This story took place as part of work in a government jurisdiction other than Western Australia. My task was to facilitate agreements between a number of remote Aboriginal communities and the Education Department of that jurisdiction. The goal, set by the Minister was to get community members engaged and involved in school, and stop criticising principals and teachers and in that way, stop or at least decrease the number of negative reports the Minister had to deal with. Around six months was designated to conclude each agreement, each meeting took place in each individual community, and three senior departmental officers were the negotiating team from that entity (different ones for each site) and the principal, while the community could invite any number of people to represent them. I call the site by the fictional name of Yallamaari, but the story, apart from the name, is true. It was the second site I engaged with, the first working very well, so I chose to use the same process.

During the first meeting, which ran for about six hours, the education trio appeared to me to be pushing a line which was quite controlling of community members. Essentially, each time one of the community suggested doing something different from the way things were being done currently, answers generally negated or dismissed the idea as untenable or impractical. So at one point, I suggested to the education people that their responses smacked to me of something their Director-General had recently called systemic racism at work. Their reactions were decidedly unfriendly but we got through the day with somewhat less negativity to community ideas.

Two weeks later, I was summonsed to the Director-General’s office. The DG passed a letter which came from the leader of the trio negotiating with Yallamaari accusing me not treating the two negotiating groups equally. After reading it, I was asked the extent to which I considered the report to have substance.

I said, “It’s absolutely true. I didn’t, and in al probability won’t, treat the two groups equally for some meetings to come. My reason for what I said, and did, came from this observation. For me, it as like watching an uneven poker game where the department people always had a hand of three aces, while the community people always were dealt a pair of twos. The three aces were because the education group had the education act and regulations to spout, they had knowledge and control of finances, and everything in the meeting was happening in English, even though English was a second language for the community people. Three aces! The hand the community got meant the meeting was held in their community and they could bring along anyone they chose. A pair if twos!”

So my intervention was designed to even up the game – to make it more equitable or just, not to treat people equally until both teams felt at ease to negotiate, and not have one team shooting any different ideas that were put up.”

After a brief pause, the DG grinned and said, “Just make sure you use the same process with all my teams so they learn about even-handed negotiation and leave the resolution of this with me.”