Wentworth Lecture Full Transcript - The promise of 1967: Commonwealth Public Administration of Indigenous Affairs 50 years on

Wentworth Lecture Full Transcript - The promise of 1967: Commonwealth Public Administration of Indigenous Affairs 50 years on

PM&C Indigenous Affairs 50 years of Indigenous Affairs
Thursday, 28 September 2017

Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM

Image of Dr Martin Parkinson delivering the 2017 Wentworth Lecture

Check against Delivery

I would like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we gather today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.

I would also like to acknowledge:

  • The Elders in the room
  • The Chair of AIATSIS, Professor Michael McDaniel, CEO Craig Ritchie, Deputy CEO Letitia Hope and, Craig’s predecessor, Russ Taylor
  • And you, the broader AIATSIS community.

It is with considerable humility that I stand here today, feeling somewhat of an imposter amongst the impressive alumni of Wentworth Lecturers. It’s a roll call of names synonymous with the pursuit of Indigenous rights and reconciliation in Australia—Davis, Kirby, French, Tonkinson, Mulvaney, Langton, and Dodson among them.

So while I address you today as someone who is both now a participant, but has primarily been an observer of Indigenous policy, and clearly not as someone who has spent my career observing and writing on Indigenous history, culture and thought. I hope you’ll take my comments as an honest attempt to describe the situation as I see it.

First and foremost, I’m an economist; someone who has spent most of their working life poring over economic data at the Australian Treasury and the IMF.

Observations of a newcomer

So what do I see when I look at the landscape of Indigenous Affairs, at both the historical and current policy debates, and the challenges going forward?

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 historically, and even today in some quarters, Indigenous Affairs is seen through a social welfare lens, rather than an economic empowerment one.

Perhaps it is because I’m an economist that my policy brain is conditioned to want to get the framework and the fundamentals right, knowing that the pursuit of economic empowerment can never be separated from the social and cultural dimensions of people’s lives.

It’s economic empowerment that gives people the freedom to live lives they value.

To draw an analogy, no country in the history of humanity ever lifted itself from poverty by the receipt of aid—aid can help at the margin, but ultimately all success comes on the back of economic growth. So why would we expect economic, social and cultural health for Indigenous Australia to come solely through welfare?

As head of the APS, and head of the agency responsible for improving the lives and wellbeing of Australia’s First Peoples, I’ve had cause to reflect on these issues a lot over the last year and a half, and I will keep coming back to these observations throughout the course of today’s discussion.

I’d like to build my remarks around two primary points, both of which stem from the success of the 1967 Referendum—which Bill Wentworth played a pivotal part.

Firstly, I’ll delve into the challenges posed by the way the APS has traditionally operated, asking whether the public service itself needs a deeper capacity to address the underlying causes of disadvantage if we’re to address the challenges that remain.

And secondly, I’ll discuss the legacy of the inclusion of Indigenous Australians in the National Census—and that’s data.

The results of the 1967 Referendum have been especially front-of-mind this year, as we’ve looked back on some remarkable moments in Australia’s reconciliation history.

It is 20 years since the handing down of the ‘Bringing them Home’ report.

Twenty-five years since the historic Mabo decision.

And half a century since the 1967 Referendum ‘yes’ vote, which, in the words of Senator Pat Dodson, was the point at which this country ‘awoke from almost two centuries of sleep.’

Back in May, I had the great privilege of sitting in the House of Representatives chamber alongside many of the original ’67 campaigners and their families to hear the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition reflect on that moment 50 years ago.

It was indescribably moving to feel the emotion of the guests around me as they heard their history honoured. I marvelled then, as I still do now, at their resilience, endurance and humility.

Later that same day I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with other stalwarts of that campaign—Dr Gordon Briscoe, Dr Robert Anderson, Eileen Perkins, Dr Barry Pittock and others.

And still later that week I watched the film of Sir Doug Nicholls taking his fold-up card table and camp chair to sit in the street and patiently explain to all who would listen why a ‘Yes’ vote was so important.

These Australians fought persistently for truth and justice, and their tireless demonstration of what Jackie Huggins has called ‘courage for good’ was finally rewarded with definitive and permanent Constitutional change.

What have we learnt in 50 years?

So the question people like me must address today is this: how far have we taken this change?

What have we learnt, half a century down the path of Commonwealth public administration of Indigenous Affairs?

Contrary to the deficit mindset, it is clear that legal and statistical recognition has broadly translated into better opportunities, and better outcomes, for First Australians.

Deputy Secretary in my department, Professor Ian Anderson, a Palawa man, has shared some heartbreaking stories of Aboriginal people who, as late as the 1960s, struggled for basic healthcare against prevailing attitudes of the day.

While many challenges in accessing healthcare remain, Ian’s generation have come to expect healthcare as a basic right.

Within the last two decades, the Indigenous mortality rate from circulatory disease—the leading cause of Indigenous deaths—declined by 43 per cent. Within the same period, the Indigenous infant mortality rate has more than halved.

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. For university graduates from an Indigenous background, the employment gap has closed.

It is worth reflecting on that—the employment gap has closed through the traditional route of building human capital via education.

None of this is to downplay the challenge faced by Indigenous Australians as a group. But I believe we’re now at an ‘inflection point’, looking back on some successes, but looking ahead to some continuing challenges, the solutions to which are decidedly less clear.

This takes me back to the second of my three observations, which is essentially the need for a more nuanced analysis of the challenges facing Indigenous Australians.

At times, I find myself puzzling over whether it’s intellectual sloppiness or some subtle form of discrimination that means we hardly ever seem to ask questions that should come naturally to economists.

For example, where is the analysis of whether Indigenous disadvantage in a place like, say, Western Sydney reflects indigeneity or simple poverty? Does disadvantage in some places simply reflect remoteness?

Yes, poverty experienced by Indigenous people is inescapably contextual; informed by a unique set of social and historical dimensions.

But my sense is that in parts of our country, people are disadvantaged because they’re poor, not because they’re Indigenous.

If that’s right—and I’d love to see evidence either for or against the hypothesis—it’s another reason not to despair.

We have to carefully understand, between these social processes, how best to realise economic opportunities. But we know the things that keep people locked into poverty, and we know how to help people exit the cycle.

So it is not as if the challenges are unknown or intractable—they 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.

But at the same time, as Nugget Coombs recognised 50 years ago, the policies aimed at Indigenous Australia must ultimately be mainstreamed, and all agencies—not just Aboriginal Affairs—should be well equipped to develop policy alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I agree, but let me be clear, this is not an argument to go back to the old approach of decentralising support for Indigenous Australia across many departments in such small amounts that it becomes an afterthought.

Getting the balance right is a major challenge for the APS, and, while in essence, Coombs’ view has stood the test of time, the manner in which it has been applied has rested on perpetually shifting sands.

In 50 years, Commonwealth administration of Indigenous Affairs has cycled through 21 different ministers, and 11 different structures under them.

Ten of the 11 structures have occurred in the last 30 years.

This pace of change places us out of step with other Westminster style democracies like Canada, where changes to the machinery are far less common.

And the constant churn has presented, in economic terms, opportunity costs—including impact on the transfer of knowledge and capability from one generation of public servants to the next.

Relationships of trust and good faith can take many years to build, and are often anchored to the commitment of a particular community and particular public servants.

These relationships risk becoming collateral damage in a culture of constant movement.

My takeout here is that any future Government considering a machinery of government change of Indigenous Affairs needs to be confident that it will result in better outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

And we need to constantly remind departments of their responsibilities to mainstream service delivery in ways that make it accessible for all groups in our country, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Our current centralised structure has, in my view, lifted the efficiency of the way in which we service Indigenous Australians. Whether it has lifted the effectiveness of our engagement is something I would like to reflect on next.

Adaptive vs Technical leadership

It may sound like an abstract issue, but it goes to the heart of the skills we need in our public servants—and that is our repeated preference for a certain type of policymaking in Indigenous Affairs, one which places most of its focus on technical solutions.

What I mean by ‘technical’ is policy informed by a straightforward relationship between input and output; Government pulls this lever over here, and the outcomes improve over there.

Australia has an enviable reputation when it comes to this kind of policymaking.

The marked morbidity and mortality improvements we’ve seen in the NT are great examples.

As is the Indigenous Procurement Policy, which adjusted the Commonwealth Procurement Rules to send a proportion of Government’s multi-million annual procurement spend towards Indigenous goods and services.

In the first two years of the policy, total Commonwealth procurement from Indigenous businesses rose well over $500 million—and an astonishing 46-fold year-on-year increase from before the scheme was introduced.

But not all policy problems are so amenable to technical solutions as these have been.

Fifty years on from when Prime Minister Holt’s Council of Aboriginal Affairs first turned their collective mind to these issues, I wonder whether the policy successes we’ve achieved—in health, higher education, the extension of land rights, support for Indigenous businesses—are concentrated in those that lend themselves to these technical, instrumental responses. 

We haven’t made anywhere near as much headway in addressing intergenerational disadvantage, trauma and despair, and their impact on health, wealth and participation.

In our attempt to forge ahead with dependable technical responses, I wonder whether we’ve missed the obvious: that the underlying complexities in Indigenous Affairs require transformation in our own practice, and of our own leadership.

The challenge we face, therefore, is an adaptive one. Adaptive in the sense that it will require constant revision and reflection, and an ongoing reassessment of the way we have typically gone about addressing difficult problems in the past.

As I mentioned in my Dungala Kaiela Oration last year, if we are truly to do things ‘with’ and not ‘to’ communities we need relationships of trust; we need to ‘let go’. By that I don’t mean handballing the problem and sitting back to observe success or failure, but truly participating with communities in developing shared approaches to agreed problems.

But for that to succeed, I think we also have to shift our mindset in another way—as Chris Sarra has said, we’ve never really pursued policies predicated on high expectations of Indigenous Australians. Indeed, I personally think part of the default to the social welfare lens is a reflection of low expectations.

I would therefore like to see an APS that not only engages with communities as equals, but which has high expectations of what the communities can do, matched by community’s high expectations of us.

Data is gold

Both Indigenous communities and public servants will require a much more sophisticated engagement with data if we are to work effectively together, which is the second issue flowing from the Referendum that I’d like to discuss tonight.

As Indigenous rights campaigner the late Chicka Dixon said of pre-’67 times, ‘the government counted everything. They counted the cattle, the cars, the TVs, but they didn’t count us. It’s like we were invisible’.

For the first time, the referendum gave Indigenous Australians statistical visibility.

Over the decades since, the ABS has built a clear picture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives and experience.

Today we have access to one of the most developed data collection systems in the world.

In part due to Closing the Gap, we have also seen significant improvements in the standardization of data collection over the past ten years.

A clear example of this is the collection of Indigenous status across Commonwealth and state and territory surveys, and administrative datasets such as the Census, Medicare, hospitals, and perinatal data.

Yet while there are pockets of good practice, especially in health, many gaps remain.

One of them is employment. Despite the fact that employment is a Closing the Gap priority, we still do not collect annual employment data for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Governments also hold extensive longitudinal administrative datasets of which we currently make very little use.

Data is gold in policy development and implementation. Careful use of administrative data can help us better understand the pathways for individuals and families who are vulnerable to persistent or intergenerational disadvantage—it allows us to track what happens to individuals and cohorts over time.

But it’s not enough to simply collect data, we also have more work to do in how we ‘democratise’ its use, getting it into the hands of the people who make the decisions on the ground.

Professor Maggie Walter from the University of Tasmania talks about the idea that statistics are inescapably ‘human artefacts’ with ‘configurations and meanings…drawn from the dominant social norms and the values…of the hierarchy of the society in which they are created.’

She gives a practical example to explain this. If you Google the search term, ‘Indigenous statistics’, what you get falls under what Professor Walter calls the ‘five Ds’—data on disparity, deprivation, disadvantage, dysfunction and difference—the deficit mindset at work yet again.

If you’re after Indigenous-specific data on any social trend that doesn’t fall within those five categories, you’ll have a hard time finding it.

The fact that the division of domestic labour is much more egalitarian in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households than in non-Indigenous households, for example, is very interesting, yet it doesn’t fall into the current ‘statistical terrain,’ so it and great data like it, are buried.

It’s hard to ignore the untapped opportunity here. There is so much scope to understand our data better; use it to paint a more nuanced picture of Indigenous life and challenges; tailor our policy and program responses to place and demography; and most crucially, to move away from a broad-brushstroke disadvantage lens.

There’s also scope to move past the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ‘stakeholders’ to be ‘consulted’ in development of data strategy—if our approach is going to be genuinely place-based, we need to build data capability into Indigenous leadership.

As part of our refresh of Closing the Gap, we’re looking at how First Australians can be fully engaged in the development, design and delivery of higher quality, granular data, and we're keen to encourage a much richer use of regional-level data to inform decision-making at the local level.

We’ll take our cues from projects like the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children, which, since 2008, has engaged local Indigenous interviewers to undertake data collection themselves.

This approach is a significant departure from the way we’ve developed policy in the past—it recognises that government does not have all the answers, and even when we do have answers, we have no way of assessing their veracity.

It’s the approach we’re starting to take with Empowered Communities and the Murdi Paaki region in New South Wales: giving local leaders local data as a platform for assessing priorities, and making investment decisions themselves.   

Without devolving analysis of that data to the people who need to make decisions on the ground, and moving away from our reliance on technical solutions, we will simply not make progress in Indigenous Affairs at the rate our community expects.


The challenge for the next 50 years, therefore, requires a genuine commitment to learning new ways and forging deeper relationships.

It also means being prepared to scrutinise ourselves, and the values and assumptions that inform our practice as public servants.

When Mick Dodson gave this talk over two decades ago, he lamented that ‘Indigenous peoples [had] rarely come into a genuine relationship with non-Indigenous peoples. Because a relationship requires two, not just one and its mirror.’

We need to step outside of our habits, assumptions and institutional norms, and closer to what Martin Nakata calls the cultural interface—the place where different knowledge systems intersect.

This isn’t necessarily a comfortable place to be.

But it is one we need to enter if we are to truly succeed in ensuring Indigenous Australians have the same opportunities, the same economic empowerment, and the same cultural and social health of the rest of our community.

As such, it is too important to not embrace this challenge.

Thank you.


My sincere thanks to Andrew Tongue, Ian Anderson, Michelle Patterson, Elizabeth Beyer and Frances Cruickshank for their invaluable support in preparing these remarks.