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NACCHO chair Donnella Mills on why we need the National Agreement on Closing the Gap

17 May 2023

News and media


Image of ANZSOG First Nations Conference speaker Donnella Mills

Public servants need to work ‘with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap on their desks,’ as they seek to build trust with First Nations communities and engage in genuine co-design, says Donnella Mills, chair of National Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisations (NACCHO). 

Ms Mills was one of the First Nations speakers at ANZSOG’s First Peoples to All Peoples public administration conference in Meanjin Brisbane in March and spoke of the experiences First Nations health services have had working with government. 

She said 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. 

The agreement has been signed by all Australian governments, and the National Coalition of Peaks representing First Nations organisations. It seeks to create a new way of working with a focus on four priority reforms: formal partnerships and shared decision-making; building the community-controlled sector; transforming government organisations and; shared access to data. 

“I am so hopeful in relation to the agreement. The agreement is driven by us, it’s not something that is from government. We have engaged deeply with our membership and our people to ensure that those structural reforms and the four priority reforms really speak to what community wants,” Ms Mills said. 

“If you are a public servant and the National Agreement isn’t on your desk. If you can’t rattle off these key priority reforms, if your department does not have resources for it – you need to lean in, and quickly. We are now in a new way of operating and we expect you to meet the obligation under the National Agreement,” Ms Mills.  

“We need you to co-design. That is a challenging concept for government but it is on you to find a way to make it work.” 

Ms Mills said that media coverage and political debate about issues in Alice Springs ignored long-term underinvestment in housing and education and a history of decisions made by governments without proper engagement and consultation with Aboriginal communities. 

 She said that to devolve power we need to recognise that racism is the basis of where that power comes from, which is why the National Agreement and the Voice and those structural reforms are key, even if they are not the answers to everything. 

“Partnership is a concept that will take us time, time for government to see that they do not have the answers. When they work alongside us, we will work harder than anyone else to take care of our people. What we need from government is structural reform to change the way that power is distributed.” 

“We cannot continue to have decisions made at government level without proper engagement and consultations with Aboriginal communities on their terms,” she said. 

“The way government operates is that ‘we’ve got this timeframe’ or ‘the minister needs to have this brief’ –  coming with that intention is so disrespectful, it is so inappropriate. Please work with us – work with communities that have 60,000 years in this country and work at their pace. The trust deficit between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and government is so tangible, so please don’t come in without being respectful and having some level of flexibility.” 

She said the conference has been a great experience and a chance for First Nations people to meet and learn from other. 

“To see the power of having them in one room and hearing the strength and leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is so key. We have to make sure we embed our principles around our First Nations agency and so to come into this setting and be able to speak freely , speak truth and speak about where we need to go is a great opportunity. 

For those wanting more information on the National Agreement, ANZSOG, with the assistance of the Coalition of Peaks Secretariat and the Closing the Gap Secretariat have produced an Explainer ‘The National Agreement on Closing the Gap – and what it means for public servants’ which outlines in detail how public servants at all levels, and in all agencies, can work to help support the four Priority Reforms.