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First Peoples to All Peoples conference brings public servants, First Nations peoples and academics together in Meanjin Brisbane

8 March 2023

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The value of building partnerships with First Nations, the importance of genuine engagement rather than consultation, and a strengths-based approach to policy and programs which recognises First Nations knowledges and culture have emerged as keys to transforming First Nations policy for the better during debate at ANZSOG’s 2023 First Nations public administration conference. 

The First Peoples to All Peoples: partnerships, devolution, transformation and sharing conference, held in Brisbane from 1-3 March, was ANZSOG’s largest yet attracting over 800 in-person attendees and over 300 others watching online. 

The conference examined First Nations policy through the lenses of Australia’s National Agreement on Closing the Gap commitments, particularly the four Priority Reforms, as well as the New Zealand Public Service Act 2020, which now clearly sets out the responsibility of the public service, particularly its leadership, in supporting the Crown’s relationship with Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi. 

The conference was divided into four sessions based around the Priority Reforms of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap: 

  • formal partnerships and shared decision-making,
  • building the First Nations community-controlled sector,
  • transforming government organisations,
  • shared data and access to information.

Donnella Mills, Chair National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) told the conference that governments needed to recognise that they did not have the answers, and that Indigenous people would ’work harder than anyone else to take care of our people’. She said that we needed structural reform to change the way that power was distributed, and that the National Agreement on Closing the Gap was part of this. 

“If the National Agreement on Closing the Gap isn’t on your desk, if you can’t rattle off the Priority Reforms, if your agency hasn’t resourced it – you need to lean in, and quickly,we are now in a new way of operating,” she said. 

The conference featured over 20 First Nations speakers who discussed the transformation that is happening in First Nations policy. They outlined how approaches that include First Nations knowledges, perspectives and values, can serve the wider public and First Nations interests – and how governments need to change to better serve First Nations communities. 

Featured speakers included ministers from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, senior First Nations public servants and leaders of NGOs and community-controlled organisations. 

Although the speakers had difference experiences and perspectives, and worked in different jurisdictions, several consistent themes emerged from the discussion: 

  • The importance of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap in Australia and its potential to drive change if governments and public servants were committed to implementing it
  • The need to move beyond consulting with/getting advice from First Nations to engagement and partnership
  • The importance of building the strength of the community-controlled sector and the unique role it can play in designing and delivering programs tailored for local conditions. 
  • The difficulty and frustration of changing existing government systems – partly because government systems are complex and cumbersome – but also because they were put in place to destroy First Nations culture and take land. 
  • Recognition of the impact of racism in public services, the importance of creating a culturally safe environment, and the need for greater representation of First Nations at all levels 
  • First Nations needed not just access to data but control of what is measured and how 

Opening addresses from ministers 

The conference featured opening addresses from Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney and her Aotearoa New Zealand counterpart Kelvin Davis, Minister for Maori/Crown Relations. 

Minister Burney spoke of the Australian Government’s focus on Closing the Gap, and meeting the targets that were re-designed by all Australian Governments and the Coalition of Peaks in 2020. She said it was a disgrace that there were still First Nations communities without drinkable water, and that Australia had an opportunity to fix this. She said she hoped attendees would return to their workplaces: ‘re-energised and full of confidence, confident to build shared partnerships that empowered local communities.’ 

Minister Davis spoke of his determination to make government agencies in Aotearoa New Zealand understand Māori culture and work towards equitable outcomes for Māori.  

He began by telling of his great-great-great-grandfather, a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi, and asked if he would have signed if he had known of the betrayal of the Treaty’s principles by the Crown, and the ensuing dispossession of Māori? 

He said the focus on the Treaty should be on Article 3 – which gives Māori full rights and protections – and that all government agencies need to work to address poverty, over-incarceration and poor health and education outcomes. Policies that were ’good for Māori were good for New Zealand’ and that he wanted all public servants to be ‘somewhere on the Bridge’ that linked Pakeha culture with Māori culture.  

Changing the way public services work 

A strong focus throughout the conference was on the overdue and necessary changes that can come from the National Agreement, and recognition of its importance by all agencies. A theme expressed by senior First Nations public servants and heads of NGOs. 

Dr Chris Sarra, Director-General of the Queensland Government’s Department of Seniors, Disability Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, said policy needed to be made in partnerships, and with a recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people knew their own circumstances. 

 “Problems in communities are not the totality of experience, and the focus needs to shift to the resilience and agility of Aboriginal people and their culture -which should be seen as a gift to Australia,” he said. 

“Governments need to acknowledge racism – it’s why we didn’t have a Treaty. Assimilation was based on the idea that we are inferior. Doing things with us, not to us, assumes our humanity is at the same level.” 

The Deputy CEO of the National Indigenous Australians Agency Letitia Hope, said that ‘systems in the Commonwealth Govt acknowledge there needs to be change, but they don’t know how to change’. 

She said that the success of the National Agreement and the Priority Reforms needed to be an ‘every day, every decision’ priority for departments. 

Glenn Webber CEO of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Te Arawhiti said that government systems were complicated and that the key to changing the system is ‘to do stuff and see what happens. If you like what you see, do more. If you don’t, do something else’ 

Lorraine Toki, National Iwi Chairs, Pou Tangata Lead Advisor, said that Māori wanted to be part of developing systems that deliver success. She said that ‘window dressing times are over’ and that ‘we have to call things out if they were not going to benefit our Māori communities’. 

“Iwi (tribes) are no longer ‘consulting with’ government, we are ‘engaged with’ them. We are not going to sit on ‘advisory committees’ anymore because we are in a partnership,” she said. 

Other speakers spoke of their frustrations at the slow pace of change and the failure to recognise that existing systems were part of the problem and needed to be changed. 

Catherine Liddle, the head of SNAICC/National Voice for Our Children, said that the Priority Reforms were about acknowledging First Nations had solutions, and needed to have barriers removed so they could make their voices heard. 

“Current government systems are racist because they were put on top of us in order to steal our resources. The system is not broken, it was designed to do this, that’s why we need structural change,” she said. 

This is just a summary of discussions at First Peoples to All Peoples. Over the coming weeks ANZSOG will publish more articles outlining the rich debates and discussions that occurred.