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A transcript of Professor Ken Smith’s speech at the Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration conference

10 October 2017

News and media


The Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration: Can’t we do better? Conference – a joint initiative of ANZSOG and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) –  was held in Sydney on October 9 and 10.

The Conference brought together academics, public servants and Indigenous representatives for a wide-ranging and honest discussion on the successes and failures of Indigenous policy over the last 50 years, and ways to chart a new way forward. Speakers included PM&C’s Professor Martin Parkinson AC and Professor Ian Anderson AO, Leila Smith, Chris Sarra, Professor Aileen Moreton-Robertson, Andrea Mason, Greg Phillips, Professor Martin Nakata and international guests Canada’s Dr Shawn Wilson and New Zealand’s Arapata Hakiwai.

An ANZSOG report summarising discussions at the conference will be made publicly available and feed into a number of other forums ANZSOG is co-hosting with PM&C in late 2017 and 2018.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Professor Ken Smith said that the Conference was a chance to rethink the way we approach Indigenous policy, and recognise Indigenous history, culture and traditions.

He said that recognition, representation and leadership in the public sector is a cornerstone of self-determination and equal dignity for first peoples in Australia.

Here is the full text of Professor Smith’s speech at the Conference’s opening dinner:

Before we begin the proceedings, I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet; the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

As we share our own knowledge, teaching, learning and research practices may we also pay respect to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal Custodianship of Country.

At the beginning of this year, Dr Martin Parkinson and his department approached ANZSOG proposing a partnership to work towards a clear objective, to reflect critically on the APS’s past in Indigenous affairs, and ask the question: how can we do better into the future?  We all know how significant this year is – given it is 50 years since the landmark 1967 Referendum.

This conference is a cornerstone of ANZSOG’s partnership with DPMC. We hope this will be a forum for sharing ideas, experiences and having courageous conversations which are a foundation for positive change in the future. 

The past half a century has been one of continuing struggle for Australia’s First Peoples.  But we must also recognize and celebrate the many successes along the way.  As Martin said in the Wentworth Oration, it is important to look beyond a simplistic deficit model, to a strength based aspirational approach with more place based investment.

Progress in some areas has been real, but in others we have fallen short of our own expectations.

More than anything else it is the treatment of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by which Australia will be judged and we cannot be complete as a nation until Indigenous Australians are treated equally and with full respect and dignity.

We cannot ignore the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. We cannot rationalise away poverty and neglect, or shrug our shoulders at avoidable misery.

Acceptance of failure is not good enough. We need to ask ourselves what can we do better.

Public services need to become more responsive to the needs of Indigenous people, and to recognise that our whole nation can benefit from incorporating Indigenous knowledge and understandings into policy and practice.

We need to take active steps to ensure that Indigenous voices are heard, that Indigenous people are included and that we employ Indigenous people at every level of our organisations.

We’ve tried trickle up recruitment in the public sector and this has not worked. In fact, in parts of the public sector across Australia Indigenous employment has gone backwards.

Without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across the sector, and importantly in leadership positons, we will not have a modern public sector that reflects the people and community it serves.

We need to rethink the way we approach Indigenous policy. We need to recognise the value of Indigenous history, culture and traditions, and to reimagine their relationships with Indigenous communities and leadership.

We need to look at the bigger picture of how culture, education, health, work and economic independence fit together.

I believe that recognition, representation and leadership in the public sector is a cornerstone of self-determination and equal dignity for first peoples in Australia.

At ANZSOG we are embarking on our own journey of transformation. We hope to better respect and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage, and to do our part to achieve a better representation of Indigenous people, and strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership, in the public sector. This also applies to Maori and the New Zealand Public sector.

This conference is a small part of that process. It gives us a chance to use our unique connections and networks to bring together public servants, academics and Indigenous people.

I would like to thank PM&C for their role in organising this event. They have taken the lead in Indigenous policy at a federal level and have recognised the need for change.

Over the past 50 years, churning, restructures and the destruction of institutional memory have inadvertently contributed to many policy failures. They have increased the damaging tendency of governments not to listen to Indigenous people or take their concerns seriously.

Too often good intentions have been no match for ignorance or entrenched prejudices about what Indigenous people want or what they are capable of.

We have failed to recognise the diversity of Indigenous people and their experiences.

Inala Cooper, from the Yulendj Indigenous Engagement Unit at Monash University, who will deliver our opening plenary tomorrow put it bluntly when she said: “If you don’t have an understanding of the Indigenous experience in Australia, then you can’t do your job as a public servant.”

The purpose of this conference is to see what we can achieve together that builds off the knowledge of the past and offers a better future, which is focused on action rather than talk.

We need to broaden the knowledge base and to use that knowledge to drive change.

It is important that all perspectives be heard, but this shouldn’t be just another talkfest. It should be a forum which allows good ideas to spread and to take flight.

To that end, an ANZSOG report summarising discussions at the conference will be made publicly available and feed into a number of other forums ANZSOG is co-hosting with PM&C in late 2017 and 2018.

As a global leader in education and government-focused research relevant to the public sector, ANZSOG will be able to use this information to help shape our own training and activities to encourage a more representative public service.

Good public policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the great unfinished business of Australian governments.

We need to ensure that Indigenous people are represented at all stages of policy development, that their voices are heard and their concerns met.

Until this happens, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will not get the public services they need and deserve.