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Bill Gray


Submission to the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service (APS)

Fred Chaney AO and Bill Gray AM

Our submission seeks to address some of the issues referred to in the Scope of Review which we see as directly relevant to the administration of Indigenous Affairs. They are:

  • Delivering high quality policy advice, regulatory oversight, programs and services.
  • Tackling complex, multi-sectoral challenges in collaboration with the community, business and citizens
  • Improving citizens’ experience of government and delivering fair outcomes for them
  • Acquiring and maintaining the necessary skills and expertise to fulfil its responsibilities

In putting forward our submission we want to draw attention to that sector of the APS which deals with the administration of Indigenous Affairs. This is an area of public administration which we believe is in urgent need of attention and reform if the Government’s stated policy approach is to be delivered and the legitimate needs of Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in remote Australia, are to be properly met.

Our views are based on a lifetime of working with indigenous communities and organisations since the early 1960’s and from the perspective of one of us having been a Minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs and the other as the last Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) and the founding CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC). We have both, since leaving the Parliament and the APS, continued working directly with a range of Aboriginal communities and organisations in their dealings with Governments and Industry. We have also had frequent contact with officers of PM&C in Canberra and in some regional locations over 2014-18.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) carries primary responsibility for the administration of Indigenous Affairs. This follows the decision by the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in 2014, and continued by the present Prime Minister, Malcom Turnbull, to initiate new arrangements in Indigenous Affairs with the introduction of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) in which the number of programmes in Indigenous Affairs were consolidated from 150 to 5 major programmes.

At the time the IAS was launched, it was stated that the IAS programmes would be implemented through the Remote Community Network in PM&C which would work with communities to produce long term transformational change and that communities would have opportunities to contribute to the design and delivery of local solutions to local issues. This involvement is the only way to ensure that people in the communities, who are necessarily the prime actors in achieving change, are engaged rather than alienated.

We would assert that these objectives, with which we generally agree, have not been met and are unlikely to be attained without a significant reform of the way in which PM&C is structured to administer this area of public policy. We also believe that major reform is unlikely in the absence of Prime Ministerial authority and direction. (see attached paper on this point and for examples of poor policy and administration.)

We suggest that there are some immediate steps that need to be taken if the original objective of transforming the administration of Indigenous Affairs is to be achieved.

Need for change

As a first step, it will be necessary for the Government and PM&C to recognise the need for change. The gap between Government policy rhetoric and practice is now a chasm requiring immediate attention. We are not alone in holding that view. The Dean of the Australian and New Zealand School of Government, Professor Ken Smith, stated recently:

“It is difficult for government and those of us in the public sector to acknowledge that we do not have the policy answers. We do not know best. The public policy challenge in Indigenous Affairs is immense, and a substantive rethink of our assumptions and approaches is necessary. It is vital that we acknowledge this. Only by recognizing our failings can we open ourselves to a new way.”

The painfully slow progress on “closing the gaps” has been documented so frequently as an area of policy failure it does not need to be documented further by us. However we emphasise that the effect of policy and administrative failure in this area has resulted in increased poverty and dysfunction. This is not bloodless, with severe impacts on vulnerable people.


Policy making in this area is inhibited by lack of knowledge, expertise and field experience as well as a failure to define key policy objectives such as the future of remote communities. Government actions suggest a lack of interest in maintaining functional remote communities, yet there is no policy for successful resettlement of those driven by failed policies to the nearby towns and who, as a result, subsist miserably as fringe dwellers.

There needs to be a clear statement as to the policy intentions of the Commonwealth in respect of Indigenous communities in remote Australia. Communities in remote Australia find the lack of any well considered, rational and workable remote community policy, which has the endorsement of the Commonwealth and the communities involved, destructive and a source of ongoing frustration and despair. Rather than achieving any sense of coherence and predictability in this field of public policy and administration, communities are subject to random Government and Ministerial decision making and the lack of coordinated approaches within and between governments. The absence of any clear policy statement or proposal begs the question as to what does the Commonwealth see to be the future of remote communities and what part, if any, will it play in that future?


The recent statement by the Australian Productivity Commission is relevant:

“To move beyond rhetoric on community engagement and involvement, governments should shift the balance away from centralised decision making toward greater regional capacity and authority. To do this governments should give local staff more authority over local planning, engagement and service implementation. Governments would need to support this transition by authorising, resourcing and building the capacity and capability of staff working on the ground.”

To move beyond that rhetoric, changes need to be considered at two levels, systemic changes requiring political authorization such as changes to accountability provisions and delegations of authority and those that can be implemented internally by the APS such as better training.

The stated intention of moving from a centralised administrative model to a more regional and localised model within PM&C to facilitate subsidiarity, carries with it the necessity to develop and deploy personnel with high order skills and knowledge capable of implementing place-based policies.

There is an urgent need for specialist training for those personnel who are located within PM&C regional offices and officials dealing directly with Indigenous communities. The loss of experienced field operatives from within the executive of PM&C over the past 4 years has compounded the lack of experience and skills that are in need of development within the department. Some long serving officers have these skills but generally they lack the requisite delegations and authority that would enable them to develop and implement locally relevant policies and solutions.

The place-based approach requires a long term shared commitment between the community, governments and other stakeholders. It needs recognition of the value of local knowledge and the primacy of social relationships. It requires actual, not just rhetorical respect for a culture so different from that of the majority of Australians. It requires experience and skills that are not ordinarily found in the more generalist managerial levels of the APS.

Where the needed skills are available or acquired they are useless unless there is an appropriate accountability and delegation framework that authorises officers to make locally relevant decisions.


Subsidiarity also necessitates the granting of authority and delegations to those operating at the regional and local levels. From our observations, confirmed by PM&C Regional Network personnel, there is insufficient authority and delegation given to regional and local office holders to enable them to engage with any confidence or authority with local communities, regional bodies or other government agencies, that allow for the implementation of place-based policies. This is despite their duty statements requiring them to be the lead Commonwealth agency at a regional and local level in dealings with Indigenous communities and other Commonwealth agencies delivering services to Indigenous communities.


PM&C has developed a reputation for being a centralised and elitist body in its approach to advising both the Prime Minister and his Minister for Indigenous Affairs on Indigenous matters. Officials operating at the regional and ground level within PM&C are largely excluded from the processes of preparing and authenticating the information that is forwarded for the PM’s consideration. In this regard it is interesting to note the comments of the current Secretary, Dr. Martin Parkinson:

“For some reason, many of us involved in the design of new policies think that the work we are doing is somehow harder or more intellectually challenging than the work of those operating at the coal face; the people ensuring that policies actually deliver outcomes that they were intended to achieve on the ground. As a result, there is a tendency to either not seek input of those with implementation expertise or, perhaps even worse, to ignore this input when it is provided.”

Many officials within PM&C and other relevant departments, share a real desire to make the kind of changes that would facilitate a more place-based approach to the administration of Indigenous Affairs. They support the stated intentions of government to implement place-based approaches and empowering communities. However, the difficulty that they face is a lack of political authorisation and an absence of appropriate administrative, financial and legal frameworks that would enable them to make the necessary changes.

It is instructive to see how the current Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, approaches the question of decision making within his portfolio. In responding to demands for a national voice he described his current centralizing role in stark terms. He said a voice to parliament was “all fluff” compared with the power his job holds.

“It’s my job, mate. It’s my job” he told Sky News. “I have the money and I have the capacity, not me, but the job has the capacity to allocate funds, to create policy, to create change and to do stuff.... Now if you don’t have that you’re just fluffing around the edges. You don’t want a voice to parliament, you don’t want a third chamber...it is nothing next to the decision-making, the policymaking, that comes with my office.”

Given the Prime Minister’s publicly stated endorsement of those principles that underpin the empowerment of communities and the establishment of a place-based framework, centralised decision making on policy and administration may not be what the Government would admit to, but it is what the Government does


If change is to occur, it will be necessary for the Prime Minister himself to authorise and direct his Secretary to develop and implement the systemic changes so desperately needed. These changes are in line with changes announced by the Government in 2014.

Unless and until the Prime Minister and his Minister for Indigenous Affairs authorise the structural and institutional changes that will be necessary to deliver on the rhetoric of empowering Indigenous communities, the current gap between rhetoric and practice will widen. Public servants delivering government policy can only do so within their properly authorised legal, financial and accountability frameworks. These frameworks will need to be changed if the government’s words are to be anything more than undeliverable rhetoric. Reform will require clear and strong direction from the political level.

An additional structural matter that needs examination by the Review arises from the decision to locate Indigenous Affairs within PM&C. The Indigenous Affairs Group (IAG) within PM&C is headed by an Associate Secretary. That group is responsible to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs for the design and implementation of policies funded by appropriation to PM&C.

Placing Indigenous Affairs within PM&C means that the Department has conflicting roles as a deliverer of policy and services, and as adviser to the PM on whole of government operations. If, as we believe, policy and delivery are deficient, how can PM&C fulfill its role of advising the PM on whether there are deficiencies in this area of administration needing the attention of the PM as head of government?

PM&C, as a principle adviser to the PM, should not be placed in a position where advice he should receive from the senior executive of his department may have to be critical of that part of its own administration lead by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

A New Agency.

We believe that the APS Review should consider the establishment of a separate and autonomous Executive Agency, which could be located within the PM’s portfolio. This agency would have as its primary objective the implementation of policies and programmes determined by the government in negotiation with Indigenous communities and organisations across remote Australia. We would see such an agency being populated by professional and trained officials, both indigenous and non-Indigenous, with capacity and capabilities directed to the negotiation and delivery of service agreements and partnerships made at the regional and local levels of remote Australia. The existing Regional Network of PM&C could form the basis of the agency with an expectation that the number of regions (currently 12) could be expanded to a number which might better reflect the needs and diversity of Indigenous communities across remote Australia.

The proposed agency would develop the skills and capacity and be given the necessary authority and delegations to engage with Indigenous communities, organisations, government agencies and other stakeholders to ensure that the empowerment of communities is not just a set of aspirational ideals but is translated into positive and practical action on the ground. The agency would, in time, increase its capacities and be recognised for its professionalism, accumulated experience, skills and responsiveness in its engagement with Indigenous communities. It would enable the Commonwealth to come to the negotiating table with indigenous communities and organisations based on a more informed and practical understanding of the local aspirations and dynamics of those groups with which it engaged. This in turn would enable positive relationships to be established and partnerships to be formed.


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The Govenor’s Oration.
Fred Chaney
27 June 2018

Can the world’s oldest living cultures survive the impact of

dysfunctional government?"

A summary: What are correctly described as the world’s oldest living

cultures are a precious part of what makes Australia. These cultures in all

their diversity can be found across the whole country, in remote and rural

areas and in all our cities. What this talk is primarily concerned with is

the minority of Aboriginal Australians who live in remote Australia in

hundreds of settlements on country from which they have never moved.
These communities are the repositories of the songs and stories that

record their land focused cultures. They sustain distinctive Indigenous

communities and are the main occupants of many remote regions. For the

last five Parliaments, despite government rhetoric to the contrary, they

have been subjected to top down government knows best policies and

administration that has reduced Aboriginal agency, used punishment and

the removal of sustaining programs to achieve government ends, removed

the base of local administration and encouraged dysfunction. The results

of continuity of poor policy and administration under Howard Rudd

Gillard Abbott and now Turnbull are evident in the available statistics

about remote communities. Without systemic reform of policy and

administration we will continue to strangle the world’s oldest living

cultures in those places where it survives in its most original form. What

can we to do about it?

I shouldn’t need to argue the case about the cultural value and importance

of remote communities. Talk of Australia having the world’s oldest living

cultures is so frequent in the mouths of politicians it is a national cliché.

As an example, when the Prime Minister delivered the compulsory

closing the gap speech to Parliament in 2016 he said:

“For more than 40,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

people have cared for this country. Theirs are the oldest continuing

cultures on earth. Our nation is as old as humanity itself. The stories of

the Dreamtime, the rock carvings on the Burrup Peninsula, these speak to

us from thousands of years, so far away, time out of mind, linked by the

imagination, the humanity of our first Australians.”

In that same speech he also said, and this goes to the core of what I am

talking about tonight:

“Yet we have not always shown you, our First Australians, the respect

you deserve. But despite the injustices and the trauma, you and your

families have shown the greatest tenacity and resilience.”

The Prime Minister is acknowledging two important things here, they, the

Indigenous people, survived despite us, yet we have not shown them the

respect they deserve.

In August last year at the great festival of Yolngu culture at Garma on the

Gove Peninsular he said:

“I am filled with optimism about our future together as a reconciled


Last month scientists and researchers revealed new evidence that our

First Australians have been here in this land for 65,000 years.”

And after enthusiastically describing other evidence of this deep and

continuing culture he went on:

“Importantly, they confirm what Aboriginal people have always known

and we have known - that your connection, your intimate connection to

the land and sea are deep, abiding, ancient, and yet modern.

This news is a point of great pride for our nation. We rejoice in it, as we

celebrate your Indigenous cultures and heritage as our culture and

heritage - uniquely Australian.”

If we read that and the many similar statements of our political leaders,
we might think that given their pride in Aboriginal culture and their

affirmations of reconciliation all is well. But that is not the truth.

The views of the great cultural and political leader of the Gumatj Clan of

the Yolngu people, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, suggest a different truth. In a

long essay in the Monthly in July 2016 that repays frequent reading he


“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the

sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let

us breath, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to

make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise

us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are–
Aboriginal people in the modern world–and be proud of us. Acknowledge

that we have survived the worst that the past has thrown at us, we’re here

with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people–
our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to

accept us in a meaningful way.”

And in the same essay he said:

“All the Prime Ministers I have known have been friendly to me, but I

mark them all hard. None of them has done what I asked or delivered

what they promised. I asked each one to be truthful and to honestly

recognise the truth of history, and to reconcile the truth in a way that

finds unity in the future. But they are who they are and were not able or

not permitted to complete their task.”

Galarrwuy speaks the truth of our present circumstance. Remote

communities are being strangled and are losing ground.

In 2014, I delivered the 11th ANU Reconciliation Lecture, which I

entitled “Is Australia Big Enough for Reconciliation?” I repeat what I

said then.

“There is much in Australia today to suggest that we are not very

interested in allowing room for Indigenous cultures to continue to be part

of our national fabric. Whatever lip service we offer the world’s oldest

living cultures, the clear message from our actions is that our main

concern is to bring Indigenous individuals into full enjoyment of their

rights and duties as Australian citizens. There is no clear message that

we understand and value these cultures as part of our nation. There is no

indication from our actions that we will preserve sufficient space for the

Yolngu, the Nyungar and so on to retain collective identities and

distinctive cultural spaces. In the case of remote communities that still

observe practices close to those of pre-settlement cultures, the policies of

successive governments seem designed to strangle them.”

Regrettably, four years on, what some saw to be my somewhat

pessimistic view has been vindicated.

Change has been promised but not delivered. What the last two Prime

Ministers have offered is regionalisation of administration and

simplification of programs, to work with Aboriginal people rather than

doing things to them. That would be a respectful and effective approach.

Government rhetoric is replete with references to empowerment, regional

and place-based approaches, direct negotiation with Indigenous

communities, partnerships and a host of emerging techniques that

recognise the importance of the community as the primary driver of


What we actually have, however, is ever increasing centralisation of top

down command and control type decision making rather than a

decentralised and regional approach which provides for place-based

decision making in partnership with local communities.

The current Minister, Nigel Scullion, at Barunga just a fortnight ago in

responding to demands for a national voice described his current

centralising role in stark terms. He said a voice to parliament was “all

fluff” compared with the power his job holds.

“It’s my job, mate. It’s my job,” he told Sky News. “I have the money

and I have the capacity, not me, but the job has the capacity to allocate

funds, to create policy, to create change and to do stuff … Now if you

don’t have that you’re just fluffing around the edges. You don’t want a

voice to parliament, you don’t want a third chamber … it is nothing next

to the decision-making, the policymaking, that comes with my office”.
Asked whether he was proposing putting the powers of his job in the

hands of indigenous Australians, Senator Scullion said: “Absolutely.
Because they would run their own thing.”
He knew from his interactions with Aboriginal people “that part of what

they want is more control. So this should be a part of the conversation, a

wider conversation.”
He had not “specifically” discussed his idea with Prime Minister

Malcolm Turnbull. “My utterances are not necessarily the views of

government,” he said.

It may not be a policy the Government would admit to, but it is what the

Government does. The evidence of the centralist approach directed by a

Minister is seen in the repetitive disruptive interventions designed and

imposed by central governments, be they Commonwealth, State, or


These changes remove Aboriginal agency, the right and capacity to make

their own decisions on matters affecting their lives. They diminish both

Aboriginal authority and engagement. They deny a right to be different.
They serve to strip away the dignity of those who suffer the humiliation

and despair of being characterised as not only welfare dependent but

without any social value within their own communities and territories.

The changes imposed by governments do not relax the grip of external

authorities; they do not permit Aboriginal people to breath.

It is distressing to see the superficial recognition of traditional culture

through the obligatory photo opportunities that Prime Ministers and other

leading politicians seek out when visiting the more traditional

communities in remote Australia. What is not recognised by those

politicians who receive the respect and ceremonial hospitality offered to

them, is that traditional culture requires of them a degree of reciprocity

and a giving of something of value in return to those who have offered

their hospitality and courtesy. It is inevitably a one-way street, with the

politicians receiving the plaudits and kudos of public recognition, while

the communities wait for some reciprocal action on the part of the

government in support of their local ambitions. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu

has observed, “None of them has done what I asked, or delivered what

they promised.”

It is my view that the dysfunction in Aboriginal communities is very

much the product of incompetent government interventions made

sometimes in good faith to address an issue or problem but without any

attempt to understand the real needs of the communities. These needs


-involving the people as the key actors in any change and –

recognition of the need for stable administration of communities

a clear statement about their futures

I have been observing some remote communities in Western Australia

and other desert areas for about 40 years. During that time, I have seen

periods of real progress based on strong Aboriginal leadership supported

by honest staff and enabled by stable policies that permit local

involvement in design and deliver of policy. I have seen those periods of

progress disrupted. Since the intervention in the NT the pattern has been

to drive change through punishment and control with existing positives

being undermined by externally imposed changes. That results in poverty

despair and rebellion rather than progress.

Even a partial list of externally driven changes imposed on remote

communities over recent years explains present despair and dysfunction.
Let me list some of them.

• The unilateral abolition of ATSIC which was the last effective
structure across the regions. It was diminished not by its
performance at a regional level but by a national board that lost
government and public confidence. It is instructive to now hear
Indigenous voices again calling for a regional approach that would
revive the degree of Indigenous agency and inclusiveness that the
ATSIC regional structures provided.
• The NT intervention that imposed across the board mandatory
income management on functional and dysfunctional individuals
alike. This approach has been continued by every government
since despite the lack of positive results.
• The NT local government reforms that, with the stroke of a
legislative pen, confiscated local community council assets and
diminished, if not removed, their community governance functions.
• The abolition of CDEP, an employment program that paid wages
and enabled communities to determine work priorities. It was
replaced by an ineffectual mainstream model, RJCP, that collapsed
after two years of failure to be replaced by CDP. In contrast with
CDEP the current CDP keeps everyone locked in to the welfare net
of Centrelink despite the current Minister’s public claim he wants
to return to a wage-based system with add ons, the right to earn
additional income. Instead the racially discriminatory provisions of
CDP which impose harsher requirements on Aboriginals in remote
communities than on anyone else in Australia has resulted in
remote Aboriginals being the most breached, the most punished
and the most impoverished section of the welfare community.
• The unilateral decision of the Commonwealth to exit the municipal
services program in remote communities, despite claiming this was
done by agreement with the States. This vital element of support
for remote communities is, like the abandoned remote housing
program, subject of what is essentially a cost shifting dispute
between governments.

There are more stark examples of externally imposed disruption by

governments, leading to greater dysfunction within the communities they

were supposedly supporting.

One is a decision by the Western Australian State Government to put a

contract, previously held by a locally based Indigenous organisation, to

repair and maintain housing on the Ngaanyatjarra lands, out to tender.

The communities on the Ngaanyatjarra Lands have the capacity to repair

and maintain their own community housing. For years, under contract

with the State, that capacity was used. In 2015, no doubt in search of

efficiencies, the contract was put out to tender and awarded to a NSW

based company with no local capacity. This removed an important

economic opportunity from the community. The results were a

predictable disaster. Vulnerable people were left for lengthy periods

without vital repairs to houses including electrical and plumbing faults. In

communities with housing shortages houses could not be occupied

because they were not serviced. In one six-month period $400k of work

was billed of which $360k was for travel. This was happening in a period

where other parts of the State government were successfully using the

same local community contracting service to undertake major repair and

maintenance work on government buildings located in the same

Indigenous communities. Despite strenuous representations by the

communities the contract has not yet been returned to the community,
although the head contractor is now getting them to do the work under


Another example is the implementation of a Commonwealth program to

encourage vital school attendance in remote communities. This program

was designed and administered by officials under Ministerial instruction.
In 2016 I happened to be present at a multi-agency meeting in Perth on a

Thursday morning when the Commonwealth advised the Ngaanyatjarra

Council that it was urgently implementing a new program, it would

provide a contract that afternoon, and that the Council had to have people

on the ground the following Monday. Unsurprisingly a program

implemented in such a way has required constant adjustment to meet the

actual circumstances in communities. This was just another case of waste

and confusion instead of consultation and working in partnership on

significant issues.

In 2014, the WA State Government caused a period of panic and

heightened uncertainty in remote communities across Australia when

Premier Barnett announced the closure of an unspecified number of

remote communities. This is sadly typical of how these communities are

treated by central governments, their futures the plaything of passing

politicians. Remember Tony Abbott’s reference to lifestyle choices.

As a consequence of the public reaction to the proposed closing of the

remote communities, the then state government reviewed its decision and

moved to develop a more considered approach. In 2016, led by Ministers

Redman and Morton, the State produced a well considered, rational and

workable remote community policy. It also set up a dedicated agency to

deliver the policy. This was an exceptional attempt to bring a degree of

clarity and predictability to a government’s remote community policy.

As is the way of democratic politics, however, within a short period, the

relevant Ministers and the Government were gone and a new government

is now grappling with the same issues with a yet to be ascertained overall

policy framework. Given the Government’s budgetary situation, and with

a major reorganisation of administrative arrangements in train, it is not

clear what priority remote communities will have.

These are just some of the many examples of government dysfunction

and lack of direction that has contributed to the frequent disruption of

remote communities. Government engagement is often chaotic,
unpredictable and without a clear sense of what future communities can


There are, however, programs that are the exception, the ranger and

caring for country programs. They are worth highlighting as their

success points to how governments could better approach their

engagement with Indigenous communities across remote Australia.

These programs, working on and caring for country, build on Aboriginal

traditional knowledge and expertise. Vast Indigenous Protected Areas and

other native title lands need management. Work on fire control, control of

feral animals, protection of endangered species, carbon reduction

possibilities, engages remote communities because the country is central

to their lives and aspirations. Supported by governments, industry and

philanthropists, the objectives are environmental but the gains are social,
economic and cultural. An independent evaluation by Social Ventures

Australia of the ranger program conducted by KJ and supported by BHP

in the east Pilbara records a 4:1 return on investment in this program.

The success of these programs points to what needs to be done by

governments to change the situation in failing remote communities. Local

engagement is essential. When you have it change happens. When you

don’t it doesn’t.

It is in one sense not complex. We need to do what the Prime Minister, on

the excellent advice of Chris Sarra, says he wants to do, to work with, not

do things to, Aboriginal people. In this the PM is in line with the

descriptions in the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reports which

repetitively include the preconditions for success in closing the gap.
Community involvement in program design and decision making – a
‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ approach.

This is really no more than common sense. Wicked problems, problems

affecting people that are multi factorial such as health, education, social

order, and employment, do not admit to solutions which do not involve

the active participation of those involved.

The real issue is how to close the gap between stated government

intention and what is actually done.

The essential first step is for governments, and particularly the

Commonwealth government, to recognise that it is necessary for

government to change.

This is not an eccentric view of mine. The Dean of the Australian and

New Zealand School of Government, Professor Ken Smith, said recently:

“It is difficult for government and those of us in the public sector to

acknowledge that we do not have the policy answers. We do not know

best. The public policy challenge in Indigenous Affairs is immense, and a

substantive rethink of our assumptions and approaches is necessary. It is

vital that we acknowledge this. Only by recognising our failings can we

open ourselves to a new way.”

I hold the view, following on my extensive contact with the officials

charged with the implementation of current government policies in

Indigenous Affairs, that they would welcome change. But their capacity

to change is impeded by a lack of political authorisation and the absence

of appropriate administrative, financial and legal frameworks that would

enable them to make the necessary changes.

Both the Australian and Queensland Productivity Commissions have

concluded that governments must change the way they do business if the

rhetoric of empowering Indigenous communities is to become reality.
In a recent report on remote communities the Queensland Productivity

Commission stated that the state government should transfer

accountability and decision making to regions and communities, reform

funding and resourcing arrangements and monitor progress through

independent oversight

The Australian Productivity Commission came to a similar conclusion

earlier this year when it stated:

“Governments will need to adjust their structures and processes and

build the capabilities of their staff to implement more localised (including

place-based) approaches…
To move beyond rhetoric on community engagement and involvement,
governments should shift the balance away from centralised decision

making toward greater regional capacity and authority. To do this

governments should give local staff more authority over local planning,
engagement and service implementation. Governments would need to

support this transition by authorising, resourcing and building the

capacity and capability of staff working on the ground.”

What all these statements demonstrate is that there are critical top down

decisions required from government to enable bottom up approaches to

be possible. Government, probably through the head of government,
needs to acknowledge that the system, the status quo, is not working and

that systemic change is required and will be delivered. Those systemic

changes include providing a different framework of authority and

accountability. The need for that has been identified by the closing the

gap reports and the productivity commissions I have quoted.

What are we to do?

My references to the PM are not gratuitous. The PM of the day matters

because only the head of Government can authorise the systemic changes

so desperately needed. These include:

• a clear policy framework for remote communities and an end to
random Ministerial decision making.

• establishing regional administrative structures with the skills and
the authority to engage with communities and develop place-based

• authority to pool funds and require inter-departmental cooperation.

• ensuring the communities have resources to have local
administrative capacity rather than relying on cannibalising

program administration.

Without these sorts of changes authorised and driven from above it will

be business as usual on the ground.

Perhaps the core policy point needing to be addressed is whether

Galarrwuy’s plea
“....you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are,
and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are–Aboriginal people

in the modern world–and be proud of us.”
can be tolerated and accommodated by Australia’s system of government.

Is Australia big enough to accommodate communities that choose to be

distinctively Aboriginal and if so on what terms?

My sense is that this is at the heart of our failure in remote communities.
We are dealing with people whose primary concerns include maintaining

culture and connection to country while our concerns are to make them

what we want them to be.

As an admired friend, Peter Johnson, who has worked over many years

with the desert Martu communities of the eastern Pilbara, has succinctly

put it,
“Martu live in a different culture… it means their interests, their

inspirations, their fears, their motivations, their perceptions and their

priorities are all different… we can’t apply mainstream policy

prescriptions or expect mainstream policy answers to work.”

I don’t pretend that this is simple. Governments owe responsibilities to all

their citizens including remote dwelling Aboriginals. And to be clear,
governments have a vital and continuing role to play. They properly want

children to be safe and to thrive, to have an education that enables them

to function wherever they may choose to live, to be free of violence, to

have meaningful work and to be self-sustaining whenever possible. Many

government interventions about which I have complained are in pursuit

of those worthy aims. But my point is that the way government

interventions are devised and administered is often counter productive,
destroying rather than building community adherence and capacity.

What is needed are interventions that build on the strength and capacity

of remote dwellers. None of the ambitions of governments I have

described are in conflict with the ambitions of Aboriginal people

themselves. All of them can be better achieved, indeed only achieved,
with the active participation and involvement of both governments and


There are other views about remote communities. Some say close them,
they have no economic base. They are not sustainable.

There is a need for a different lens to be applied. Where are most

Australians employed? In the service economy. Remote communities also

have service needs, for health, education, policing, local government,
aged and disability services and so on. These areas provide most

Australian employment and should employ people in remote

communities. Locally relevant, locally designed and locally delivered

services in remote communities provide large employment opportunities.
Importantly, the vast land areas in which Aboriginal communities are the

main permanent populations require management. There are large

employment opportunities for environmental management, cultural

industries, tourism, bush foods, and carbon capture.

We just need to get out of the neo conservative economic intellectual

bubble to understand that these regions may have more prospect of

economic viability than say the modern and attractive city of Darwin

which exists on vast tax subventions from the rest of Australia.

What also has to be taken into the economic account is the enormous

direct cost of social failure when people are driven off country. Ask the

residents of our desert towns about the social and economic cost of

remote dwellers driven off country becoming fringe dwellers.

Because there are different cultural historical and economic realities in

different remote communities, the only practical and meaningful

approach is to engage those communities within their own context and

implement what is described as a place-based approach. Such an

approach provides for a collaborative, flexible response to meeting local

needs. It acknowledges that the community itself has to be the primary

driver of change and that local data and evidence is needed to guide

practice and innovation.

The place-based approach requires a long term shared commitment

between the community, governments and other stakeholders. It needs

recognition of the value of local knowledge and the primacy of social

relationships. It requires actual not just rhetorical respect for a culture so

different from that of the majority of Australians

To work successfully with remote communities requires knowledge of

local culture. It requires adherence to what a long-term guide, colleague

and collaborator of mine, Bill Gray, who, as a government official, lived

in Aboriginal communities in the NT for many years, described as the

necessary three Rs. Relationships, Respect and Response. These lessons

were taught to government officials living and working in Aboriginal

communities within the NT over 50 years ago but seem to have been

forgotten over recent Parliamentary terms. These same principles must

now be restated and acknowledged by governments in 2018.

Until governments are able to develop ongoing relationships with

Indigenous communities and develop trust and respect for those they seek

to govern, the response to government initiatives is likely to be no more

successful than they have been for the past three decades. Governments

will need to come to the table with communities able to act in a whole-of-
government manner and to be flexible about program design and


The APS at the highest levels has identified the changes in organisation

and processes that are essential if whole-of-government is to work. New

accountability and authority frameworks are needed to empower public

servants to work locally as partners rather than as bosses. Those

frameworks have to square the circle between flexibility and


The critical change needed is for government to address its own

governance. Currently, there is a massive gap between what governments

say and what they do. In addition, there is minimal accountability on the

part of governments for the way they go about designing and delivering

services to remote communities.

The change required is substantial. It involves real changes to public

service delegations, job descriptions, and accountabilities. That cannot

come from within the APS. It requires political authorisation from the

Prime Minister down. Unless that nettle is grasped by government,
Galarrwuy, and all remote dwellers, will continue to mark them all hard

as unable to complete the task of providing a better future for remote

communities. The rhetoric about working with people is cheap unless it is

backed by real action. As Indigenous people might say, governments

need to walk the talk.

History tells us that Australia’s oldest living cultures will survive,
however badly we govern them. The tribes dispossessed and dispersed

where there was close settlement have survived the worst we could do.
The survival of the Warundjuri, Eora, Noongahs and so many others

But there are harsh and ill remembered lessons from the past. When tribes

were driven off pastoral leases on the 1960s they did not go off to better

lives in the towns. They went off to misery and degradation on the fringes

of desert towns. We are seeing that again today as harsh government

policies make remote communities unliveable.

The real choice for remote communities is whether they will survive in

misery, clinging on to their country in poverty and despair or have a real

opportunity to forge new and decent lives on their terms as Aboriginals.
What governments do will make that choice for them. Governments need

to adopt the decent option, to walk their talk, to value the world’s oldest

living cultures, to listen to Aboriginal voices and to allow Aboriginal

people to be prime actors in their solutions and their futures.

In the Uluru Statement from the Heart Indigenous Australians asked for a

voice, asked to take a rightful place in their own country, asked for power

over their destiny. Nowhere is this plea more relevant than in the remote


My appeal to governments is to treat remote communities with respect, to

partner them rather than bully them. I ask them to foster integration rather

than by their actions demanding assimilation, demanding they be

whatever we want them to be. I ask them to show respect for the deep

cultural concerns, what Noel Pearson describes as the existential

concerns, of Aboriginal people living today. We should honour

Galarrwuy’ voice: Let us be who we are, Aboriginal people in the

modern world.