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Beyond the Voice: where to from here for First Nations public administration?

14 December 2023

News and media


'Journey' by Aaron McTaggart and Emma Bamblett

By ANZSOG First Nations Senior Advisor Shane Hoffman

The day after the Voice referendum, I was moved to put my thoughts to paper as I tried to make sense of the results. Two months later, I am still thinking through what the result will mean for the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
Unfortunately, since the Voice vote we have seen retreats from hard fought gains. Within days of the result, the LNP Opposition in Queensland walked back from its support for the Path to Treaty legislation in Queensland. Having joined with the Government to pass the legislation in May this year, the referendum result in this State – the lowest of all nine jurisdictions – led them to reverse their position. This then prompted the Government leadership to talk down the prospects for Treaties in Queensland anytime soon. I am pleased to note, however, that the expressions of interest have been called for the Treaty Institute Council and the Truth and Healing Commission legislated in May, signalling the government’s intent to continue the path to Treaty.

Beyond Queensland, the Commonwealth Government has delivered very mixed messages about its plans for the other tranche of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a Makarrata Commission to progress agreement making (Treaty) and truth telling, despite the Prime Minister committing to the statement in full on election night in May 2022. In an interview on ABC News Breakfast a few weeks ago, Minister Burney spoke about First Nations voices at local and regional levels and truth telling but obfuscated on the Treaty commitment implying Treaties should be progressed by the states and territories – overlooking the need for Commonwealth leadership and national principles.

The renewed calls from some conservatives for a return to a bellicose form of assimilation as the guiding approach to First Nations policy in Australian is deeply concerning. Assimilation is the denial of our inherent right to exist as distinct peoples with distinct cultures and histories. Some have been emboldened by the referendum result to call for an end to Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country protocols and the removal of the Aboriginal flag from official events. The removal of these and other symbols of our status as First Nations is intended to deny our right to claim this status – to suggest that our pride in our ancestry and cultures is misplaced and we should disappear into the mainstream.

Despite these setbacks, First Nations people in Australia still have hope that the National Agreement on Closing the Gap signed in July 2020 with all nine governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations will lead to tangible benefits, including the improvement in our Peoples’ life outcomes.

The Priority Reforms – shared decision-making partnerships, building the First Nations community-controlled sector, transforming mainstream government agencies, and sharing of data and information at the regional level – provide a framework for more effective engagement between First Nations and public servants whose job it is to implement them.

The Draft report by the Productivity Commission in its first three-yearly review of the National Agreement, however, was far from complementary, expressing concern that, despite their commitments, governments were slow to implement the reforms needed to effect sustained improvement. Their final report will be published early in 2024 and it should be a catalyst to the greater efforts to embrace fully all the commitments in the National Agreement.

Reforms to both policy development and place-based methodologies are being considered in many jurisdictions. These can be enhanced by governments transforming their approaches to include the principles embedded in the Priority Reforms and the Partnership Agreement they were based on. This means ceding power to First Nations communities and creating mechanisms for shared decision-making that go far beyond consultation, and which focus on building First Nations’ capacity to govern themselves.

Moving from a programmatic approach to a developmental approach is fundamental to sustainable change. Short-termism and the siloed, programmatic mindset must be discarded. The National Agreement partners need to work more closely to ensure public servants and the First Nations organisations and communities have the resources and capabilities needed to effect real change.

Public servants must build new capability to engage effectively with First Nations people, their organisations and communities. ANZSOG is well placed to build the capability of public servants to effect these changes. This was demonstrated by its recent pilot program – Working with First Nations: Delivering on the Priority Reforms. Geoff Richardson PSM and Professor Catherine Althaus designed and delivered this program to around 170 participants between 8 and 24 November 2023. Given the strong reception the program received from participants, ANZSOG is planning further deliveries in 2024.

In terms of the wider implications for the relationship between the Australian people and First Nations Peoples, since the High Court ruled that Australia is longer terra nullius in the Mabo decision in 1992, and the Australian people rejected our recognition through a Voice in the Constitution, this remains “unfinished business” in the words of Senator Patrick Dodson. State and Territory treaties may help to fill this void, but I believe there needs to be a National Treaty between the Commonwealth and the First Nations representatives. Such a Treaty could set out the framework and principles for ongoing Treaty negotiations involving all levels of government. The aspirations that First Nations have for formal recognition of our status as distinct peoples, and greater control of our own lives, have not been extinguished by the Referendum result.