PM&C-ANZSOG Conference - Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration - Can’t we do better?

PM&C-ANZSOG Conference - Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration - Can’t we do better?

Indigenous Affairs 50 years of Indigenous Affairs
Monday, 09 October 2017

Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM

Artwork: Jordan Roser

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I would like to begin by paying my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It is upon their ancestral lands that the University of Sydney is built.

I’d like to echo Professor Ken Smith’s acknowledgements, and thank the Australian and New Zealand School of Government and the University of Sydney for working with my Department to bring this ambitious conference into being.

To our international guests, from New Zealand and Canada, welcome. Greater international engagement was part of the founding philosophy of this conference so it is terrific to have you and your invaluable perspectives represented.

50 years ago, Australians returned the strongest ‘yes’ referendum vote in this country’s history.

Today, we look back on that as a pivotal moment in Australia’s reconciliation history—when the constitutional path was cleared to include Indigenous people in our national Census, and have the Commonwealth make policy in the interests of Australia’s First Peoples. 

But it’s important to remember that, in the moment, it meant so much more. It’s a common misconception that the referendum granted First Australians citizenship, and while this wasn’t the case, it speaks volumes about how people felt at the time.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders themselves, the yes vote was about being acknowledged, at long last, as human. 

Jackie Huggins, co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, was 11 at the time. She remembers the ‘shrieks of joy after the result was announced, laughter and a mass of tears.’1

She remembers her mum telling her that she would be ‘counted in the census now, along with the sheep and the cattle’ and that the vote meant they ‘would be free people at last.’2

Today, it’s incumbent upon people like us—people like me—to ask: have those hopes been fulfilled?

Half a century since the referendum, twenty-five years since the historic Mabo decision, and twenty years since the handing down of the ‘Bringing them Home’ report, what have we learnt?

And most importantly, can we do better?

I’m an economist—by no means an expert in Indigenous affairs.

But I do know that the most important thing a leader can do, in this policy area more than most, is to listen.

Which is why, since taking up the role of head of the agency responsible for improving the lives and wellbeing of Australia’s First Peoples, I’ve done just that. I’ve listened. 

And over that period of listening I’ve made three observations.

First, I’m struck by how often the discussion is framed in terms of deficit and failure, not strength and success.

Second, it puzzles me that so little distinction seems to be drawn between different communities, even different individuals, when we consider the aspirations and needs of Indigenous Australians.

And third, how Indigenous Affairs is still too often seen through a social welfare lens, rather than an economic empowerment one.

But here’s a point I made in my AIATSIS Wentworth Lecture two weeks ago, and one I don’t think gets nearly enough air time—contrary to the deficit mindset, the overwhelming legacy of ’67 is better opportunities, and better outcomes for First Australians.

Look at health: within the last two decades, the Indigenous infant mortality rate has more than halved.

Or education: more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are enrolling in university than ever before—around 18,000 at last count, and around two-thirds of them women.

Or employment: for university graduates from an Indigenous background, the employment gap has closed.

None of this is to downplay the challenge faced by Indigenous Australians.

But I believe, as Dr Chris Sarra says, we need to do more to ‘acknowledge hope not despair,’ 3 and as public servants, that means both building our capacity to understand our successes better, and to have the courage to pinpoint what we’re not doing well and why.

The challenges remaining in Indigenous Affairs are not intractable—it’s just that they may require different approaches than those we have historically used.

My feeling is that this will mean less reliance on technical solutions, more focus on meaningful collaboration, and a greater appreciation of the diversity of Indigenous experience, and Indigenous systems of knowledge.

Dr Martin Nakata says we need to move our work into the ‘cultural interface’4—the place where different knowledge systems intersect.

This isn’t always a comfortable place to be. But we need to go there if we want make genuine transformation possible.

Another focus for this conference is the impact of the structure of our policy institutions themselves.

The fact that the Australian machinery of government in Indigenous Affairs has undergone 11 different iterations in just 50 years says to me that our approach has always been quite reactive, and that’s been at the expense of consistency, and good relationships.

I think our current centralised structure within PM&C has been very effective in lifting program efficiency; however, I’d like to see us step further into the space where policy leadership happens—evolve into a trusted knowledge base, and a centre for policy expertise. 

There has never been one central institution whose mandate is to lead informed and constructive debate on the public administration of Indigenous Affairs.

Yet as policymakers and academics, our goal is a common one—improving the lives of Australians.

Our objective for this conference is simple: to forge deeper and more immediate links between the policy and program work happening on the ground, and the people who have the institutional and research expertise to guide it.

Already, we’ve seen great progress.

Just this afternoon, PM&C facilitated a roundtable of Indigenous pro-vice chancellors and senior administrators from across the university sector.  

I believe this is something of a first, and I look forward to running this kind of discussion more often: because, firstly, it builds a strong and robust relationship with scholars; and, secondly, it encourages movement between the two institutions to the benefit of both.

It’s universities that will need to attract and develop the next generation of Australians interested in public service—especially in the field of Indigenous affairs.

Over coming months, we’ll be putting Indigenous public administration in the spotlight: with roundtables of public servants across all jurisdictions; special reports in the Australian Journal of Public Administration and the Griffith Review; learning case studies with ANSZOG; and a standalone publication reviewing public administration structures over the last 50 years.

It goes back to what I said about listening. Only if we listen will we truly be able to lead, and embed greater collaboration into the fabric of public administration in the future.

Perhaps the most salient lesson we can take from ’67 is that we must continually raise our expectations—of the Indigenous communities we serve, and of ourselves as public servants.   

Do we need to do more to analyse the gap between technical and adaptive policy solutions?

Do we have the right blend of people and skills to properly listen, and feel comfortable in spaces we haven’t been before?

Do we use data to its full potential, and look beyond our own frames of reference often enough?

Possibly not. But can we do better?

I really believe we can.

One final observation from me—while there have been failures, Indigenous Affairs policy has been driven by good people over the last 50 years, all highly skilled, and all committed to the same end goal.

The next 50 years will be driven by good people too.

Getting it right for groups whose voices are not always the loudest is one of the most important roles the public service can play to support and strengthen a democracy.

Thank you for your commitment to this ideal, and I very much look forward to being part of the discussion tonight.



1. Huggins, Jackie. The 1967 Referendum Four Decades Later [online]. Sydney Papers, The, Vol. 19, No. 3, Winter 2007: iv-9.;dn=018067703143485;res=IELAPA

2. Huggins, Jackie. The 1967 Referendum Four Decades Later [online]. Sydney Papers, The, Vol. 19, No. 3, Winter 2007: iv-9.;dn=018067703143485;res=IELAPA

4. McGloin, Colleen, Considering the work of Martin Nakata’s “Cultural Interface”, Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 2009,