ANZSOG Indigenous Affairs Conference 2019 report: give communities more control

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  • Published Date: 04 July 2019

ANZSOG’s Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms conference report outlines a vision for governments to give Indigenous communities more control over policy, incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and being and increase representation of Indigenous people in public services.

The conference – held in Melbourne on 20-21 February with the support of the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and attended by more than 400 delegates – provided a vibrant forum to reimagine the future of Indigenous Affairs in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand.

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A total of 47 of the conference’s 54 speakers were First Peoples from Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Delegates came from across Australia and New Zealand and represented a diversity of sectors – public, university, not-for-profit and private -- as well as Indigenous community leaders.

The report provides a full overview of the two-day conference, which consisted of a series of plenaries, including a keynote speech by Professor Marcia Langton AM, Associate Provost and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at The University of Melbourne, and four parallel streams of sessions which reimagined leadership, relationships, service systems and knowledge systems.

In Professor Langton’s view, governments need to stop imagining the limits of the policy space and be aspirational, focusing on what governments want to achieve rather than what they are likely to achieve in existing structures.

Her message was simple but powerful: “Give the money to the Indigenous sector. Give the power to the Indigenous sector.”  

Michelle Hippolite, New Zealand Te Puni Kōkiri CEO, rounded out the opening session by asking delegates to think of ways to change the mindsets of their colleagues to overcome unconscious bias and institutional racism.

She emphasised that all individuals hold the power for change and that, “We can’t continue to do the same things if we want to get different results for Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander peoples and Māori”. 

The four streams allowed for deeper discussion of a range of issues including:

  • Treaty
  • power-sharing between governments and communities
  • a new paradigm of Indigenous-settler relations
  • health systems free of inequity
  • the voice of children
  • culture and education
  • Indigenous leadership in the public sector
  • public sector reform
  • lessons from the community
  • land, water and environment
  • politics of data
  • arts and culture.

The conference dinner recognised strength and leadership through community awards, cultural entertainment and a keynote address from the 2014 Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes. 

What governments need to do

Speakers at the conference reinforced a shared vision for the reimagining of public administration in Australia and New Zealand. This vision for governments is one that invests in Indigenous employment and leadership in the public service; recognises the need to reset relationships with communities; and acknowledges that Indigenous peoples, communities, culture and knowledge are central to delivering better public value.

Four consistent messages emerged from the Conference:

  1. Give communities more control - Communities need the money, authority and power to identify their priorities, make their own investment decisions, and deliver their own services. Empowered communities exercising Indigenous jurisdiction can deliver better and more efficient outcomes for First Peoples.
  2. Everyone can learn from Indigenous ways of knowing and being - Governments must support the expression, continuation and celebration of Indigenous language, culture and knowledge. Culture is essential to the wellbeing of Indigenous communities and investing in culture can improve trust and relationships between communities and government. Indigenous culture is also central to mainstream Australian and New Zealand cultural identity and positioning our countries as thought leaders.
  3. Representation matters - We need Indigenous people represented across the public service at all levels, and particularly as senior decision-makers. Indigenous people bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experience and can challenge the status quo to affect positive change for communities.  
  4. We are all agents for change – All of us have a responsibility to challenge our own mindset and the mindsets of the people we work with, to achieve change in Indigenous public administration. While systematic changes and re-imaginings may be necessary in the long run, every individual can challenge the way things have always been done and assumptions about what works for communities. Individuals must reimagine themselves, their role in the system, and their relationship with Indigenous people and communities. Indigenous public servants must also reimagine themselves as leaders who have a right to be present, a story to tell, and a voice to be heard.  

Need for governments to operate in two worlds

Many Indigenous speakers told of the emotional labour of working in a bicultural context; a skill and task that non-Indigenous colleagues do not have to master, intellectually or emotionally. All Indigenous public servants have had to learn to operate in two worlds, if they are to thrive. 

Governments can reciprocate, and reimagine their own leadership, by acknowledging the parallel need to understand the Indigenous experience. Governments can better handle the complexity of diversity by talking to those with Indigenous experience and understanding their lives – before deciding on a course of action. Approaching Indigenous communities with a question or challenge governments would like to work through, rather than presenting communities with pre-determined solutions, can be the basis for relationships built on mutual trust and respect. 

Speakers emphasised that Indigenous leaders do not pursue different outcomes than non-Indigenous leaders, but they do go about their jobs differently. Perhaps the most fundamental message was a call for systemic change: the need to validate the idea that Indigenous leadership is of the same calibre as other leadership, as a natural part of our system not an add-on or afterthought. 

Professor Ian Anderson, Deputy Secretary of Indigenous Affairs in PM&C, said that:

“We can’t succeed without an investment in Indigenous policymakers. It’s about building capability, finding pathways to recognise success, acknowledging leadership, and building those pathways from the lowest levels of policymaking to the most senior policymakers.”

International perspectives

An international panel examined Indigenous governance models globally and the need to recognise Indigenous jurisdiction and authority.  The panel featured:

  • Leila Smith, Deputy CEO, Aurora Education Foundation
  • Dr Karen Diver former Special Assistant for Native-American Affairs during the Obama Administration
  • Dr Miriam Jorgensen Research Director, University of Arizona Native Nations Institute
  • Associate Professor Morgan Brigg School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland
  • and Lil Anderson Chief Executive (Acting) The Office for Maori/Crown Relations – Te Arawhiti.

Dr Diver, a tribal leader, reminded us that Indigenous peoples know how to govern and have had their own forms of government for generations before colonisation: 

“I want to challenge the idea of reimagining. We need to remember who we were before. We’ve been changed by contact and how the colonial institutions were set up to oppress, minimise and enslave us. But we’ve done this before. We know who we are.”  

While the key message of this plenary was the success of independent Indigenous governance, Dr Diver also reminded delegates that strong Native Nations also need Indigenous peoples to occupy, disrupt and contribute to non-Native spaces.

ANZSOG’s next steps

The conference is part of ANZSOG’s journey to embed Indigenous knowledge and culture across all of its activities, and to help governments develop better policy in Indigenous affairs.

The report outlines ANZSOG’s next steps which will include developing targeted programs to support Indigenous public servants to achieve and succeed at senior leadership levels, investigating the establishment of a First Peoples Community of Practice in the public sector, developing ANZSOG Indigenous alumni networks across jurisdictions, and undertaking demand-led strategic research projects to improve Indigenous public administration.

The conference built on the success of ANZSOG and PM&C’s inaugural Indigenous affairs conference, Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration: Can’t we do better?, held in 2017. ANZSOG plans to hold another Indigenous affairs conference in 2020.

For further resources, including speaker videos and slide presentations visit the post-conference resources page.


 Further resources