After 50 years of Indigenous affairs, ‘We need to do better’

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday June 20, 2017

The 50th anniversary of the referendum that made Indigenous affairs a federal policy concern has prompted a lot of reflection on what governments have done with that role and, more importantly, consideration of how policymakers and public servants can do better.

In the view of Australian Public Service head Martin Parkinson, the 90.77% affirmative vote both “provided opportunities for us to begin to right the wrongs” caused by British colonisation and assured the prime minister that nearly every citizen wanted the national government to try and do so.

“We may have created the opportunity in ’67 but we haven’t actually delivered on it,” Parkinson added on Friday, opening a public administration seminar at Old Parliament House marking half a century of Indigenous policy.

The keynote address came from his new deputy secretary for Indigenous affairs, Ian Anderson, an Aboriginal University of Melbourne professor who became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) last week for “distinguished service to the Indigenous community” as a doctor, health researcher and role model.

Ian Anderson

Anderson was brought in to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in February to lead a “root and branch” review of Closing the Gap targets, replacing Richard Eccles, who quietly moved across to the Department of Communications and the Arts.

“There is a shared sense among Indigenous leaders, governments and the wider community that despite the significant progress in some areas, we need to do better,” said Anderson.

He sees enough progress to prove solutions do exist, but also consistent themes behind the failures: too many “one size fits all” approaches, “chopping and changing” goals, and governments “overreaching” in terms of what is realistic, while failing to “significantly” engage with Indigenous communities.

The highly regarded professor is seen as a brilliant quiet achiever who has led by example rather than taking to the barricades. He acknowledged “the activist generation” who fought for their rights and built a robust Indigenous-led community sector “from the ground up” but also pointed out Aboriginal society had changed.

“We now have an Indigenous middle class, working at all levels of government, the private sector, universities, and of course continuing to lead in the community sector,” said Anderson, who thinks this group will play a key role in the future of their people.

He also sees a role for new joined-up approaches to public administration, but believes “wicked problems” like Indigenous disadvantage can’t be solved by government alone; they require “the active participation of citizens” as well.

“We, as the Australian Public Service, have to do a damn sight better than we’re doing now.”

“The key to Indigenous disadvantage is not just what governments do, but what Indigenous people and communities do,” Anderson said, arguing public servants must create “an environment that helps solutions be found by a much wider range of actors”.

Regional planning in healthcare and the Empowered Communities initiative supported by PM&C were both good examples, he said. Government agencies would need to keep working collaboratively with Indigenous Australia “at a scale and depth we haven’t seen before” — and learn to share leadership and accountability in new ways that might be uncomfortable at first.

A new joined-up vision

Invoking the principle of subsidiarity, Anderson displayed his deep knowledge of the challenges of Indigenous affairs and set out a clear and comprehensive vision for how the federal and state governments could improve outcomes.

“The current approach to building the public sector Indigenous workforce is well past its use-by date,” he added later.

“It’s focusing only on entry-level programs and assumes a sort of trickle-up model that looks increasingly constrained, given the growing numbers of skilled and experienced Indigenous professionals working across … many sectors outside government.”

Martin Parkinson

The newly recruited deputy secretary, who will have a hand in a $10 million per year evaluation program, also spoke for the importance of rigorous evidence-based policy, using “high quality, granular data” to empower better regional and governmental decision-making.

“In the past, we have tended to rely too heavily on gut-feel and ideas that sound good but don’t have anything to back them up beyond their ability to generate enthusiasm,” said Anderson.

He thinks Australia has “one of the best Indigenous data collection systems in the world” but said data quality issues were common, especially for areas where Indigenous people are a tiny minority. Much of this is “not collated transparently, burying important information about Indigenous outcomes in population-wide trends and averages”.

In his admittedly “ambitious” vision for the future, the operating model is a “collaborative partnership” with Indigenous Australia, “founded on robust, accountable and professional working relationships” that feature shared decision-making and mutual accountability as core principles.

“At the same time, higher quality and more transparent data platforms will give us better tools for understanding the problems in our communities and Indigenous cohorts, measuring our successes and our failures and keeping ourselves accountable,” Anderson said.

“And on these foundations and the new capabilities and insight that will give, we will build an Indigenous policy system that is much more dynamic, much more responsive to diversity and innovation, and much better able to negotiate a place-based context, and create solutions with authority and with buy-in.”

‘Fire in the belly’

Anderson was followed by National Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisation CEO Patricia Turner, who in some ways represented the activist generation.

Pat Turner

Having worked in senior APS roles herself, she believes Aboriginal public servants still need a bit of “fire in the belly” and should constantly advocate for their people within the administration — because support for Closing the Gap within mainstream Australia is not guaranteed.

Indigenous affairs is not a top-order political issue among the general population, judging by its absence from recent debates. Turner reminded the audience that the Redfern Statement she helped launch during the last election was a direct response to this.

Turner argued for more targeted public service recruitment and mentoring to increase Indigenous representation at senior level, better engagement with Indigenous-led groups like NACCHO, and more collaboration between departments. She criticised the lack of progress towards Closing the Gap targets, questioning why they are not an explicit concern of every cabinet submission and calling on individual public servants to think about how they personally could contribute to achieving them.

Turner was followed by the architect of the Close the Gap targets, University of Canberra professor Tom Calma, who spent 45 years in the APS. Calma said the media often obscured the role of governments in Indigenous policy failures and suggested they were the fault of communities themselves.

Tom Calma

“Now this is not the case, and we need a better understanding of the role and effectiveness of the APS in Australian Indigenous affairs, and their consistent contribution to failure,” he said.

Calma also pointed to the financial and opportunity costs of machinery of government changes, pointing out there have been 21 different ministers for the portfolio in the past 50 years and 10 different administrative structures — nine of those within the past 30 years.

This had led to the same old ideas being recycled with little learning from the mistakes of the past, he said, fuelling a destructive cynicism and lethargy among those who had watched the government spin its bureaucratic wheels through several policy and MOG changes.

The full speeches — and the panel’s responses to pre-written questions asked by Department of Human Services secretary Kathryn Campbell, ACT Public Service head Kathy Leigh and Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews — are all worth listening to in the full video of the two-hour event.


A flurry of discussion, but where will it lead?

Held in partnership with the Institute of Public Administration Australia (ACT Division), the event was just one of many ways PM&C, as the current home of Indigenous affairs, is actively encouraging a discussion about the way forward. The department’s Indigenous affairs group has also partnered with the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) to deliver several more academic forums and publications this year.

The first, a discussion paper that also came out on Friday, considers “two constant underlying problems” that have persisted ever since the Commonwealth first set up an Indigenous affairs bureaucracy in 1967.

“They had to ask what government structure or instrument would be best suited to this effort,” Parkinson explained. “And they had to ask how best to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into the national decision-making process.”

“They” were the original Council for Aboriginal Affairs set up shortly after the referendum, comprising inaugural Reserve Bank governor Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs, senior diplomat Barrie Dexter and the famous anthropologist William Stanner.

“50 years after Coombs’ original questions, I think those questions are as salient today as they were then,” said the PM&C secretary.

The event was also a moment to admit that in many ways, federal policymakers have struggled to work out what to do and where to stand with regard to Indigenous Australians for most of that 50 years.

“We, as PM&C, have to do better. But we, as the Australian Public Service, have to do a damn sight better than we’re doing now,” said Parkinson.

While the IA group in his department plays a leading a role, he said it only spends about 7% of funding for services directed to Indigenous Australians.

“The vast bulk of monies spent in this country actually rest in your hands and the hands of states and territories,” Parkinson said, with a line of federal secretaries seated front and centre.

“And ask yourself a question: do you pay enough attention to the impact of the policies that you design and you implement and you deliver on Indigenous Australians?

“And I think if you ask that question and you’re honest with yourself, the answer is pretty clear.”

Going back to first principles

Much of the progress that has occurred has come through protest, grass-roots activism and community organisations built by Indigenous people, as Turner reminded the audience. The years before the referendum were much darker times for Aborigines and, she recalled, the outcome of the vote was a joyous occasion.

“However, we have always had to fight for our basic rights as Aboriginal people, the original owners and occupiers of this land for some 60,000 years,” she added.

Turner had high praise for some of the past “giants of the APS” whose frank, impartial advice led to big nation-building projects and successful responses to national crises — and for the “bold vision of the future” set out by Coombs, Dexter and Stanner.

“Those three wise, white men did so much for my people in a short space of time,” she said, suggesting there might be value in revisiting some of the CAA”s “seminal” report.

“Today we can bear witness to the fact that very few professional public servants seek an entire career at the coal-face of Indigenous policy advice.”

It is up to all public servants, she said, to make sure their ministers hear “frank and fearless” advice on the “political hot potato” of Indigenous affairs that reflects the views of Aboriginal people “about the decisions made in government for them” and comes through their own representative organisations.

“In the past, we have tended to rely too heavily on gut-feel.”

Turner believes in Indigenous self-determination and public servants using their positions to advocate for their people, in line with cultural expectations. She said doing this made her an “unusual” public servant who often challenged her superiors — but encouraged current public servants with an Indigenous background to do more or less the same.

Current policy targets a certain level of Indigenous representation in the APS generally, as a sign of fairness and diversity reflecting the population, while initiatives like special mentoring networks are being revived, but it’s not clear if or how public service leaders expect this to translate into more consideration of Indigenous perspectives, in a practical sense.

Meanwhile, the PM&C discussion paper reminds us that conservative views remain and, across the whole population, not everyone agrees that there should even be Indigenous-specific arms of government — or affirmative action to reverse “the lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in the government executive and administration” for that matter.

Going all the way back to the questions Coombs wrestled with in 1967, the paper explains the other view is that governments should demand better outcomes for Indigenous Australians from all mainstream agencies as part of their normal work — not cast Indigenous people as a special class of citizens with special policies and special public servants to administer them.

“We may have created the opportunity in ’67 but we haven’t actually delivered on it.”

As wise as those white men of the CAA were, it was also their view that Indigenous people should call the tune through their own organisations as soon as practical. 50 years later, it is still up to APS to figure out “the structural challenge that Nugget Coombs outlined” decades ago, according to Parkinson.

“One thing I am absolutely sure of is that setting the agenda for how we approach the second 50 years of Commonwealth public administration in Indigenous affairs is going to test our values,” he added.

“It’s going to test our technical expertise, and it’s going to test, importantly, our leadership — both our capacity to lead but more importantly, our willingness to lead. There’s no question; we have to do things differently.”

Parkinson’s closing comments reflect the current policy mantra to do things “with” Aboriginal people, not “to” them. But it is much easier to put this principle into words than into practice, although in Anderson, the department seems to have found someone who truly understands the challenges and can plot a realistic path forward.

“We will be asking Indigenous communities to step up, to take on leadership and to hold themselves accountable, but we, as public servants, also then have to let go,” Parkinson said.

Top image: Department of the Environment and Energy secretary and IPAA ACT president Gordon De Brouwer with the panellists and Martin Parkinson. All images by RLDI.

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