Strengthening Indigenous leadership and capability in the APS

By Ken Wyatt

November 12, 2020

Ken Wyatt
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Kaya wanju – hello and welcome.

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, both here at Federal Parliament and at the Australian National University, the people of Ngunnawal country.

I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I also acknowledge that today is Remembrance Day – and pay my respect to all Australians, and in particular Indigenous Australians – who have fought to defend our freedoms and our unique way of life. Your service and sacrifice is what allows us to meet today and to hold freewheeling discussions such as this.

Today – we are also commemorating NAIDOC Week – celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Always Was, Always Will Be. recognises that Indigenous Australians have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years.

And I pay my respects to all Indigenous Australians who are joining us today.

The past year

Last year, I was privileged to join you to address the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation annual event – it’s good to be back this year, albeit in a virtual sense – to again discuss the important role played by our Nation’s public servants.

Few could have predicted what would have followed – bushfire, flood, drought and a global pandemic – drastically altering the way we live, work and – interact with government.

Through this period we have seen a change in how government responds to, and works with Indigenous Australians to address issues and deliver solutions.

This was evidenced at the offset of the COVID-19 pandemic when the APY Lands sought to close their land to visitors – in order to protect the health and safety of their citizens – while this measure was questioned by some at the time – it set the scene for large scale border closures and harsh lockdowns – all in the name of keeping people safe from COVID-19.

This is a clear demonstration of government working in partnership – listening to Indigenous Australia – and ensuring that solutions are designed with the input of people at a local level.

The past 12 months have also marked two significant and substantial outcomes for government – first, the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which I will turn to shortly – and secondly the Morrison government’s five-year workforce strategy, designed to strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment opportunities and participation in the Commonwealth public sector.

Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy

The Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2020- 2024 focusses on three priority areas:

  • Cultural Integrity;
  • Career Pathways; and
  • Career Development and Advancement.

Setting the direction for all Commonwealth agencies, as employers (including non- corporate and corporate Commonwealth entities and the Australian Defence Force).

The Strategy demonstrates our Government’s ongoing commitment to building our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce and increasing the cultural capability of our workplaces including in rural and regional Australia and internationally.

Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Hon Ben Morton MP has said that:

“The Strategy represents the Commonwealth’s continued contribution as an employer to the ‘Closing the Gap’ agenda by aiming to increase, advance and retain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees in the Commonwealth Public Sector.”

It is clear that by building a talent pipeline, through direct recruitment and professional development, we can ensure we will strengthen and retain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation at all levels throughout the Commonwealth public sector.

Increased representation at all levels will ensure the Commonwealth public sector delivers leading government services, policies and programs that result in better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

The Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy 2020- 2024 is the first in a series of enhanced diversity measures, designed to increase the richness and diversity of the Commonwealth public sector.

More than 240,000 Australians work for the Commonwealth public sector in a wide variety of roles. This presence, including in rural and regional Australia and internationally, gives the Commonwealth huge leverage as an employer.

The Strategy sets out a bold and aspiring vision for improving the employment opportunities and experiences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees across the Commonwealth public sector.

Successful implementation is key, and will require greater portfolio collaboration, stronger focus on delivery and improved regional relationships. This will ensure the Commonwealth public sector delivers leading government services, policies and programs that result in better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

To support the Commonwealth in building the talent pipeline, each portfolio should aim to achieve a stretch target of 3 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation at each classification level in their workforce by 2024, the final year of the Strategy.

In addition to the workforce representation targets, a strategic prioritisation of efforts is required by all Commonwealth agencies to:

  • increase the cultural integrity of Commonwealth public sector workplaces,
  • decrease relative separation rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees, and
  • provide tailored and appropriate support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees to advance their career, while respecting individual choices.

Individual Commonwealth agencies’ capacity to contribute to the Strategy, including to the broader portfolio and Commonwealth targets, will vary. Those agencies with a strong regional presence and a record of effective initiatives in this area will be critical to further improvement and will provide valuable insights to other agencies.

The broad implementation of the strategy will also provide an opportunity for Commonwealth agencies to work together on practical initiatives that are meaningful and fit-for-purpose in the workplace environment or context in which they operate.

This is an important recognition that the public service plays a critical role in shaping policy that impacts on Indigenous Australians – and that we need to ensure that the views, and lived experiences of Indigenous Australians are reflected in this policy development – and in programme delivery.

Turning to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap. Last year I addressed you and said that:

“As a government – what we’re focused on overall is getting more children to school in the morning, reducing suicide rates in communities and creating jobs and economic opportunities for all Indigenous Australians – no matter where they live.

“We will do this by empowering people on the ground so that together, we’re all building better communities.

“At the centre of this approach is the Closing the Gap Refresh – a genuine and formal partnership between the Council of Australian Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

We have now seen this approach recognised in the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

For the first time in our history – all governments – the Commonwealth, states and territories – and local governments – have agreed to shared decision making, responsibility and importantly – accountability – in respect to realising Closing the Gap.

This approach is underpinned by four priority reforms:

Shared decision making; Building the community-controlled sector; improving mainstream institutions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led data.

Priority Reform Three – Transforming Government Organisations – will ensure we as government address systemic and structural transformation of mainstream government organisations to improve accountability and better respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To realise Priority Reform 3 all governments will:

  • Challenge unconscious biases that result in decisions based on stereotypes.
  • Engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives before, during, and after emergencies.
  • Identify, develop or strengthen an independent mechanism, or mechanisms, that will support, monitor, and report on the transformation of mainstream agencies and institutions. The mechanism, or mechanisms, will:
  • support mainstream agencies and institutions to embed transformation elements, and monitoring their progress
  • be recognisable for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and be culturally safe
  • engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to listen and to respond to concerns about mainstream institutions and agencies; and
  • report publicly on the transformation of mainstream agencies and institutions, including progress, barriers and solutions.
  • Through the engagement on the National Agreement, we heard:

‘To be effective, mainstream organisations need to spend time understanding what is happening in our communities and need to recognise and understand the skills that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold.1

When we ask ourselves, how will we achieve this? We often look to outward facing partnerships.

But we must also look inward – we must acknowledge that within government there is opportunity to ensure that the voices of Indigenous Australians are not only heard but are heard in places of authority and decision making. This is one of the underpinning principals of the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy.

In order for us to succeed in this, we must strengthen Indigenous leadership and capability in the Australian Public Service.

And I am confident, that across this government, and indeed all governments, there is a renewed focus on delivering these outcomes through clear strategic pathways to improve engagement with Indigenous Australians.

Closing the Gap – working in partnership

In order to Close the Gap – government’s must deliver services in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and people

There has been much focus on discussion on this new partnership – with an acknowledgement of the role Indigenous Australians will play through the Coalition of Peaks – a significant and important step in empowering Indigenous Australians and ensuring they have a seat at the table with government.

This is a critical point that we should pause and reflect on. This is a partnership – with government.

It is not government dictating to Indigenous Australia. Nor is it Indigenous Australia dictating to government.

It is an acknowledgment that we must respectfully work together and collaborate – learn from one another – inform one another – as to how we meet our purpose of serving Australians and arresting the dramatic disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

As I said last year:

“To address the levels of disparity and achieve the outcomes sough through the Close the Gap we need all Ministers pulling together, all governments, and Indigenous leaders working in partnership.”

Of course, there will be times when government and other parties disagree on approaches.

But it is a two-way street – and due recognition must be given to our public sector that ensures the decisions we make are realised on the ground.

You are a key partner in ensuring that we achieve our goals and reach our targets.

I reject any notion that government’s involvement in Closing the Gap – in some way diminishes the will or the desire of Indigenous Australians.

Similarly – the co-design of an Indigenous Voice – one born out of genuine partnership – will require the involvement of government.

It is imperative that governments are vested in the Indigenous Voice – as this is how voices will be heard – and how the wishes, dreams, aspirations and wants of Indigenous Australians will translate into sustained, improved outcomes.

And while the new Closing the Gap partnership, and ongoing development of an Indigenous Voice reflect a ‘New Way of Working’ – they will not deliver the desired results if we simply say government has failed, or that government should cede all responsibility for delivering these services to others.

All of us, being politicians or public servants – are drawn to the notion of serving others – giving to our nation – and ensuring that our efforts and commitments translate positively to better outcomes.

We work to empower – to enable – to give a hand up – through the Priority Reforms in the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap – we do this in partnership with Indigenous Australians – but you will be as much of a part of success as any other party in this process.

As we speak, the Commonwealth is progressing work on our Implementation Plan.

This process will reach across government, into every Department, and elevate the importance of engaging with Indigenous Australia to the forefront of our thinking.


Government has a plan to strengthen Indigenous leadership and capability.

We must now deliver – we must put our words into action – and lead by example.

You are all partners in this journey – and while government can’t achieve change alone – change is dependent on you rising to the challenge, challenging norms and accepted ways of working – and embracing the opportunity before us.

This new National Agreement on Closing the Gap must work.

Too much is at risk – we simply can’t afford Indigenous disadvantage to take a hold of another generation of Australians.

Every day I see success in Indigenous Australia – we must tap into it – we must bring that success to the table and build upon what works – we must work in genuine partnership – and in good faith to realise this change.

I hope that our actions lead to meaningful change within the Public Sector – and while it may not be the change that grabs the attention of the media – and makes the front pages of newspapers – it will be change that underpins our overall success.

I thank you all for your work – I thank you for your dedication and commitment to see a better Australia.

And I know – that through this partnership – we will realise positive, meaningful and lasting change.

1 (Engagement participant at Coalition of Peaks membership meeting in the Torres Strait)

This article is curated from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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