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Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Empowered Communities

The Australian Government has been moving to a new way of working with Indigenous leaders and communities – one that supports Indigenous ownership, enables true partnerships with Government, and recognises the diversity of cultures and circumstances of Indigenous Australians. This aligns with the Government’s commitment to ensure Indigenous communities are involved in local and regional decision making.

One example is the Indigenous-designed and led Empowered Communities initiative.

Empowered Communities involves Indigenous communities and governments working together to set priorities, improve services and apply funding effectively at a regional level. Importantly, it aims to increase Indigenous ownership and give Indigenous people a greater say in decisions that affect them.

At its core, Empowered Communities is about governments backing Indigenous leaders who want to introduce positive changes in their communities and regions. It is an initiative that puts Indigenous culture and participation front and centre of government decision-making.

Empowered Communities is active in eight regions across Australia:

  • Cape York
  • Central Coast, NSW
  • Inner Sydney
  • Goulburn Murray
  • East Kimberley
  • West Kimberley
  • Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands
  • Ngarrindjeri, South Australia

The Australian Government provided $5 million to support the Empowered Communities leaders to complete a detailed design of the model.

Empowered Communities design report is a public document.

The regional implementation of Empowered Communities is underway with support from the Australian Government and Jawun Indigenous Corporate Partnerships. A number of state governments are also involved.

The Australian Government responded to the design report in December 2015, strongly supporting local Indigenous-led action to address priorities and aspirations identified by communities, in partnership with Indigenous people.

Implementation - Progress to Date

The Government has provided $31 million over six years to 30 June 2022 to fund ‘backbone organisations’ in the eight regions. This supports critical capability for Indigenous leaders as they work with their communities and partner organisations to identify and progress local priorities.

As part of its commitment to greater transparency, the Government is providing Empowered Communities regions data and funding information to help inform joint planning and identifying community priorities.

In the early stages of implementation, Empowered Communities leaders and their communities focused on establishing governance and engagement structures, identifying first priorities and long term regional development agendas that address social, economic and cultural development.

Since then, Empowered Communities regions have moved to action on initial focus areas, including through joint decision making with Government on Indigenous Advancement Strategy funding, and co-designing initiatives to address community priorities. The National Indigenous Australians Agency’s Regional Network is supporting this effort on the ground.


Empowered Communities has been designed as a long term initiative. An implementation review is expected after three years.

Empowered Communities regions have been embedding a ‘learn and adapt as you go’ (adaptive learning) approach and developmental evaluation from the start of implementation. This is in line with what Empowered Communities leaders put forward in the design report.

This approach enables ongoing tracking of progress, supports innovation and quickly applying lessons learnt as implementation progresses across the regions. It also allows Indigenous leaders and Government to share responsibility for identifying what is working, what is not and why, and adjusting actions accordingly.

It is supported by a monitoring, evaluation and adaptation framework that has been co-designed with NIAA.

More information is available on the Empowered Communities initiative website, or by contacting a NIAA Regional Network office.

Other regional approaches

The Government is also working with Indigenous leaders in other locations around the country who want to partner with Government to build a better future for their communities. Similarly to Empowered Communities, this aims to empower Indigenous people to exercise choices and make decisions about their lives, build trust between communities and governments, and move away from an application driven transactional approach that entrenches disempowerment to one of true partnership.

This work is underway for example in Murdi Paaki in western NSW, Ceduna in South Australia and Yarrabah in Queensland.

In the Murdi Paaki region, local communities have had a long history of working together to increase community engagement, empowerment and capability.

The Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly (MPRA) is a self-formed regional governance body representing interests of Indigenous people in 16 communities across western NSW. The MPRA has become a representative regional voice for Indigenous communities to participate in decision-making, assist in the implementation of government policy, and ensure both government and Indigenous people are accountable for the delivery of outcomes on the ground.

MPRA is working in partnership with the NSW Government, through an accord, to implement its Local Decision Making framework. The framework aims to give Indigenous communities more control of government services in their communities, and progressively build their decision making power and authority, as well as make government more flexible and responsive to the needs of Indigenous communities, and recognise Aboriginal leadership and decision making.

The Australian Government is also working with the MPRA as a key point of engagement on service delivery in the region. Given the MPRA’s strong capability, governance and leadership, as well as its role in the Local Decision Making framework, we are looking at opportunities to build on this relationship, including how to align the efforts of both the Commonwealth and NSW Governments to maximise outcomes.

Another example is Ceduna, where community leaders co-designed with Government a Cashless Debit Card Trial, in an effort to deal with complex issues in Ceduna and surrounding communities.

Setting up the trial has involved moving from a leadership role focused solely on their individual community or organisation to a group of leaders working collaboratively to address issues across the region.

Since then, Ceduna’s Indigenous leaders have indicated they are ready to do more with Government and partner to progress other issues in addition to the Cashless Debit Card Trial. NIAA is supporting their work in considering what governance arrangements will best support taking this forward.

NIAA is also working with leaders in Yarrabah who approached Government to seek support for a community-led Yarrabah Community Recovery Plan aimed at achieving large-scale social change in the community.


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