Opinion: let’s move the National Indigenous Australians Agency to Old Parliament House

By Catherine Sullivan

Friday October 16, 2020

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Is the Old Parliament House in Canberra being used to its full potential? Could it be more dynamic?

It was opened in 1927 by the Duke and Duchess of York and housed the federal parliament until 1988. Then federal parliament moved to the current Parliament House, just up the hill.

There was talk of demolishing the Old Parliament House building, to improve the sight lines from the new Parliament House to the Australian War Memorial. This was vetoed, however and the building housed the National Portrait Gallery, until this too moved to a new building.

Now Old Parliament House houses the Museum of Australian Democracy, which promotes the history of democracy in Australia, including Indigenous history.

This focus on Indigenous democracy saw the Australian National University host at Old Parliament House in July 2018 a First Nations Governance Forum, at which Indigenous thinkers and leaders from around the world gathered. The forum considered First Nations governance reform in Australia and, shared the experiences of Indigenous people in comparable jurisdictions including Aotearoa (New Zealand), Canada, the USA and Scandinavian countries.

This forum and the attendance by Indigenous peoples at Old Parliament House open the way to asking “how might Indigenous peoples continue to be present at Old Parliament House?”

One such solution was raised a month before the forum, perhaps coincidentally (or not). Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell spoke during National Reconciliation Week in Hobart and called on the federal government to allow Aboriginal people to take over the administration of Aboriginal affairs at Old Parliament House.

Move forward to May 2019 and the establishment of the government agency — the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) — as an entity separate from the previous location of Indigenous affairs in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The NIAA has a number of functions, including:

  • to lead and coordinate commonwealth policy development, program design and implementation and service delivery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • to provide advice to the prime M=minister and the minister for Indigenous Australians on whole-of-government priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
  • to lead and coordinate the development and implementation of Australia’s Closing the Gap targets in partnership with Indigenous Australians; and
  • to lead Commonwealth activities to promote reconciliation.

The NIAA is housed in modern offices in Woden, next door to the shopping centre. This location might be suitable in terms of efficiency but does not make a loud ‘visible public statement’ of Australian government support for Indigenous issues.

Building on Michael Mansell’s idea of using Old Parliament House for Aboriginal affairs, the prospect of relocating the National Indigenous Australians Agency to Old Parliament House looks a promising prospect.

The relocation would give increased visibility to Indigenous issues, with tourists and others able to visit Old Parliament House and see the work of NIAA. It would also signal to Indigenous peoples the importance Australia places on their issues and visible presence.

In a similar vein but more contentious would be the prospect of allocating space in Old Parliament House to Indigenous peak groups, including representatives from the “Aboriginal Embassy” located in the grounds opposite Old Parliament House. This might lead to the closure of the embassy as they gained this new status.

The Aboriginal Embassy commenced on Australia Day in 1972 and there has been talk previously of it having reached a natural end to its purpose, due to the advances in understanding in government of Indigenous issues.

The NIAA and peak Indigenous groups would co-exist with the Museum of Australian Democracy. subject to space constraints.

If necessary, however, perhaps the museum could be the third group to be moved from the building, leaving a strong and dominant Indigenous presence in the building.

One needs to ask: should these proposed uses be an administrative decision by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet?

Or should there be a parliamentary committee inquiry into the relocations, similar to the inquiry into the proposed redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial currently underway?

The value of the opportunity for Australians to comment on the future of Old Parliament House and of giving high profile to Indigenous issues should not be overlooked.

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