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Indigenous Affairs and public administration: can’t we do better?

Early in 2017 the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) approached the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) proposing a partnership to work towards the clear objective of reflecting critically on the Australian Public Service’s (APS’) past involvement in Indigenous affairs, and asking the question: how can we do better into the future? It is now 50 years since the landmark 1967 referendum which gave the Commonwealth power over Indigenous affairs and this question is both timely and pertinent.

The ‘Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration: Can’t we do better?’ conference was a cornerstone for ANZSOG and PM&C in meeting this objective. Taking place on 9 and 10 October at the University of Sydney, the conference brought together over 250 delegates from across Australian states, territories and the Commonwealth, and New Zealand to address this question.

Speakers, though acknowledging the challenges of the past, looked optimistically at the path for positive transformation in the public administration of Indigenous affairs.

One message came through clearly: it is the public sector, not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, that has to change practice, culture and the relational basis of their interactions with Australia’s First Peoples.

Delegates to the conference were compelled to think about what we can learn from each other, about transformation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, and recognition of Indigenous communities and culture.

It was also a chance for community leaders, the academy and the public sector to communicate their insights and lessons learned in supporting Indigenous leadership, retention of staff and working with First Peoples.

Engaging with Indigenous people on the basis of respect

Brendan Thomas, CEO of Legal Aid NSW was optimistic about his role as a public servant. He explained that “the benefits of the work that we do can be profound, the difference we can make in the lives of people is incredible, and when things go well in the public sectors, it creates rewards that you can carry with you for the rest of your life.”

However, Thomas advises, there are challenges. “The public sector still doesn’t fully understand when it needs to let go. Aboriginal communities are in strong positions to know how to solve a lot of the problems they have, and there are great opportunities for public agencies, public institutions and public service bodies to share decision making with Aboriginal communities in real and meaningful ways.”

Inala Cooper from Monash University spoke of the necessity for us all to be aware of our race and privilege. This was echoed by Associate Professor Gregory Phillips in his powerful address, stating “Inclusion [in the public sector] is a problem if inclusion is on white peoples’ terms only”.

The strong message was that when we think about decision-making in government, governance structure or representation and Indigenous public sector leadership, we need to be engaged with First Peoples on the basis of respect and autonomy. We can no longer make public policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but with them or indeed to empower these communities to make public policy for themselves. Consultation cannot be a substitute for involvement in program design and decision making.

PM&C’s Joy Savage emphasised the importance of co-producing policy with Indigenous peoples. “Learn and embed to stop that top-down or centre-out approach, and learn from the experience of those on the ground.” She spoke of the damaging churn of policy approaches, and the numerous restructures of administration which have failed to lead to benefits on the ground.

The damage of decision-making for, not with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people extends to the production and use of data. University of Tasmania Professor Maggie Walter explained, “Indigenous people give data but have not got value back from this data.

“The data always points to what is wrong with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Speakers, including Professor Martin Nakata, from the University of NSW, made the point that data can never be fully objective or neutral, and is part of a process where Indigenous people are caught up in other people’s narratives and cannot ‘see and hear ourselves’.

Learning from Indigenous knowledge and culture

Overcoming these policy failures must begin with respecting and learning from Indigenous knowledge and culture.

Dr Shawn Wilson, a Opaskwayak Cree from northern Manitoba, Canada, and academic at Southern Cross University, pointed to the necessity that we take Indigenous knowledge seriously. Wilson explained, “We all know how bad the system is, so what can we do differently?

“It’s about the relationality; how can we behave relationally and who do we engage in the relations? If we don’t change our relationships we will continue to do damage through the system.”

This point was echoed by Andrea Mason, CEO of Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, who emphasised the importance of culture, stating “Our culture owns us and we own it, it gives us the foundation of our identity.” To do its work properly, and have a strong relational basis for public sector interactions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, there must be a sophisticated understanding and representation of Indigenous culture in the public sector.

Deputy Secretary for Indigenous Affairs at PM&C, Professor Ian Anderson, brought his first-hand insights into how the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) is trying to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives more closely into decision-making around the Closing the Gap initiative.

Professor Anderson stressed the need to build more consultation and negotiation with Indigenous Australia into the COAG decision-making process. Although reforming the typically closed process of COAG negotiations to include Indigenous community representation is no easy feat, it offers an exciting opportunity to build Indigenous leadership into the decision-making processes of Australian federalism.

ANZSOG’s next steps in Indigenous affairs

This conference was not an end, but the beginning of a journey for ANZSOG. It marks a recognition that we have not lived up to our responsibility in the past to contribute to public sector leadership and public value in Indigenous Affairs.

Consequently, we will continue to work with PM&C to facilitate further discussions and build networks to support Indigenous public sector leadership.

As a next step, ANZSOG will produce a full conference report detailing the key findings of the conference, as well as next steps for ANZSOG and PM&C. The report will be produced in late October.

Part of our commitment is inviting public discussion and professional outreach through forums such as the Australian Journal of Public Administration (AJPA) and Griffith Review.

We invited four prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors to contribute practitioner controversy pieces to document key themes, debates and issues in what public administration has to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities, 50 years on. These pieces will be published in the December 2017 edition of AJPA.

Professor Julianne Shultz (Griffith Review) and Dr Sandra Phillips (QUT) are co-editing a special edition of the Griffith Review in April 2018 entitled Renewed Promise inspired by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. ANZSOG is working in collaboration with these esteemed editors to ensure a piece is included in the Griffith Review that builds on the conference findings and paths forward.

We are also engaging in our own journey of transformation, a journey we started with a Listening Tour in 2017 where we travelled to each of our owner jurisdictions to talk and listen to our alumni and interested parties as to what we could do in relation to Indigenous affairs.

We will start to implement learnings from the conference in our teaching and research. We are developing materials and curriculum that will give public sector leaders who undertake and connect with ANZSOG programs a fuller understanding of the continuing impact of history, and equip them with an appropriate understanding of Indigenous cultures and knowledges, as well as civics, as it relates to our First Peoples. Our unique role spanning New Zealand and Australia offers many opportunities to honour and learn from each other and the experiences and leadership that is offered by Māori, and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Author Bio

The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.