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Public sector needs to recognise Indigenous culture and sovereignty: Conference summary

27 February 2019

News and media


Culture Evolves dance group

ANZSOG’s Reimagining Public Administration: First Peoples, governance and new paradigms conference has ended with a call for optimism and recognition of the resilience and potential of Indigenous communities.

Michelle Hippolite, Chief Executive Officer of New Zealand’s Te Puni Kokiri, told the conference that Indigenous public sector leaders need to share successes, hardships and strategies.

“We have to continue to adapt to challenging environments. The political and geographical agency, the relationships we have in government and communities across the country mean our preparedness to re-strategise and reimagine can’t wait,” she said.

The two-day conference brought together more than 400 public servants, academics and Indigenous leaders to listen to 54 speakers, including 48 First Peoples from Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

The conference featured robust discussion of the future about Indigenous affairs and the changes governments need to enact to deliver for Indigenous communities. Breakout sessions focused on reimagining ladership, relationships, service systems and knowledge systems.

University of Melbourne Associate Provost and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, Professor Marcia Langton’s opening address set the tone for the conference with an electrifying call for governments to focus on economic empowerment and returning growth to communities to change the “unqualified disaster” of the current system.

WATCH: Professor Langton’s address

Professor Langton said that she wanted policies based on economic inclusion, “real wages for real work”, and a return to local community governance.

“When all government activity is welfare, this ends up reducing human capital in Indigenous communities. Indigenous people must be in control, take risks and learn from the lessons of the past,” she said.

Professor Langton added that Indigenous success relied on support from outside communities, including public services.

“Indigenous people need to set their own priorities, rather than have them set by the Canberra bubble,” she said.

“Only we can overcome, but you can help.”

Indigenous sovereignty brings strength

Dr Karen Diver, Native American tribal leader and former adviser to President Obama, said that Indigenous communities had been inexorably changed by conflict, and needed to design systems to protect rights and land.

She argued that co-design would usually fail because it meant communities were not fully in control of their own affairs.

“Co-design by very definition means that there’s two people at the table. And if I have to look at majority government, really none of their ideas have worked for 300 years. That was a part of our oppression,” she said.

“Co-design, co-management only works when the other side follows through. Co-ordination needs to give way to autonomy, give us big buckets and freedom to solve problems our own way.

“If the problem is juvenile delinquency, then we know the kids and their families, we know the schools. The solution that we might come up with acknowledges the broader picture.”

“The solutions we design are the ones that work.”

WATCH: Dr Diver’s speech

Dr Miriam Jorgensen, research director for the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, said that First Nations governance structures were important for the strength of communities.

“Not just narrow ones to deliver an education program, but ones which establish a public government for an Indigenous nation, in a form which has legitimacy in the community.

In the USA, many Native American tribes have been able to use their resources, such as forests, to create jobs and an income stream for their communities, with Professor Jorgensen saying that once good governance was established, economic growth tended to follow.

Dr Jorgensen also said that studies showed suicide levels in US communities depend on resilience factors connected to sovereignty.

University of Queensland Associate Professor Morgan Brigg said that Australian public servants needed to leverage public administration to recognise Indigenous sovereignty.

“Sovereignty is rhetorically absolute but practically distributable. It can be done in practice in different ways – you can help even if the system has not been set up,” he said.

WATCH: Associate Professor Brigg’s speech

Importance of language and culture

Speakers throughout the conference focused on the benefits of preserving Indigenous culture and language and making service delivery culturally appropriate.

Miranda Edwards, a Noongar woman from WA who has begun an Indigenous program at schools in and around the Victorian town of Shepparton, said that the program had led to a resurgence in Indigenous pride

“Children proudly stand up and say who they are now. They proudly stand up and say who their elders are and it’s because of the knowledge we’re sharing,” she said.

“The key is to have a curriculum that is local and connects to the local Indigenous community, and to ensure all teachers are trained in its use.”

ANZSOG’s Sharon Nelson-Kelly spoke of the importance of using te Reo Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand, saying that: “One voice is all it takes. Courage, tenacity and resilience is needed. It’s through that resilience, that language, that culture, that’s what keeps you connected to your country.”

WATCH: Sharon Nelson-Kelly’s presentation

Public servants must work better with Indigenous communities

Lil Anderson, acting chief executive of the Office for Māori /Crown Relations, said that New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty grievance process, which began in the 1970s, was now close to completing all treaty settlements in NZ and giving Iwis control over land and resources.

She warned that, when it came to policy, governments needed to consult with Indigenous communities as early as possible if they wanted to achieve good results.

“If you are talking to people about your policy, that’s too late. But if you are talking to people about the problem you want to solve, that’s about right,” she said.

WATCH: Lil Anderson’s speech

Professor Glyn Davis, who is on the panel of the federal government’s review of the Australian Public Service, said submissions the review had received from Indigenous groups showed concern about low numbers of Indigenous public servants.

He said that while 3.3% of federal public servants were Indigenous most were clustered at lower levels, with less than 1 per cent in management.

He said Indigenous submissions told of difficulties in getting government agencies to cooperate in delivering services on the ground, particularly when federal and state or territory governments needed to work together, and that “shared experiences were not flowing back into program design”.

“Concerns have been raised that so much had been contracted out by the government that we are in danger of losing our capacity to write coherent policy,” he said.

Health policy expert, and one of the architects of the Closing the Gap targets, Professor Tom Calma said that government funding had been too inconsistent.

“There are still Indigenous organisations who don’t know in May or June if they’ll have funding for the next financial year. How do we create enthusiasm to tackle problems in that environment?”

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies head Craig Ritchie said public servants who wanted to make real change needed to: avoid ahistoricism, reflect on their roles in change, reimagine the task, co-design and not to sit on the margins – but be engaged.

He said that Indigenous people need to be able to bring their history to policy debate.

“How many times have we been told: ‘let’s not worry about how we got here’?” he said.

“The dominant narratives that control our space – guess what? They are not Indigenous narratives, they need to be re-thought and thought through.”

More photos and videos from the conference can be found at the Post-conference resources page.