Australia has a history of failure in Indigenous policy and addressing it must be a priority for public services.
Part of any path to success must be to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are represented at all levels of the public service, and that perspectives and knowledge are used to drive culture change.
Indigenous public servants at a joint ANZSOG and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) forum for senior Indigenous public servants in Canberra discussed the challenges of representing their communities, balancing the demands of their culture with their work, and what needs to be done to make Australia and New Zealand’s public services more inclusive of Indigenous people.
The forum was a chance for Indigenous people to lead a frank and safe discussion about their experiences, the benefits Indigenous public servants bring to public services, as well as the barriers they face.
Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, said public services needed to rethink how they approached recruiting Indigenous staff.
“It takes courage, particularly from the most senior levels in our departments, to take bold decisions and bold actions. We do not just need to render our system attractive to people, that’s a really passive thing to do, we need to do what the private sector does every day: identify talent, go after talent, and actively recruit bright young Indigenous people,” Mr Ritchie said.
“It’s not just making room in our official world, a little spot for Indigenous people… it’s about bringing people with skills and capabilities into our institutions and letting our institutions be changed.”
Michelle Hippolite, Chief Executive Officer of Te Puni Kōkiri in New Zealand's Ministry of Maori Development, said that Indigenous public servants needed to be change agents, not just bystanders within government.
“Maori people in the public sector bring the essence of who they are and the insight they can bring from their own experiences. It is great that we are seeing so many making the conscious choice that this is a place where they can make a difference.”
She said that policy makers needed to be wary of framing problems as “Maori problems” and entrenching stereotypes.
“Say it’s a circumstance problem, to which there are a number of Maori who experience that problem. When people have seen the circumstances, and have a bit of context about how they got there, they look at issues differently.”
The forum featured workshops and open discussions about the value of mainstreaming Indigenous services, versus specific provision and the challenges in balancing community, place and public service obligations.
Ian Hamm, Director of Economic Inclusion in Victoria’s Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, said the forum was a great chance to meet with people who understand what it means to be Indigenous in the public sector.
He said that Indigenous policy needs to look beyond social problems and create a vision of what Indigenous communities could look like.
“We need to ask are we here to fix problems, or are we here to provide a future? Where do we want to get to, and how do we get there,” he said.
“The structures we’ve had since the 1967 referendum, I don’t think they have worked. We need to look at how we set up Indigenous affairs within government.”
The forum was the last of a series of events held by ANZSOG and PM&C to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum which gave the commonwealth power over Indigenous affairs.
These included a roundtable of senior Indigenous academic administrators from across Australia’s tertiary sector, to discuss how universities can support Indigenous participation in the public sector. This was followed by a conference in October, ‘Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration: Can’t we do better?’, which brought together more than 250 public servants, academics and Indigenous community representatives from across Australia and New Zealand.
ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith, who observed the forum, said that he hoped it would be the first step in creating a network of Indigenous public servants to share knowledge and experience, and support Indigenous leadership in the public sector.
“We can’t talk about improving the public administration of Indigenous affairs without thinking about Indigenous leadership in the public sector,” he said.
“This is a critical challenge facing the public sector. It challenges the way we think about evidence, the way we design our machinery of government, and the mechanisms through which policy is translated into positive action that serves the needs of all our communities.”
The forum was held at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra on December 13 and 14.
It was the final event in a series run by ANZSOG and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet throughout 2017. ANZSOG will hold a similar forum in the first half of next year, to build on these discussions.