1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2012  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/05/2012   
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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples


In 2012, Australia celebrates the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives. This article is in two parts and recognises the year by looking at the role of co-operatives and credit unions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


Contributions are from Colin Clague of the Nungera Co-operative and Bronwyn Bancroft from the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative.


The acknowledged pioneer of co-operative social enterprise among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative College in Glebe NSW, founded in 1958.

Other early co-operatives that evolved out of training programs at Tranby were the Bunjum Rural Co-operative at Cabbage Tree Island near Ballina NSW and a group of trading co-operatives in North Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

From the mid 1970s, a new wave of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community co-operatives were formed to provide housing, health, employment and training services, principally in the eastern states. A number of artists co-operatives such as Boomalli, in Sydney, followed in the 1980s. Many of the regional Aboriginal medical services are co-operatives, while others, like Nungera at Maclean NSW, have focused on housing and employment programs.

The 1976 Commonwealth Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act (Cwlth) introduced an alternative, simplified form of incorporation for Aboriginal organisations, although many continue to favour the co-operative model and its underlying principles.

An example: Nungera Co-operative Society Ltd

The formation meeting for Nungera Co-operative was held in May 1975 under a large gum tree on the roadside across from the eight houses of the Hillcrest Aboriginal Reserve at Maclean on the NSW north coast.

This is in the heartland of the Yaegl Nation, centred on the lower Clarence River. The name “Nungera” reflects both the environment of the co-operative and its ambitious objectives, meaning “...a small stream growing into a larger river – something small growing into something big”.

The assets of the community on that first day were the eight houses at Hillcrest administered by the NSW Aboriginal Lands Trust, and the unoccupied Ulgundahi Island Aboriginal Reserve where the families had spent their lives until it was closed in 1960.

A measure of the level of disadvantage of the community at the time is that the average occupancy of the eight 50 square metre cottages was 16 persons.

The first annual report of the Nungera Co-operative began with the remarks: “We are a Co-operative because we want to have an equal say, we want to share the responsibility and we want to work together to improve our living conditions and our life chances.”

There were two immediate objectives – attend to the dire housing needs of the community and address the chronic absence of employment opportunities. In the first year, five houses and the parcel of residential land opposite Hillcrest were purchased. In the years since, 11 houses have been built on this land, all with the involvement of community members in their construction. Together with houses purchased in the Maclean township, Nungera now administers a social housing program of 32 houses.

In the first year of the life of the co-operative, small crop farming commenced on Ulgundahi Island and over the years since, a number of enterprises have been pursued to offer training and employment opportunities to members. These include an art gallery, plant nursery, bait shop, fruit and vegetable shop, taxi service and a roadhouse.

An example: Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative

The Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative was established in Chippendale, Sydney in 1987 and is one of Australia's longest-running Aboriginal owned and operated art galleries. The word ‘Boomalli’ is derived from the language groups of the Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri and Bundjalung peoples of New South Wales and means “to strike; to make a mark”.

Boomalli was born out of the difficulty experienced by urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in getting their work recognised and exhibited in commercial galleries. While the acrylic ‘dot paintings’ from Western Desert communities and the bark paintings of Arnhem Land were gaining acceptance in the art world in the 1980s, the work of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists was, at the time, viewed as less ‘authentic’. To this day, the art of Boomalli members (which covers a variety of media including painting, sculpture, textiles, photography, video and mixed media) challenges common misconceptions about urban-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture and celebrates the diversity of their artistic expression in Australia.

The Co-operative aims to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists so that they can exhibit, define and promote their art on their own terms. Boomalli also fosters artistic self-determination and business self-management on behalf of its artist members by enabling artists to take direct curatorial control of their individual exhibitions and to devise their own marketing and sales strategies.

Boomalli owns its building in Leichhardt, which is used for artist studio space; artistic, business and education workshops; forums and community meetings; board meetings; and as a community centre for Aboriginal people in Sydney. The Co-operative works closely with other cultural institutions, providing artworks for inclusion in exhibitions at other museums, galleries and public events. Recent innovations include a strategic plan to work with more cutting-edge, young artists and curators.


Contributed by Traditional Credit Union.

The idea of Traditional Credit Union (TCU) was originally developed by a group of Aboriginal Elders, with the aim of providing financial services to Arnhemland communities disadvantaged by a lack of banking and other financial services.

TCU was incorporated as a credit union on 5 December 1994 using grant funding provided by the (then) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), Arnhemland Progress Association Inc and the Northern Territory Government. It has grown to eleven branches in remote Northern Territory communities, with a head office located in Darwin.

The Board of Directors includes leaders from Arnhemland communities and Balanda (non-Indigenous) directors with skills in areas such as law and finance. TCU directors are voluntary positions.

By providing culturally appropriate, community-based banking, TCU helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to fully participate in the economic development of their communities.

About 80% of TCU staff are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including all staff in the remote branches. Additionally, recruitment practices are designed to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander applicants have the best chance of success – both in gaining employment and maintaining it.

Image: TCU opening - One mob dancers. Photograph by Clive Hyde.

Image: TCU opening - One mob dancers. Photograph by Clive Hyde.


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Statistics contained in the Year Book are the most recent available at the time of preparation. In many cases, the ABS website and the websites of other organisations provide access to more recent data. Each Year Book table or graph and the bibliography at the end of each chapter provides hyperlinks to the most up to date data release where available.