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.
The Govenor’s Oration.
27 June 2018
Can the world’s oldest living cultures survive the impact of
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“....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
“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