Indigenous bureaucrats could foster self-determination

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday June 29, 2016

As the election draws near, the big-ticket policy areas increasingly take centre stage, crowding out smaller portfolios like Indigenous Affairs, where a lack of electoral impetus is often cited as a barrier to effective policy.

The challenges are difficult — but it’s also evident that the success or failure of efforts to close the gap does not play a decisive role in elections. If it did, the searing criticism of the current arrangements from indigenous advocates that continues to grow louder and more frequent would surely have Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull well behind in the polls.

This context helps explain the recent call to create a new stand-alone department “managed and run” by indigenous senior executives, as part of a push for self-determination and community control as a response to the tyranny of the majority.

That particular demand is both a rejection of the decision to shoehorn the whole line area into the much smaller Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and an opportunity to reconsider the goals of the Australian Public Service Indigenous Employment Strategy and what it achieves in practical terms.

“You’re not only there to be window dressing, you’re there to make a difference … you stand up, you show backbone.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community control is a key theme of the Redfern Statement, a coherent and comprehensive set of policies supported by a large group of indigenous peak bodies and community organisations that demands a new deal for the First Australians.

Based on his considerable experience of the Indigenous Affairs portfolio as a public official, Michael Dillon lauds the policy statement as a good “first step in forcing political parties and governments to take the issues raised seriously” but also worries about how much traction it will get.

Dillon sees the Redfern Statement as a “useful benchmark” for future discussions about IA but without significant “pressure and publicity” accompanying it, he warns it is liable to be drowned out in a “ruthlessly pragmatic” political system where material interests generally trump social equity. He explains on his blog:

“I fear that the Statement and its embedded policy agenda will not be taken seriously and ultimately will sink into oblivion. The reasons for my pessimism include the singular focus of the electorate and political elites on the economy and major service delivery sectors such as health and education, the short attention span of the political news cycle, and marginal status of Indigenous issues in electoral terms.”

Given the reality that IA remains a minority issue, the idea of establishing a unique department led by members of the unique minority it concerns — and for whom it encompasses all of those other major policy areas and more — has a lot going for it.

Indigenous law professor Megan Davis also believes IA policy suffers against the weight of mainstream concerns and argues Australian governments have rejected self-determination, along with the kind of arrangements many other countries have adopted to balance out the electoral weakness of their indigenous groups. In an incisive article for The Conversation, she looks back to the days of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which Dillon helped set up in the 1990s as one of the government’s most senior IA advisers. Davis argues:

“The post-ATSIC exodus of Aboriginal people from the public service created a knowledge-and-skills deficit and crippled the quality of advice to government decision-making and outcomes.”

Back then, Davis contends, policy was informed by “high-level career public servants of the calibre of trailblazer Pat Turner, who understood the complexity of the community they served – because it was them” and also notes a dearth of reliable information about the occasionally maligned ATSIC era:

“Mind you, there is next to no academic analysis or evidence base of what ATSIC achieved and did not achieve and whether it actually failed. It is mostly anecdote. Importantly, there is virtually no interrogation of whether ATSIC, in the minds of Indigenous Australians, was self-determination.”

The Redfern Statement asks the next government to wholeheartedly embrace self-determination by giving people of indigenous background control of the advice it receives about IA policy and its implementation, through a whole new agency. But the sad reality for its authors is that neither major party need worry about the electoral consequences of paying it too little attention.

PM&C takeover still sore

Turner, ATSIC’s longest running chief executive who recently took on executive leadership of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, is a passionate and articulate spokesperson for the organisations behind the Redfern Statement and has very strong views about how the portfolio should be arranged.

Pat Turner
Pat Turner

“Well, I think that the machinery of government arrangements which were put in place by the Abbott government have not served our people at all well,” she told academic Larissa Behrendt on the ABC radio program Speaking Out.

“I think that they have tried to reinvent a wheel that didn’t really need to be reinvented.”

At the same time, research projects have recently provided further reasons to question both the massive and unprecedented machinery-of-government change that placed IA within PM&C, and the purpose of efforts to increase the number of indigenous public servants — beyond simply meeting the diversity target to demonstrate a commitment to diversity as a principle.

One study, which is yet to be published, found the extraordinary MoG change had fractured the standard relationship between a line area and the central agency, which relies on “boundary spanners” as intermediaries. Candid survey responses discussed in a seminar at the Australian National University earlier in the year described serious challenges that arose from meshing together two different cultures, with different pay scales and different institutional roles.

The change management process is still ongoing and no doubt the merger has come at significant cost, two factors that would fuel a reluctance to try a whole different arrangement anytime soon. Backtracking on the former prime minister’s plan to take charge of IA would also be interpreted as concrete proof that the experiment has failed.

Turner is adamant the MoG change has been “a complete failure” and dismisses any claims to the contrary from Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, who has been forced to defend the Coaltion’s record for most of its time in government. Based on her own experience at senior level in the public service, Turner can’t see how placing a sizable line agency inside a central agency was ever going to improve outcomes.

“An absolute disaster” is how she describes the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, the principal overarching program put in place at the same time by the self-styled “prime minister for indigenous affairs” Tony Abbott, which was picked apart and heavily criticised in an extremely long-running senate inquiry. Scullion argued the IAS had increased the number of indigenous organisations that received funding and PM&C’s head of IA, Andrew Tongue, said the new funding process was “more transparent than ever” and hence, would improve over time.

“At the moment I think our people feel alienated and estranged from a system that is there, supposedly, to help them.”

Turner believes most of what the IAS encompasses should be put in the proposed new department but argues arrangements that date back to the ATSIC era and placed some indigenous assistance programs with their relevant line agencies, like the Department of Health, have worked very well and should be left alone. If anything, she says, that system should be strengthened to group together all similar programs in the relevant line area, such as those that add up to a holistic view of health, for example.

“There has been a much better engagement across the board with the Health Department and [NACCHO] and other people who work in Aboriginal health, so I wouldn’t be advocating for the health funding to be returned to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs department,” she said on the radio program.

“But I think that certainly everything in the current IAS could be transferred over [to a new department] with some other areas in the public sector where it’s just not having the impact that it should have in terms of their policy priority or their program implementation.”

And while the IAS supposedly consolidated a large number of small programs under five broader goals, “they haven’t really done that” in Turner’s view.

“They have, in my book, five [funding] criteria that you could apply for and if you didn’t meet them, bad luck — and that’s not the way to deal with our people,” she told Behrendt.

“I think that by having our own department headed up by senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants in every senior executive position to start with, that we could build the relationship back up again with our people. At the moment I think our people feel alienated and estranged from a system that is there, supposedly, to help them.”

Employment targets: why are we doing this again?

Another piece of research was commissioned by the Australian Public Service Commission to investigate why separation rates and resignations are especially high among indigenous public servants.

The rationale behind the APS indigenous employment strategy, which is due for a refresh this year, includes the legislated commitment “to the principles of equity and diversity and to ensuring the public service workforce is representative of the broader Australian community” — but it is also part of efforts to close the gap.

Such strategies, whether for gender equity, indigenous employment or to support people with disability, don’t achieve much without regular discussions that help everyone understand their wider aims — including how they relate to the merit principle. The trap of seeing each unique disadvantaged demographic as just one of a homogenous set of diversity groups must always be avoided.

The resentment towards such affirmative action from those it doesn’t apply to — and the racism that exists even among those supposedly working to help indigenous people — must also be confronted head-on.

The research project found confusion about what the APS is trying to achieve with its strategy is common among indigenous public servants, who often become disillusioned and leave after a few years:

“For interviewees, a significant negative implication involved a sense that any potential to make a difference through their participation in the APS – notably in terms of advancing the interests of Aboriginal people and their communities – was quite delimited or postponed.”

A theme that runs strongly throughout the study report is disappointment that having an indigenous background is not valued in the APS nearly as much as the respondents expected when they were hired. There is also the suggestion that “cultural awareness” and connections to indigenous communities should be far more important attributes to attain senior positions in the IA policy space.

The study records experiences of racism as well, including instances of non-indigenous public servants working in the IA field expressing contempt for Aboriginal people and organisations. Whether racism was seen as bullying or a separate societal issue, it’s not surprising to read that “instances of racism were viewed as directly undermining a sense of being valued within the APS as an indigenous employee” — not that respondents thought the APS was an especially racist place:

“… at the same time as being deeply disappointed, interviewees often communicated a sense that encountering racism was not wholly unexpected, given similar problems existing in Australian society more widely.”

Some interviewees also recounted dealing with the cultural clash, organisational dysfunction and politicisation that followed being moved into PM&C. One notes the MoG change put an end to a nationwide mentoring network of indigenous APS members, for example.

The full report is an interesting window into the experiences of this cohort of public servants, and might lead to some reflection on whether connections to community and a passion for helping close the gap, rooted in family ties, are valued enough in the APS.

It makes sense to link public servants of indigenous background who have a desire to work towards better outcomes for their people with opportunities to do so in government. Helping close the gap in society, not just in employment statistics, is explicitly one of the intentions of the indigenous employment strategy. Perhaps it needs to be communicated to agencies more clearly and given life through new practical actions.

Reject the pessimism

On Speaking Out, Turner was asked for her advice to indigenous Australians who want to contribute to closing the gap through work in the public sector or elsewhere.

“Always be true to yourself,” she said, adding that there are plenty of different ways to help and working in government is not the right path for everyone.

“It doesn’t matter where you work, as long as you do your best in that role to make sure that you get resources out the door and into organisations at the community level that are working at the coalface to make a real difference for our people. That was what always drove me. The human rights of our people always drive me.”

Turner believes the only way forward for her people is through “a proper, formal relationship with the government whereby we can work out the future arrangements to enable us to practise self-determination” and that community control must be the guiding light for those inspired to follow her example.

As the Redfern Statement points out, “self-determination is the key to closing the gap in outcomes for the First Peoples of these lands and waters” and this has been demonstrated over and over again.

Good outcomes depend on having indigenous people “in the driving seat in terms of their governance of our organisations, and their constant reflection and consideration of how to best meet the needs of our people in a way that is culturally safe, relevant and appropriate” according to Turner. Her advice to young indigenous Australians could well be of interest to those who want to work towards better outcomes within government agencies.

“You’re not only there to be window dressing, you’re there to make a difference.”

“You apply for promotions when you’re ready to move to the next higher levels. You stand up, you show backbone, and you have the fire in the belly — and you always acquaint yourself with the facts, so that when you’re talking to somebody and they come up with misinformation or wrong information, you can say, ‘No, that’s not right, this is what the situation is.'”

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