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Conference to bring together public services, academics and Indigenous Australians to improve policy

25 September 2018

News and media


Marcia Langton

ANZSOG will continue its commitment to improving public sector leadership in Indigenous affairs, and creating better outcomes for the First Peoples of Australia and New Zealand, with a new conference to be held in partnership with the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C).

The Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms conference, will be held at Melbourne’s Federation Square on 20-21 February 2019.

The conference will build on the success of the inaugural 2017 conference, held at University of Sydney, and provide a space for academics, practitioners and Indigenous representatives to speak frankly, explore new ideas and discuss better ways of engaging with Indigenous communities.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Professor Ken Smith said the conference would help public servants gain a deeper understanding of Indigenous knowledge and culture and how they can be used to improve public policy in Australia.

“At the 2017 conference, ANZSOG with the support of PM&C’s Indigenous Affairs division, looked back over the 50 years of public administration of Indigenous affairs since the 1967 referendum and asked the question, Can’t we do better?” Professor Smith said.

“The 2019 conference will look forward to what could happen over the next 50 years, and ask: what needs to change for public administration in Australia to live up to its responsibility to meet the aspirations of First Peoples?

“There are no quick fixes to these issues, but there is a genuine desire for change among public services, and we hope that the conference will assist public sector leaders to make positive changes to the way they deal with Indigenous issues.

“Improving outcomes for Indigenous people must be a priority for all our public services.”

PM&C’s Deputy Secretary of Indigenous Affairs Professor Ian Anderson said that the conference would provide valuable discussions on the direction of Indigenous policy.

“There is a need to open up to public discussion a critical and informed look at the fundamentals of public administration. This is the ambition of this forum,” he said.

Professor Anderson is undertaking a major review of the Close the Gap targets, with an emphasis on making them more nuanced, and with more focus on the strengths of Indigenous communities.

How can the public service work for for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

One of the plenary speakers will be Professor Marcia Langton, anthropologist and geographer, who has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne since 2000.

Professor Langton said bluntly that the public service was not working for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

“Too often they seem to think that what we want is irrelevant to the exercise. There is a feeling that we are being ignored, or forced into policies that we do not agree with.”

She said that one of the priorities should be educating public servants who dealt with Indigenous issues.

“Public servants as a group have a poor understanding of Indigenous people and know very little about the Indigenous business sector, and are highly cynical about it.

“There is quite a bit of education to be done – if they are working in Indigenous areas, they need to specialise, and need rapid and intense education.

“We have a rapid turnover of public servants, so they are not allowed the time to become embedded and attached to the community and to gain trust.”

Professor Langton said the Empowered Communities report – which was released in 2015 and outlined a detailed proposal to shift away from the traditional social policy framework to an Indigenous empowerment agenda – was still a relevant blueprint for Indigenous policy.

Empowered Communities is based on the experience of eight regions where local Indigenous communities have been able to achieve better outcomes. It is based on devolving decision-making to a local level and giving communities more power and responsibility.

Professor Langton, who acted as an adviser to the project, said it was still highly relevant but its principles were not being included in policy.

“It is not the willingness of Indigenous leaders that is the issue. It won’t work without government playing its part, and that is not just elected officials, it’s about public servants turning up to communities, talking to local people, making information about grants accessible.”

She said that towns like Roebourne in WA – where more than 200 separate government programs were running in a town with 800 Aboriginal residents – were an example of governments not getting a good return on investment and actually hindering progress that could be made by local communities.

“The Indigenous Advancement Strategy has been disastrous. Organisations did not know whether they would be funded or not, a lot were left out until the second round and either folded or disbanded. These were budget cuts by stealth.”

Indigenous voice and policy

Professor Langton said that for Indigenous policy to improve, major structural changes were needed including an Indigenous voice, as outlined in the Statement from the Heart; and an ATSIC-style body to provide representation and be involved in policy development right through the budget and policy cycle.

“We need an Indigenous voice to express ourselves and our aspirations. Weneed to find avenues for Indigenous people, otherwise we are at the mercy of the minister and public servants,” she said.

An ATSIC-style body that worked with multiple departments across portfolios could reform the way Indigenous services were delivered.

“We need something that works with the Attorney-General’s department, Health, Housing and other departments and is involved right through the policy cycle, not just being consulted when somebody has a thought bubble,” she said.

“Why are we so childish about Indigenous Affairs? Why can’t we use all the policy knowledge, all the government administrative knowledge we have and apply it to administrative affairs?”

Reimagining Public Administration

This year’s conference will feature a mixture of breakout sessions and plenaries, engaging participants in topics such as:

policy-specific workshops on justice, education, health and the arts
the role of self-determination in future government-First Peoples relations
Indigenous knowledge and practice in public administration and public sector leadership.

The conference will also look at the relations between the New Zealand government and Māori people, what Australia can learn from the New Zealand experience, and how we can build stronger links between the two nations’ First Peoples.

As well as Professors Langton and Anderson, speakers will include: Dr Chris Sarra, head of the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships; and Professor Glyn Davis, a member of the Australian Public Service review panel – with more to be confirmed.

ANZSOG, with the generous financial support of PM&C, will pay transport costs for some Indigenous representatives, in a bid to ensure representation from all parts of Australia.

Professor Smith said ANZSOG was committed to playing an active role in shaping positive Indigenous policy in Australia and New Zealand.

“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 just talk for talk’s sake.”

Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples governance and new paradigms20-21 February 2019, Federation Square, Melbourne

Register here
Conference hashtag: #FirstPeoples2019
Follow ANZSOG on Twitter: @ANZSOG
Follow DPM&C on Twitter: @pmc_gov_au
Find out more about the 2017 Indigenous Affairs and Public Administration: Can’t we do better? conference
Download the 2017 post-conference report
Find out more about ANZSOG’s Indigenous engagement