Rebranded Aboriginal Victoria sets self-determination priority

By David Donaldson

Friday December 11, 2015

A shake-up of Victoria’s Aboriginal affairs machinery, cautiously welcomed by indigenous groups, gives the unit a stronger whole-of-government approach to policy development and program monitoring.

The Office of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria, a service delivery-focused program unit within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, will be renamed Aboriginal Victoria. The Andrews government has given it improved support and resources to deliver services and advance self-determination. The department is recruiting a new executive to run it.

The changes restore to the Aboriginal affairs section greater policy capacity. While in power, the Coalition reduced DPC’s Aboriginal policy capacity, leaving the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a primarily service delivery-focused unit. An Aboriginal Affairs policy team will now be established to work closely with other social policy areas, while Aboriginal Victoria will maintain its focus on services.

Meanwhile, the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, a statutory body created to ensure a stronger indigenous voice in questions of heritage, will be given increased independence.

The restructure follows a review by former departmental secretary Yehudi Blacher into the operations of OAAV. Blacher recommended structural and governance changes to ensure a stronger whole-of-government focus, as well as boosting support and resources for the portfolio and enhanced engagement with the Aboriginal community. The review has not been publicly released.

The previous executive director of OAAV, Angela Singh, left soon after the review was handed down; director of heritage services Jane Sweeney has been given the job of acting executive director pending the recruitment of a new office head.

The government will soon release its first annual Aboriginal affairs report, providing an assessment of Victoria’s efforts in closing the gap. Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins has emphasised the government’s desire to improve self-determination for Aboriginal people. She said in a statement:

“These changes increase the voice of Aboriginal Victorians within government, reflecting our commitment to working with the community in achieving self-determination.”

The government is promising to establish a new engagement framework with Aboriginal leaders to inform policy priorities and action that will include:

  • A Premier’s gathering with Aboriginal leaders focusing on high-level strategic issues;
  • A new Victorian government ministerial forum held with ministers across government and Aboriginal peak and state-wide service delivery agencies; and
  • A new Aboriginal Victoria forum with traditional owners, registered Aboriginal parties, Aboriginal community organisations, peak bodies, state-wide agencies, other representative groups and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

Good reception, a few reservations

Aboriginal groups welcome the changes, saying the previous government lacked interest in indigenous issues. Though community group leaders who spoke to The Mandarin retain a measure of “dubiousness about some of the bureaucracy” and reservations about how the changes will be implemented.

Matthew Storey, CEO of Native Title Services Victoria, sees it as more of a reshuffle than a revolution. “In principle it’s probably a good thing,” he told The Mandarin, pointing out that it seemed “the government is well-intentioned”.

They’re also expanding co-ordination of Aboriginal affairs to include regional Victoria, which is important,” he said. Regional staff working as Local Aboriginal Network brokers and in heritage roles previously located in Regional Development Victoria will become part of Aboriginal Victoria, enabling better co-ordination.

“… it’s a very new approach and often people are wary of change and what that will mean.”

And while broadening the office’s scope to cover more areas of oversight runs the risk Aboriginal Victoria will be less effective at its job, Storey thinks the increase in resources should help make up any shortfall. The budget for the new policy staff will be in addition to existing funds.

Storey says while an increase in independence for the heritage council is a good thing, the government’s characterisation of the change as giving it “genuine independent status” was exaggeration. The VAHC secretariat will now operate at the direction of the council and VAHC staff will no longer be sitting alongside Aboriginal Victoria staff, but VAHC staff will continue to be employed by DPC.

He thinks the VAHC should be able to work as a genuinely independent statutory authority — with staff employed under its own banner — given its role in the protection of Aboriginal heritage “might be quite at odds with government”.

Linda Bamblett, executive officer at the Victorian Aboriginal Community Services Association, says the changes “will be helpful”. They will give Aboriginal groups a stronger voice with “guaranteed access to the premier twice a year”, she told The Mandarin.

While Bamblett is glad to see Aboriginal affairs being given more attention than under the previous government, she expressed reservations: “Everybody gets a voice, but how is that going to work? And the separation of culture policy and service delivery. How’s that going to work?

“This government is quite clearly serious about self-determination. I think it’s a genuine attempt to do that. But it’s a very new approach and often people are wary of change and what that will mean.”

Storey is also hopeful the rebranded Aboriginal Victoria will be better at community consultation than its predecessor. He thinks there was “distinct reluctance” in OAAV to engage with traditional owners. He even suggests it appeared OAAV “deliberately” hasn’t consulted traditional owners on reforms to the Aboriginal Heritage Act ongoing since 2011.

A government Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson denied that OAAV had been lax in its stakeholder engagement, however, telling The Mandarin:

“The review process was guided by an external reference group which included the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. The act amendments were also guided by a working party of Registered Aboriginal Parties.

“The review process over almost five years comprised three different consultation and submission periods, all involving and open to Traditional Owners. OAAV actively consulted with the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council, the former Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group, the current Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations, and all Registered Aboriginal Parties, both collectively and individually.”

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