Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the Indigenous people of Australia. They are not one group but comprise hundreds of groups that have their own distinct set of languages, histories and cultural traditions.

The United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples calls on states to obtain free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people through their representative institutions before adopting legislative or administrative measures that would affect them. The Declaration provides an international framework of engagement best practice. 

Agencies and engagement practitioners should work closely with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, organisations and networks in order to design the most appropriate timelines and methods of engagement. ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not respond best to didactic or ‘stand and deliver’ modes of communication’. (Human Rights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Engagement Toolkit, 2012).  ‘Effective engagement is a sustained process that provides Indigenous people with the opportunity to actively participate in decision making from the earliest stage of defining the problem to be solved.’ (AIHW 2013)

Context is important to inform your approach, such as:

  • which state or territory are you located, 
  • who are the Aboriginal custodians and elders, 
  • who are the traditional owner organisations, registered Aboriginal parties, land councils, native title holders,
  • is the setting remote, rural, regional or urban, 
  • does the topic directly affect these communities,
  • what do we know about our local Aboriginal communities and what do we need to learn,
  • the cultural protocols around the use of deceased person’s images.

There are some excellent reference materials available to help inform your method selection and especially the principles that need to underpin your engagement approach. Engaging early, meeting on country, and respecting Aboriginal Community decision making processes are some common principles. 

Other principles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement includes the following: 

  • an appreciation of—and the cultural competency to respond to—Indigenous history, cultures and contemporary social dynamics and to the diversity of Indigenous communities; valuing the cultural skills and knowledge of community organisations and Indigenous people.
  • clarity about the purpose and the relevant scale for engagement, which may call for multi-layered processes: engagement needs to relate to Indigenous concepts of wellbeing.
  • long-term relationships of trust, respect and honesty as well as accessible, ongoing communication and information.
  • engagement involves Indigenous agency and decision making, a deliberative and negotiated process, not just information giving or consultation, and it starts early in the program or project development.
  • engagement seeks to understand Indigenous aspirations and priorities.
  • power inequalities are recognised, and sincere attempts are made to share power, through contracts or agreements; decision-making processes and agreed conflict resolution mechanisms are transparent. Unequal power in relationships can be reduced by strong mutual accountability relationships in agreements.

(Engaging with Indigenous Australia— exploring the conditions for effective relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities 2013. Closing the Gap)


Where to go for more information and guidance

Below are a number of useful resources to help you plan your engagement. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list. Please consult with the appropriate Aboriginal engagement resources before choosing your engagement methods. They aim to help you choose the most appropriate methods to use in partnership with Aboriginal communities to progress the issues.

Nationwide AHRC (Australian Human Rights Commission) 2010. The community guide to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Sydney: AHRC. 

AHRC (Australian Human Rights Commission) 2012. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, Engagement Toolkit.

Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Engaging with Indigenous Australia—exploring the conditions for effective relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

Tasmania Further information on Aboriginal policies, programs, services and legislation can be found on the Office of Aboriginal Affairs .

DPC The Tasmanian Aboriginal community A GUIDE TO ENGAGEMENT.

Northern Territory  Northern Territory Government. (2015) Remote Engagement and Coordination Strategy.

Northern Territory Government. Remote Engagement and Coordination Online Toolkit.

Victoria Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council.  Helping the community respect and understand Aboriginal Cultural Heritage and Traditional Owner responsibilities.

Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning

Victorian Catchment Management Authority. (2016) Aboriginal Participation Guideline for Victorian CMAs.

Western Australia ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission), Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs & Western Australian Department of the Premier and Cabinet 2005. Consulting citizens: engaging with Aboriginal Western Australians. Perth: Western Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs.
Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development, Queensland 1998. Protocols for consultation and negotiation with Aboriginal people. Brisbane: Queensland Government. 

Queensland Department of Communities & Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships 2005. Engaging Queenslanders: introduction to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Brisbane: Queensland Department of Communities. 

Queensland Government Engaging communities: empowering futures Framework for engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

South Australia Government of South Australia. Department of Premier and Cabinet. Aboriginal Affairs and reconciliation.
New South Wales Local Government and Aboriginal communities working together.

NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Community Consultation.

By Sector The Arts

Australia Council for the Arts. First Nations Art and Culture Protocols.


National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).


National Disability Insurance Scheme (2021). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Strategy.

Natural Resource Management 

Australian Government National Landcare Program. Indigenous Participation.

*IAP2 like many organisations is on a continuous learning journey with engagement and in particular Maori, Pasifika and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement. We will continue to update this page as we learn and grow and encourage our members to also reach out and suggest improvements and updates.