Abstract: Improving Aboriginal community governance is increasingly recognised as pivotal to closing the gap in social and economic outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. The past decade has seen a shift in Indigenous policy from a preoccupation with national governance structures and a broader human rights agenda to a focus on governments engaging directly with local Indigenous communities to address the specific manifestations of Indigenous disadvantage. In discrete Aboriginal settlements, community governments are central to this new strategy, both as advocates for community needs and as agencies for program and service delivery. Yet Aboriginal Councils have had a chequered history, leading to persistent misgivings about their capacity to achieve desired outcomes. There is a dearth of empirical evidence about ‘what works and what doesn’t’ in the unique and challenging context of Aboriginal community governance. The current study was motivated by the desire to discover what is required for an Aboriginal Council to be successful in achieving the outcomes desired by its constituents. Specifically, what governance attributes contribute to successful Aboriginal community government performance? Moreover, the research sought to delve deeper, to seek answers to the more fundamental question concerning the contextual, historical or cultural factors that shape a particular Aboriginal community’s approach to governance, whether successful or unsuccessful. The research involved three case studies of Aboriginal Councils, in the far north Queensland communities of Yarrabah, Hope Vale and Lockhart River. Unlike previous studies of Indigenous community governance, the research design included a detailed assessment of the level of performance achieved by each Council, revealing one high-performing Council and two Councils whose performance was generally poor. An assessment of performance covering each Council outcome area is essential in order to make valid causal inferences about the specific determinants of Council performance. The study adopted a holistic conception of performance, focusing on the extent to which the Councils were achieving the particular set of outcomes desired by their constituents. Such an approach recognises that different communities seek different outcomes from their community governments and that desired outcomes will include not only deliverables such as programs and services but also preferences about governance processes, which will reflect cultural values. The study’s focus on Council performance recognises that, regardless of underlying questions about the appropriateness of imported Western governance structures, in practice residents of Indigenous communities express strong expectations that their elected Councils will deliver services and programs that meet their needs and aspirations and improve their quality of life. Within the constraints of prevailing legislative and policy frameworks, Indigenous communities exhibit considerable pragmatism in their efforts to optimise opportunities for self-determination through developing their community governments. The case study data canvassed a wide range of governance attributes, institutions and practices suggested by the literature as important to governmental performance, in both indigenous and other contexts. The analysis found that a particular configuration of ‘orthodox’ governance principles and practices was necessary for successful Aboriginal Council performance, comprising: a strategic orientation based on a shared vision, a clear separation of powers, institutionalising the rule of law, positive and strategic engagement with government, targeted community engagement and an effective and efficient administration featuring a commitment to sound financial management, a stable workforce and human resource management practices that value, support and develop staff. The research further identified the key contextual factors that had shaped the distinct approaches to governance in the three communities. These are significant in explaining why some Aboriginal Councils adopt the particular mix of governance attributes that are necessary to improve their performance, while others do not. Key contextual factors include: a resource base of education and skills within the community that matches the needs of the community government; a pool of community members who have had a significant degree of exposure to the outside world; strongly egalitarian political norms underpinning a ‘whole of community’ orientation to governance; and a commitment to overcoming the historical legacy of dependency through a willingness to take responsibility for community government outcomes. These findings provide an indication about the strategies that need to be pursued for Aboriginal community governments to effectively meet the needs and aspirations of their constituents and realise their promise as instruments of self-determination.