A shakeup inside Australia’s federal Indigenous Affairs bureaucracy will see its top official, Andrew Tongue, replaced with the recently retired Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Ray Griggs.
Tongue, who has been Associate Secretary, Indigenous Affairs since 2015 has from this month begun an extended sabbatical from the public service. He is expected to take up a new role on his return in 2020.
Griggs has been called back by the government from his barely two-month-long retirement to take over from Tongue. Swapping his uniform and Vice Admiral rank slides with a civilian business suit, he will commence as the new Indigenous Affairs boss in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on October 2.
The appointment follows a Royal Australian Navy career that has spanned 40 years, the last seven of which on Australia’s Defence Committee as Chief of Navy and most recently Vice Chief of the Defence Force until his retirement in July.
Griggs, whose VCDF portfolio included Indigenous employment and outreach, told The Mandarin he was “honoured and excited to be asked to lead a dedicated, talented and committed team of people working issues of such importance to our community. I am very much looking forward to starting in the role and being able to bring my range of leadership and organisational skills to complement the team.”
While former service chiefs typically remain as government advisors long after their active service, it is rare for the government to appoint a former chief to a full time non-ceremonial role. Liz Cosson, Secretary Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and Duncan Lewis, former Secretary of the Department of Defence, both reached the rank of Major General (one rank below the service chiefs) in the Australian Army before joining the Australian Public Service full time.
From ‘dysfunctional’ to ’empowering communities’
Today’s Indigenous Affairs Group is unrecognisable from when Tongue took over from Liza Carroll, the first Associate Secretary following then self-styled ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ Tony Abbott’s restructure that brought several line agency functions into PM&C. The restructure quadrupled its staff footprint overnight.
The group has seen an 80% turnover of its management layer in the last three years — those that stayed were largely the executives who started at or have spent time in regional offices.
Researchers who studied the then newly amalgamated department found it had resorted to “dysfunctional” practices while it attempted to reconcile contradictory functions and establishing multiple sources of advice to Cabinet from within a single department.
Such blurring of lines, while detrimental at the time to Indigenous policy, did lead to much stronger understanding of the role of boundary spanners in government, and improved practices.
Tongue later addressed how they turned it around, declaring “PM&C capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time”:
“We have done a lot of work to integrate the program management and delivery functions of Indigenous Affairs into PM&C. Many people at the most basic level of our corporate services have done placements out on the ground to understand the nature of what it is like to be a government business manager or an Indigenous engagement officer out in remote Australia. Some people working in back function actually used to work in Indigenous Affairs, so we have moved some people around.
“At the level of policy, we are participating in deliberations of policymaking across government. We have a standing item with the heads of department — the secretaries have a standing item on Indigenous Affairs, so we have the opportunity to interact with all the agencies. As far as skills go, we inherited all the people working on Indigenous-specific work in all of the departments. Those people maintain their links to those departments, and we encourage that as part of our work.”
The group also brought in more senior leaders who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, including its Deputy Secretary, Professor Ian Anderson — a Palawa man, who wears an earring, ran an Aboriginal health service, and had a long successful career as an academic with the University of Melbourne.
Education, businesses key to empowerment strategy
A substantial shift in approach followed. Closing the Gap, with a rhetoric of deficit, failure and poverty, was replaced with Closing the Gap (revamped edition), with a rhetoric of strength, success and economic empowerment.
Dr Martin Parkinson, Secretary of PM&C, argued last year, on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum that led to the establishment of Commonwealth Indigenous Affairs, that they had reached an “inflection point”. In the span of one generation, healthcare went from nowhere to expected as a basic right, Indigenous infant mortality rate has more than halved, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are enrolling in university than ever before, and for university graduates from an Indigenous background, the employment gap has closed.
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The challenges that remain, Parkinson argued, appear to related not to indigeneity but simple poverty and remoteness — if so, the “may require different interventions than those which we have historically directed towards Indigenous Australia, particularly remote Australia.”
“So the task for the APS, and my Department in particular, is to differentiate between the sources of challenge and disadvantage, and to recognise the diversity in both aspiration and need across the country.
“We cannot do that with a one-size-fits-all approach, which is why working with empowered communities on place-based solutions has to be a key part of our approach.”
Beyond progress on closing the employment gap via education, the other significant success has been the Indigenous Procurement Policy. The Commonwealth now spends approximately $300 million a year on Indigenous businesses, having snowballed from $60 million some four years ago and just $6.2 million in 2012-13.
Public servants in the regional network, however, are still often occupied less by a burgeoning bourgeois, and more by how to address basic deficiencies, for example menstrual products in remote schools and communities.
The 10-year remote housing agreement has also expired, along with funding, so a stop-gap measure was introduced in the last budget to support the 21% of the Indigenous population in the Northern Territory that, due to such severely overcrowded houses in remote communities, are considered homeless.
Abbott sets his own targets
The political climate around the government’s response to the Uluru Statement, the Referendum Council and managing former prime ministers, well… one former prime minister, might be more challenging for the Indigenous Affairs group’s new boss.
Griggs will seemingly be reporting to one current Prime Minister, a Minister for Indigenous Affairs also in Cabinet, several junior ministers with overlapping jurisdiction, notably the Minister for Indigenous Health, and now the Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs.
Tony Abbott has decided to tackle poor school attendance rates in remote communities as part of his Special Envoy role, after reportedly being given “free rein” by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He aims to deliver his first report on progress before the end of the year. There are only five more sitting weeks before the end of the parliamentary year.
Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion did not respond to an invitation to discuss the shakeup in the portfolio.