The former co-chairman of Australia's largest Aboriginal organisation, Rod Little, says its spiral into voluntary administration marks the loss of First People's united voice to government.
The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples was forced out of operation in July; its reserves exhausted after the Abbott government withdrew Labor's previous commitments for future funding in 2013.
When administrators were appointed in June 2019, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt had an opportunity to revive the company of some 10,000 members and 180 community organisations.
He decided against it, citing its "significant level of debt" and "unsustainable structure". The congress' 2017 financial report showed it faced a deficit of about $487,000.
"The government weighed the significant support that would have been required to reform the company against the commitment to delivering improved outcomes for Indigenous Australians and decided it was not in a position to commit further taxpayer funding," a spokesman for Mr Wyatt said.
"The congress faced a number of challenges not just related to funding and it is unfortunate the administration process could not find a way forward."
Mr Little, who served as director of the congress from 2011, before taking on the full-time role of co-chairman in 2015, said the Coalition's "reneged" commitment to the company was reflective of its fear of advocacy and innovative forms of governance.
While politicians were happy to fund service providers "to make them feel good about making a difference", the congress' role as an advisor or informant to government wasn't seen as valuable.
"[Members'] voices are gone because congress doesn't exist. It's morally wrong that the government has done that," Mr Little said.
"Every other body, fundamentally, is about service provision, and that suits government.
"They can say, 'We've spent $50 million on X, Y, and Z', but our question has always been, what difference have you made?"
The congress proposed analysing the outcomes of Aboriginal initiatives and programs across Australia, such as the Northern Territory intervention, Mr Little said. The government denied the request.
"Obviously, someone in the Coalition said, 'We're not going to pay you money to tell us what we already know - it hasn't worked'.
"That attracts the negative comments from broader Australia, that it's a waste of money on Indigenous affairs.
"But it's not the people on the ground, it's not me that's getting the money and wasting it; it's the government."
The company developed and presented the Redfern Statement to then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, to highlight the crisis in communities. It was instrumental in resisting changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, Mr Little said; they might have gone through if not for the congress.
The congress lobbied for a treaty with the Commonwealth to recognise Aboriginal people's history and occupation of Australia. While it was making ground on those issues and others, it would now be up to separate community organisations to come together and create a new united voice, Mr Little said.
Preferably, that voice would take the form of a national summit of First Peoples, but community organisations were bound by government-imposed frameworks. The united voice that the congress offered could have facilitated a necessary national conversation, Mr Little said.
"If you're a politician or a local MLA, your door is supposed to be open for people to walk in or make an appointment to come in and talk about their issues.
"If you're offering a much broader [forum] to facilitate a conservation, there's resistance to that."
- Rod Little is speaking at the Australian Institute of Company Directors' annual dinner on Thursday October 24. The event's topic is 'Reflections on good governance', and Mr Little will be talking about the successes and misconceptions of Aboriginal governance. Tickets are available online.