation Week and National Apology Day. An example of such activities includes a display of local Aboriginal artists that Muswellbrook Regional Art Gallery exhibits each year during Reconciliation Week. These celebrations strengthen ‘identity’ and provide a better understanding of the past and how it impacts on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. It can also be seen as an important step in righting past wrongs and increasing all Australians' cultural awareness of the wider history of Australia beyond the past 200 years.

For more information on NAIDOC Week
For more information on Reconciliation

6. The negative impact of past government policies is still being experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These policies were often imposed with little consultation and in most cases, did not reflect the ideals and views of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In supporting the principles of self-determination, it is important that workers in the Human Services consult with their Indigenous community regularly to;

  • plan and review new and existing services,
  • utilize their views and expertise on different issues,
  • consider appropriate ways to make services more friendly and welcoming to Aboriginal people,
  • discuss Aboriginal identity and how it impacts on community members,
  • consider ways to support and encourage the development of identity for your Aboriginal clients

The 2006 Census data indicates that despite changes to Government policy and practice, there has been little improvement to the socio-economic status of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. For more detail .

Health, education, income, housing and employment statistics are significantly worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when compared to the non-Indigenous community. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face an on-going struggle to improve this situation.
Human Services should consider developing a policy on cultural awareness training and participation in relevant celebrations for all staff, to increase understanding of cultural issues and the disadvantage experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Workers have a responsibility to their local Aboriginal community and to the wider community to be open-minded, to understand Aboriginal issues from a historical and a present-day perspective and to challenge myths and bias.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) was established in 1986 as an independent statutory organization that reports to the Federal parliament through the Attorney-General’s Department. The Commission aims to increase understanding of human rights and the importance of treating all people with respect and dignity. HREOC has an integral role in reviewing the impact of laws and policies on Indigenous peoples, reporting on Indigenous social justice and native title issues and promoting an Indigenous perspective on issues.
For more detail from HREOC

HREOC provides some excellent resources to assist services in developing culturally sensitive work practices and protocols and to challenge worker misconceptions. Face the Facts 2008is a useful introductory resource

7. In recent years there has been growth in the number of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community based services in the wider community. Aboriginal people are in a strong position to develop and manage organizations, such as health and housing services, to address the specific needs of their communities.  Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients that access your Service may feel more comfortable with a referral to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Service or Worker. Often these services are more responsive to their needs and issues because they are managed and staffed by Aboriginal people who have a greater level of understanding and empathy for their people. Self-determination is about supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to make decisions about their own social, cultural and economic needs. Developing a strong working relationship with the Aboriginal Services and groups in your community will increase access to service and appropriate referrals.

It is important for mainstream services within the Human Services sector to provide a culturally sensitive and supportive work environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees. Ways this can be achieved include;

  • Review recruitment strategies and consider including a statement such as ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are encouraged to apply’ when advertising positions vacant;
  • Involve a representative from your Aboriginal community in the recruitment process e.g. developing the job description and interviewing applicants;
  • Develop support options / mentoring opportunities for Aboriginal workers where appropriate;
  • Be respectful of different cultural needs e.g. leave provisions and family obligations.
  • Provide cultural awareness training workshops for all staff.
  • Consider targeted recruitment processes to engage with the local Aboriginal Community such as face to face information sessions; advertising on specific sites or Facebook noticeboards that are supported by local Aboriginal Land Councils etc.