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What public servants need to know about the National Agreement on Closing the Gap

16 August 2022

News and media


Infographic on the Partnership Agreement and National Agreement on Closing the Gap

By Shane Hoffman, ANZSOG First Nations Senior Adviser

ANZSOG has recently published an Explainer detailing what public servants need to know about the National Agreement on Closing the Gap and what they can do in their various roles to ensure that the Agreement’s four Priority Reforms and 17 Socio-economic targets are achieved. This article is a brief summary of what the Agreement is and why it is important for all public service agencies and staff, not just those directly involved in Indigenous policy. For more detail, please read the Explainer itself.

The Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap 2019-2029 (Partnership Agreement) was signed in March 2019 by the Council of Australian Governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (Coalition of Peaks) representing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector.

It established the principles and governance framework for negotiating the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (National Agreement) which was signed in July 2020 by the Commonwealth, all state and territory governments and the Australian Local Government Association, representing governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations (Coalition of Peaks) representing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector (together they are the Parties to the National Agreement).

The following diagram was provided courtesy of the Coalition of Peaks.  It shows how the Partnership Agreement established the governance structures and principles to negotiate the National Agreement.

Infographic on the Partnership Agreement and National Agreement on Closing the Gap

The Agreement is premised on:

‘a new approach…where policy making that impacts the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is done in full and genuine partnership…where [governments] listen to and change the way [they] work in response to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’.

All Parties to the National Agreement committed to extending the principles in the Partnership Agreement to other partnerships between First Nations organisations and governments to accelerate policy and place-based progress. This includes building and strengthening structures that empower First Nations organisations and communities to share decision-making with governments.
Despite the unanimous support for the National Agreement at the highest levels of government, its full potential cannot be realised unless and until all public servants familiarise themselves with it, understand its underlying principles and objectives, and implement its commitments.

The Explainer outlines the Four Priority Reforms and the enhanced accountability framework that underpin the National Agreement. Together the Priority Reforms envisage a new way of working while holding the Parties to account for meeting the agreed outcomes and targets.

The four Priority Reforms are:

1) Formal partnerships and shared decision-making
2) Building the community-controlled sector
3) Transforming government organisations
4) Shared access to data and information at a regional level

Making the new way of working a reality cannot be left to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants, or agencies that specifically deal with Indigenous policy. Buy-in needs to be universal. Ignorance, not knowing where to start, or fear of doing the wrong thing should not be barriers to positive action in support of the National Agreement.

Our Explainer aims to provide public servants across Australia with a simple introduction to the National Agreement, its objectives and how they might begin to work differently as public servants to meet the objectives outlined in it.

Critically, the National Agreement is premised on an acknowledgement that strong First Nations cultures are fundamental to improved life outcomes. The Parties have agreed that all activities should be implemented in a way that takes full account of, promotes, and does not diminish in any way First Nations cultures.

The Explainer contains more detail on how the Priority Reforms fit together, but below is a summary of the direction that public services should be moving in.

The first Priority Reform outlines the strong partnership elements which should characterise all partnerships between First Nations organisations and communities and governments. These elements spell out that formal partnerships are the mechanism by which First Nations representatives have greater authority to share decision-making with governments and influence policy directions; simple advisory or consultation approaches are no longer appropriate or sufficient.

Partnerships need to be accountable and representative, be backed by a formal written agreement, involve shared decision-making between government and First Nations representatives and be adequately resourced.

The second Priority Reform sees all Parties committed to building and strengthening First Nations community-controlled sectors to deliver services to support closing of the gaps – the socio-economic disparities between First Nations and other people in Australia. The Parties have committed to increase the proportion of services delivered by First Nations community-controlled organisations.

Community-controlled organisations are controlled by elected members of the First Nations communities to whom they deliver services. They often join up to form state/territory-wide and/or national peak bodies. Parties have agreed to develop Sector Strengthening Plans, initially in four key areas: early childhood care and development; housing; health; and disability, to increase the capability of the community-controlled sector to deliver these services.

The third Priority Reform deals with systemic and structural transformation of mainstream government organisations to improve accountability and respond to the needs of First Nations communities. Identifying and eliminating racism and building cultural capability are critical elements. This transformation will be required if the other Priority Reforms are to be met, and significant transformation will be needed across all areas of government: police, courts, youth detention and prisons; hospitals and other health services; educational providers; child protection, early childhood, aged and disability care; and social services to name just a few.

The fourth Priority Reform around data will also be critical to the success of all other reforms. First Nations communities and their organisations require access to good quality data, the same data governments use to make decisions, to build a comprehensive picture of their communities, and to inform their decision-making about their futures.

All Parties are required, in partnership, to develop Implementation Plans to show how they plan to meet the agreed outcomes and targets for the Priority Reforms and the 17 socioeconomic targets. All Parties completed first iterations of their Implementation Plans by mid-2021.

The Productivity Commission maintains a data repository and published a Dashboard and Annual Data Compilation Report. These track progress against the Priority Reform and Socio-economic outcomes and targets as part of the accountability framework. The second Annual Data Compilation Report was published on 28 July 2023

Below, as a starting point, is a summary table of initial actions public servants should take to help them play their part in meeting their jurisdiction’s Implementation Plan. More detailed information is available in the Explainer.

Although we have sought to split these actions by levels of authority, this is not an exhaustive list, and employees should seek guidance about their specific responsibilities from their agency leadership.

Image of a summary table of initial actions for public servants

If you have found this article interesting or useful to your work, ANZSOG has a range of further resources available on our website, including speeches and presentations from our First Nations public administration conferences, and our Wise Practice Collection of Indigenous resources.