Craig Ritchie sees the mistakes public servants make working with Indigenous communities. How he finds policy and delivery success in ‘me knowing you and you knowing me’

By David Donaldson

Saturday July 27, 2019

Craig Ritchie

In 2017 Craig Ritchie was appointed CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, an independent, research-focused statutory authority. He is an Aboriginal man of the Dhunghutti and Biripi nations, and prior to AIATSIS was branch manager, international mobility in the federal Department of Education and Training. From 1999-2002 he was CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. Ritchie was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2006 to research models Indigenous of leadership in the United States and Canada. He is currently undertaking a PhD at the Australian National University where he is researching the implications of Aboriginal culture for public policy development and implementation.

He’s also a big fan of Yes Minister.

It’s 55 years since the establishment of what is now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In that time AIATSIS has developed from a research institution focused on recording and preserving traditional Indigenous culture to one that is as much about telling the story of contemporary Aboriginal culture in Australia, explains Ritchie. As the country’s “best kept secret”, AIATSIS is trying to put itself out there more.

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“We kind of functioned a bit as a hermit kingdom, so my brief from council has been to continue an agenda that is about making us a much more proactive and publicly engaged national institution. And owning our space. The other cultural institutions all do a bit in the Indigenous space, but we’re the only one whose total job is that story.

“And all of the complexity that that involves in terms of engaging with communities, making sure we’re not presumptuous, we’re not telling other people’s stories for them, but facilitating them telling their own story. Providing a national platform, a means for amplifying voices that wouldn’t ordinarily be heard.”

Building relationships with the community is vital to ensuring a meaningful understanding of its needs — and the development of corporate knowledge.

“People absolutely matter, and relationships absolutely matter. It’s always concerned me that in the service delivery transaction between government and Indigenous communities in particular, we have confused the management of contracts with the building of relationships. In fact I was told on one occasion that we’re absolutely managing contracts, we’re not managing relationships. That just fundamentally doesn’t work for the Indigenous space. And I’m not convinced it works for anyone.”

Regular rotation of public service jobs prevents deep relationships.

“When I worked in the community controlled health sector, one of the leaders there had a term she used to describe the public sector: she called them the ‘folies’. She said we’re like the folies bergere — one lot of dancers comes onto the stage and they’re on for a while and then they dance off and the next lot come on. Meanwhile it’s the same people in communities, particularly in the Aboriginal world. And often the same conversations happen, because the interlocutors change on the public service side.”

This interchangeability is the flipside of the oft-touted goal of increasing mobility.

“There was a time when we had a public service commissioner who was emphasising mobility, and people were moving about every six months to build breadth so they can position themselves for promotion.

“… It’s built a content-less public sector where we don’t have corporate knowledge, we don’t have that kind of intel that is built solidly on the basis of me knowing you and you knowing me. It also undermines trust in government, because why do I invest in you if you’re not going to be here in six months’ time?”

Government often doesn’t understand that “our mob care more about who you are than what you are”, he says.

“I remember once having to organise a tour of remote communities for my then-deputy in my first SES job. He had certain availability, he was a busy man. But his availability happened at a time when there was either some sorry business going on in the community, or it was law time and noone else can be there. And my boss said to me, ‘don’t they know who he is?’. My response was, ‘no, and it probably isn’t important’.

Fear of stakeholder capture is no reason to avoid deeper engagement, either.

“Jobs that I look back on where I feel I’ve made the most impact was where I thought it was my primary responsibility to build good relationships with stakeholders.

“People always get a bit nervous about that idea. I don’t know if they’re worried about some kind of Stockholm syndrome, that we’ll get captured by our stakeholders. My experience has been kind of the opposite. If you ask the two sectors I’m thinking of most — the Indigenous higher education sector and the higher ed equity people — whether they felt they had me captive, they will tell you no, we had the kind of relationships where I can understand their perspective, but I could also have a tough conversation. I’m still noted as the guy who took $22 million off the universities. Noone takes money off the universities … but it was an important thing to do.”

And don’t forget who all this policy is for. Looking back on his career, Ritchie nominates his work on the review of higher education access for Indigenous people, known as the Behrendt review, as some of his best.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that the report is framed in terms of what’s good for the country, rather than most of the conversations I encountered in higher education at the time which were focused on what works well for the system. So the system would talk to itself and to the government about what worked well for it, and the Behrendt review took a different tack and said ultimately, the country is benefited in this way, and worked back from that.”

Nationhood and services

We don’t often talk about culture in policymaking, but it’s deeply ingrained in how public servants work — so much so that the dominant culture is often invisible to policymakers.

“Reconciliation has been about how can we carve out a space to accommodate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It hasn’t been a conversation about how can we transform this. So this comes back to the culture question because policymaking is fundamentally a cultural exercise.

“We like to think we’re embarking on an objective, evidence-based scientific enterprise — we’re not. We’re involved in a fundamentally cultural exercise framed by a particular social vision and a set of norms and values that’s basically not an Indigenous one.”

One way to deal with this problem is to go beyond the standard consultation — instead of working out how to fit the community into government policy, government needs to ask Indigenous communities what they want.

“I remember once having a conversation about what was the basis of a good education, and I said, noone’s ever bothered to ask what a good education looks like from an Aboriginal person’s perspective. And he looked at me with utter astonishment and said, I assume it would be the same as for anyone else. And my response was, why in the world would you assume that?

“… I came across a Maori education policy and it was summed up in the phrase, ‘Maori people enjoying educational success as Maori’. And I knew when I read that that it was brilliant.

“… I don’t think we’ve got to the place where we’re genuinely and seriously asking Indigenous people about Indigenous peoples’ social vision, what’s a good life look like?”

‘Self determination’ is frequently discussed in Indigenous affairs these days. AIATSIS is planning to hold a seminar later this year for public servants to flesh out what this means in practice. One aspect of this — Indigenous people thinking of themselves as First Nations — is becoming increasingly relevant in Australia, says Ritchie.

“There are a few things coming down the pipeline in Indigenous affairs. … One of them is a fairly significant transition to thinking about ourselves not as Aboriginal community X or Y, but as First Nations. The community and a nation are conceptually two different things. You see it here in Victoria with the treaty process that’s got a much stronger emphasis on the traditional owner groups as representatives of First Nations.

“That is going to fundamentally change the nature of government’s interactions with Indigenous Australia. I can see that happening across the community. The relationship between government and Indigenous communities has been a fairly transactional one that’s been predicated on the basis of funding agreements and the delivery of services.

“And in New Zealand, and in Canada, they’re starting to reframe their Indigenous affairs portfolios around the idea of crown-Indigenous relations. … And I think we’re a bit behind here, because we still think the relationship is a transactional one between government as either purchaser or provider of services and Indigenous communities as mostly the deliverer of services, but mostly the recipients. So there’s no room in that for self-determination beyond a fairly instrumental planning environment.”

But as much as improved bureaucratic practice can help, these problems are part of a much broader set of questions that tie into recognition and political rights, Ritchie notes.

“If we think the better delivery of services to Aboriginal communities is going to fundamentally transform things then we are mistaken. Better delivery of services is far and away preferred to poorer services. But the real issue in this country is that there’s never been a settlement between the crown in its various forms and the Indigenous nations that were here.

“… The source of the angst that Indigenous peoples collectively feel about our position inside Australia isn’t predicated on poor service delivery. It’s predicated on invasion and the imposition of the sovereignty of the crown without consent.”

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