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Professor Ken Smith | Reimagining Public Administration speech transcript

19 February 2019

News and media


Professor Ken Smith

This is a version of a speech given by ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith at ANZSOG’s Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms at Melbourne’s Federation Square on 20-21 February 2019. 

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and their elders both past and present.

I would like to extend that welcome to all Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Maori here tonight.

It is a privilege to be with you tonight, surrounded by so many distinguished people with a lived experience of public policy failures, and the occasional important successes, impacting on Indigenous Peoples in Australia and New Zealand.

In my own work over the last 40 plus years, I have had the honour of working closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities nationally and in NSW, The Northern Territory, Tasmania, and Queensland.

This work in diverse areas of health, education, community services, economic development, art and culture, housing and justice has been inspiring, depressing and in some cases devastating (and often all at the same time).

What characterises this time for me is churn of policy commitments and approaches and the lack of consistent structures by which governments properly engage with the community.

This churn causes massive disruption and its impact is felt both structurally and individually. But as I again make contact with friends and colleagues today, what we can all be truly inspired by is the resilience of the Indigenous communities and in particular, the Elders and Leaders, many of whom are here tonight.  

ANZSOG is on a journey to improve the representation of First Peoples’ knowledge, wisdom and experiences in the work we do in our core areas of developing  public sector leadership  through  teaching, learning and research. We must do this if we are to achieve our objective of educating, inspiring, enriching and connecting.

This journey is our contribution to help address the great unfinished business of Australian and New Zealand governments – improving public policy and service outcomes  for and with First Peoples.

There have been some success stories for which we should be proud, but our governments have struggled to overcome historical ignorance and entrenched prejudices to deliver better outcomes for Indigenous communities.

That is why we have, with the generous  financial support of the Australian DPM&C, the  NSW and Tasmanian Governments, and strong support from NZ and all other states and territories allowing us to bring  together public servants, academics and Indigenous leaders to unpack and rethink how we approach Indigenous affairs in the decades ahead.

Our first conference in October 2017 in Sydney dealt with the past fifty years in Indigenous policy – what has failed and what we have learned.

This time we want to look forward, to try and reimagine how government could work and where it could take us for the next few decades.

How do we reimagine governance structures and service delivery? How do we include Indigenous communities in every part of the policy cycle, from design to evaluation, and what does it look like when we do?

How we can think beyond metrics like the Australian Closing the Gap targets – with their focus on deficits – to ways of measuring the success of Indigenous communities, against their cultural values and on their own terms?

Measures that value Indigenous knowledge and culture, not just for its importance to Indigenous communities, but for their value to the broader community.

How do we build Indigenous capability within our public services and embed Indigenous views within the practice of public policy?

We are making this conference an important  forum for Indigenous voices in all their diversity. It is wonderful that of our 54 speakers, 50 are First Peoples from Australia, New Zealand and the USA.


I am sure there will be robust discussion on how we can formally recognise Indigenous people in Australia’s constitution, and the role of a Treaty or Treaties, in that process. In this regard, we have much to learn from Aotearoa NZ experience with the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations.

The Uluru ‘Statement from the Heart’ raises powerful questions that all Australians are yet to fully answer.

It should serve as a starting point for how we reimagine our two nations’ relationship with Indigenous people, and how we can create institutions that reflect  aspirations of all people in a way that properly reflects the rule of law, human rights and diverse pluralist values

Employing Indigenous people throughout and at all levels of our public institutions  and engaging Indigenous communities directly in policy formation, program development  and service delivery are practical ways to recognise Indigenous communities.

But this can only go so far without a proper and honest acknowledgement of our 2 nations’  histories over thousands of years prior to European occupation, and the struggle for survival and proper and just recognition since.


Improving the lives of Indigenous people is unfinished business for governments in Australia and New Zealand.

We need to ensure that every Indigenous person and community has access to the things many of us take for granted – decent, affordable housing, quality health and education services, employment and upskilling opportunities, and that we empower Indigenous peoples to achieve success on their own terms.

This must include recognising the rights of Indigenous people to be treated as part of a community, with a unique a history, culture and language fully respected.

These issues cannot be ignored by our public services or relegated to second-order business. They need to be part of the activities of every agency every day.

There will always be tensions in using the structures of colonisation to amend and redress the damage that colonisation has done to Indigenous communities.

We need to recognise that our public institutions, are not linked to the cultural traditions of Indigenous people. Bridges must be created, and everyone needs to be involved as equal partners.

That is why, I am pleased to announce ANZSOG sponsorship of two significant Churchill Fellowships for Indigenous public servants from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. This will provide a significant opportunity and I encourage you to link up with Adam Davey of the Trust and the NZ and Australian Fellows who are participating in the Conference.

However, I believe that public services can be at the forefront of positive change in Australia and New Zealand.

Part of this must involve employing Indigenous people at all levels of the public service and the embedding Indigenous ways of knowing and doing in public practice.

It is critical that we have Indigenous voices front and centre, and that the public service listen, learn and build relationships in the way Indigenous communities want.

Many public sector agencies have struggled to do this, and we are all losers from this failure.

The Commonwealth and New Zealand public services are undergoing a major, once-in-a-generation reviews.

The response to these reviews must include real change in how our public services work with Indigenous communities, and how we  end the churn of personnel, policies and structures, and achieve greater representation of Indigenous people at all levels.

We need our public service to broaden its knowledge of Indigenous people and use that knowledge to drive change. We also need to recognise the contribution Indigenous people are already making as policy makers and academics in this space.


I mentioned before that ANZSOG was on its own journey. As part of this journey we have created three Indigenous specific positions at ANZSOG, which we intend will be ongoing. We   are incorporating Indigenous perspectives and content across our programs, research and our teaching and learning strategy.

We are only just taking early steps to make ANZSOG an organisation that can support and represent the interests of Indigenous public servants and communities, but we are excited about what the future holds. I would especially like to thank two truly amazing women who recently joined our team., Sharon Nelson-Kelly and Aurora Milroy for their tireless work on this Conference program. Kiel Hennessy has recently joined our Sydney Office on secondment to work on our curriculum and Indigenous learning strategies.

I hope you have found day 1 of the conference stimulating, and after day 2, you will leave with your eyes and mind open to the variety of Indigenous experiences, policy and programmatic  ideas, enablers and potential solutions in Australia and New Zealand. All reinforcing the richness of Indigenous cultures, the capability and professionalism of the leadership ,and the urgency of the challenges for real lasting change..

I hope it will be the spark that drives real change in how you approach your work, and helps you make a positive difference to the communities you are an integral part of and/ or those you serve.