New directions for Indigenous policy

By Harley Dennett

Wednesday September 26, 2018

Not just a leadership shakeup, the Prime Minister’s department is also embracing a rethink of the fundamentals of public administration in Indigenous Affairs — by listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

On the heels of the government appointing a new Associate Secretary for Indigenous Affairs comes the announcement that a gathering of Indigenous leaders, academics and public servants will set new directions for Indigenous policy.

Modelled on last year’s Can’t We Do Better?” conference, the new gathering, “Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms” will be held in Melbourne on February 20-21, 2019 under the auspices of ANZSOG and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Professor Ian Anderson, PM&C’s Deputy Secretary of Indigenous Affairs, is undertaking a major review of the Close the Gap targets, with an emphasis on making them more nuanced. The government also wants more focus on the strengths of Indigenous communities.

“There is a need to open up to public discussion a critical and informed look at the fundamentals of public administration. This is the ambition of this forum,” Anderson said.

Achieve their own aspirations

The 2017 forum, held at University of Sydney, coincided with the 50th anniversary of public administration of Indigenous affairs since the 1967 referendum and asked the question, Can’t we do better? It was a confronting and challenging debate, highlighted by contributions like one business owner’s concerns that good intentions often repeated past missteps, but it was the people on the ground who felt the impact:

“Your ‘good idea’ is something that was done 20 years ago and I experienced the pain of that — How do we get in before you get your ‘good idea’, get in on the ground?”

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Professor Ken Smith said the 2019 conference would build on the success of the inaugural conference, and provide another opportunity to connect key players in Indigenous policy.

“There is a genuine desire for change among public services”

“The 2019 conference will look forward to what could happen over the next 50 years, and ask: what needs to change for public administration in Australia to live up to its responsibility to meet the aspirations of First Peoples?” Smith said.

“The conference will also look at the relations between the New Zealand government and Māori people, what Australia can learn from the New Zealand experience, and how we can build stronger links between the two nations’ First Peoples.

“Australia and New Zealand cannot stand tall as nations until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Māori people can fully reach their potential and achieve their own aspirations.

“Public services will play a key role in facilitating this. Improving outcomes for Indigenous people must be a priority for all our public services.

“There are no quick fixes to these issues, but there is a genuine desire for change among public services, and we hope that the conference will assist public sector leaders to make positive changes to the way they deal with Indigenous issues.”

Caught between two worlds

A challenge raised at the last gathering was the churn of administrators, including those with an Indigenous heritage, while the community they serve remain to break in a new set of administrators. This was acknowledged by one of PM&C’s representatives, Joy Savage, a Kandju woman from Cape York, with continuing historical family ties to Yarrabah.

“…that is the tension between Indigenous leadership, ones that know the history, know and have experienced the pain and non-Indigenous leadership, acquires knowledge, understanding, shares their time, professional and personal in this space, creates relationships, however in many instances moves on.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing as those who have experienced the space, have formed relationships, have grown their understanding, take this experience into other areas of public policy and can continue to make a difference – it could be considered an important multiplier effect for broader public policy change.”

Stepping into that role herself, Savage left the APS earlier this year to become executive director of the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service.

The road for Indigenous public servants is both different and often more difficult, she noted. “While we all work for the government of the day, there are extra expectations on Indigenous people within the Service, as there should be, to make a positive difference, and this brings with it another dimension of accountability on engagement.”

Critical mass of Indigenous public servants has been elusive, with previous decisions frequently leading to talented people leaving the sector without commensurate people joining.

Inside the bureaucracy senior leaders have argued for adaptive leadership, greater co-creation and building of institutional knowledge systems and practices that take the best of the experience to date — as opposed to more experimentation.

If the last gathering was a wake-up call, particularly from the Indigenous representatives from across Australia, then the next gathering is about what needs to change to address the pain points in public administration, including specific policy areas like justice, education, health and the arts. The conference will also cover the role of self-determination in future government-First Peoples relations, and how Indigenous knowledge and practice in public administration and public sector leadership can be developed.

Melbourne University’s Professor Marcia Langton, head of the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Dr. Chris Sarra, and Professor Glyn Davis, a member of the Australian Public Service review panel will be among the presenters.

READ MORE ON THIS TOPIC:
Indigenous public servants’ challenges and strengths
‘What kind of Aboriginal is right for you?’
Indigenous dilemma: words are not enough
Democratising Indigenous data

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