ANIRC 2019 - Plenary - Craig Ritchie

Transcript: 

Jodie: But of course our first two fabulous keynotes are to set the scene for this year’s conference theme, which is ‘research for the 21st century’.  Our first speaker is Mr Craig Richie, Chief Executive Officer of AITSIS.  Craig is an Aboriginal man of the Dunghutti Biribi nations, and is Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.  Craig joined AITSIS as the deputy CEO back in 2016, and commenced his role as CEO in 2017.  Time flies Craig, while we’re having fun.

Craig’s worked in many other senior roles within the APS, most recently in the Department of Education and Training from 2011 to 2016 in roles heading Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education, higher education AITSIS, and participation for people of low SES backgrounds.  And international student mobility as well as founding Director for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and ACT government.  Craig has extensive experience in the community sector including a role as CEO of NACCHO, the peak body for Aboriginal Health.

Craig is the only indigenous Commonwealth government agency head and a founding member of the APS indigenous SES network.  He is an adjunct professor at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney, where he also serves on the Vice-Chancellor’s Industry Advisory Board.  Should I go on Craig?  There’s much, much more that we can hear.  So without further ado, let’s invite Craig Richie to the stage.  Thank you.

I thought you might want me to take a breath.

Craig: Thanks Jodie.  Well good morning everybody.  How are you? My name is Craig Richie. I’m a Dunghutti man.  Our country where God lives is Kempsey on the mid north coast of New South Wales, from the mountains to the sea.  Can I acknowledge the traditional owners, the Turubul and Yugara people and their Elders past, present and emerging.  

Could I also extend that acknowledgement to, and thank rather, thank Shenice for her welcome this morning,  but extend that acknowledgement to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are gathered here for this research conference.  It’s one of the two conference jewels in the AITSIS crown, what used to be called the Indigenous Studies Conference, now the National Indigenous Research Conference.  And of course, the other conferences are the National Native Title Conference, which will be held just down the road next year in Tweed Heads.  So we announced that recently.

It’s an important opportunity for us to talk about the work that we’re all doing in the context of indigenous research, and to talk about how we can better position ourselves and that research endeavour in the context of what we need as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, from the research endeavour in the 21st century.  I have a lot of words on my paper here.  I will try and navigate my way through them without slavishly adhering to them.  Although I do want to pay respect to the people in my team that helped me put it together. 

I want to cover three broad areas this morning.  I want to talk a little bit about the current state of play.  I want to reference some emerging critical issues, and then talk about the characteristics of what I think a 21st century research endeavour will look like in the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country. 

Before I dive into that, I should say that I do that from really from two perspectives.  First of all, as an end user of research, and as I’m currently wrestling with my PhD thesis, literally wrestling, I’m feeling a bit pinned to the mat by it rather than the other way around, a baby, baby researcher, but you can see this face is quite baby faced so you understand that. 

I do want to acknowledge my Chairperson, Jodie Sizer and the other Council members of AITSIS that she has named.  Can I also acknowledge the QT Provost, Professor Carol Dickinson, who’s with us this morning.  Thank you for being with us.  And my co-presenter this morning Angela Leach, who the PVC indigenous here.  And it would be remiss of me, having began with some pretty average Dunghutti greetings not to acknowledge [Mybingirae Kelly], who I see up there, my big brother, and ex-boss many years ago.

So we live in a world where I guess we’re fortunate, it is not necessarily a happy phrase, fortunate enough to be able to learn about, appreciate and celebrate the vibrant and dynamic cultures that constitute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, and indeed for many of you who have just come from the NAISA conference in New Zealand, from around the world.  And I’m kind of proud to have been able to acknowledge country, and to open my remarks this morning in my language, but kind of a bit sad at the same time that it took until I was 51 years of age to be able to do that.  My hope is that my grandchildren will not have to wait until they’re in their 50s before they’re able to engage with their language. 

But our ability to celebrate and embrace indigenous cultures and heritage has not always been inevitable.  For years alone as part of the ongoing effects of colonisation, I emphasise the word ‘ongoing’, or I should say the effects of ongoing colonisation, indigenous people have been researched and objectified.  We know this.  Often presented as relics of a sentimental and romantic past, whose knowledge needed to be preserved before we died out.  Our cultures and our protocols for proper access to knowledge have not been respected, and the relationship therefore between the research endeavour and indigenous peoples has not been an easy one.

In 1964, when AITSIS was made permanent, as the then Australia Institute for Aboriginal Studies 55 years ago just gone in May, it was part of that process of outsiders studying us, studying our language, studying our cultures, without any genuine or real, in my view, respect for our traditions, our law, or indeed our rights. 

In the 1960s the institute focused on traditional Aboriginal people, later adding Torres Strait Islanders to our remit in 1989.  And most of the research that took place then, rather, took place in remote Australia.  Indigenous people were included only as informants, but they had no control over the activities.  This I would argue has been part of what historian Bain Attwood at what has called ‘Aboriginalism’, referring of course to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, the discursive construction of the foreign or exotic other, and perhaps in many ways a concrete manifestation of Foucault’s notion of the power-knowledge nexus.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been studied, and through that those who are experts on us have exercised a form of power.  They claim to know us, they claim, or have claimed, to speak for us.

There is a lingering question in my mind as to how much if at all this has changed.  But we insist and demand as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that we speak for ourselves.  And today, AITSIS, having transitioned into an institute that is indigenous led with a majority indigenous Council, and a staffing component that makes up in excess of a quarter of our employees, we’re working on just that proposition, that it is we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who should speak for ourselves and tell our stories to the nation, and to the world.

And so it’s not just the people who have changed at the Institute.  It is the research philosophy as well.  We are not at the Institute driven as we once were by people seeking to understand and define indigenous people from the outside, and we actively work to make sure we don’t speak for indigenous Australians, we speak with them and with us, and we don’t conduct studies of indigenous Australians, we conduct studies in partnership.

So in this sense, I would argue that AITSIS is not only uniquely placed to be able to accomplish a transformational agenda, but it is our central responsibility.  This is not despite our perhaps chequered past, but because of it.  One of the paradoxes of our early origins is that we now boast the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural material of its type in the world.  And with it, and our new research methodologies, we are well positioned to pioneer an approach to research in the 21st century in partnership with you all that is used for cultural strengthening, not cultural pilfering, and that our research is used to empower and not to take control.

We also, of course, occupy a unique position at a nexus between several sections of interest between the academy and between government, between the indigenous community and the broader population, and of course, the cultural sector.  And our 2016 amended Act solidifies some of this.  For example, we are presently working on a framework that will enable us to speak in an informed and in an intelligent way about the situation and status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage in this country, to the Commonwealth, and to anybody else, for that matter.  And I’ll speak a little bit more about that in a moment.

We’re all familiar of course in this room with the unending policies, departments and laws associated with regulating and helping indigenous Australians, whether it’s protection, assimilation or what we call it today, closing the gap.  Governments have regularly exercised their power over indigenous Australians, sometimes I would say mostly not for our benefit, but more often than not at our cost.

My thinking in relation to this area of what I call the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy enterprises informed by James Scott’s valuable monograph, titled ‘Seeing Like a State’, how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed.  Scott takes four, I think he’s quite right, four elements, or argues that there are four elements in order to effect a state intervention.  But he argues that these four elements in giving effect to interventions by the state actually ultimately produce their failure. 

The first of them is a drive to make complex situations simple, or legible, that inevitably produces reductionist and overly simple, simple - I can’t even word this morning.  Overly simplistic narratives about things that are really deeply nuanced, sophisticated and complex.  The second is the imposition of a particular way of thinking.  Scott calls it a high modernist ideology that privileges a particular way of thinking and a particular way of understanding, and excludes and suppresses other more local, more earthed and anchored ways of thinking.  The third element that Scott talks about is the coercive power of the state.  And whilst that sounds a bit Orwellian, the thing that we understand is that every time a state makes a decision, makes a policy, makes a law, that’s an exercise of coercive power.  And we have seen that time and time again, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. 

The fourth element that he argues is necessary to give effect to state interventions is a prostrate or complicit civil society, a civil society that either is incapable or unwilling to resist.  And I think that describes, as we think back through the history of the relationship between, first of all, the colonial state, the settler colonial state, and now its contemporary version, those things characterise the interaction between that state and indigenous Australians since 1788.

So that gives rise I think, to a number of syndromes that describe the current malaise that we’re in, and I think about this from the perspective of, as I say, of an end user, and particularly for most of my adult working life as a bureaucrat of one form or another.  The first of them is an unremitting external definition of who we are and what our issues are.  It’s relentless, and it’s unremitting, and it continues to this day.  And part of the conversations that will take place this week will think about how we position ourselves as part of the research endeavour to resist that, and to seize control of the power to define, the power to articulate who we are and what our issues are.

The second thing that characterises the world in which we operate at the Institute and the world in which I spend a lot of time operating in is rampant technocracy.  People who are firmly committed to the idea that if we can just tweak something, if we can just be better at managing a technique, then things will change.  In the Australian public service we are deeply committed to technocracy, and in technocracy it’s experts who decide what is going to be done.  What one scholar called the tyranny of expertise.  Now, interesting question as to whether we’d be better off under the tyranny of ignorance.  But I’ll throw that one out there and leave it unanswered for the moment.

But the idea that we’re in the hands of experts who have an expectation that we will rather passively just go along with their diagnosis and their prescriptions is problematic.

I think along with that, and this form of language might be some troublesome, but I think is this fetishisation of data collection.  Many years ago, I was one department’s point person for the Remote Service Delivery National Partnership.  Some of you might remember that, where the government chose 29 communities that were destined to be successes.  I remember the Secretary of the Department at the time saying make no mistake about this, the government chose winners.  At the risk of creating controversy why anybody choosing winners would include [Wilcannia], I don’t know, but nevertheless.

Now one of the things that took place as part of that partnership was a baseline mapping exercise, where the exercise was designed to produce as much data as possible about every single dimension of life in those 29 communities.  It produced volumes this thick that unsurprisingly nobody read.  Well, at least not any of the policymakers that I had anything to do with read.  But it reflected this idea that if you can just get enough information, if you can just get enough data, if you can just build enough quantity of quantification, that somewhere along the line, you’ll be able to make a difference, without giving any thought to why are the questions being asked, by whom are they being asked, how is the information being used, how is it being interpreted, and to what end?  And so, we have to move beyond that.  But that fetishisation of data collection is alive and well.

The other part of that relates to methodology, and that is, we’re beset in my world by, that is the policy making world, by methodological myopia.  We prioritise and privilege two disciplines.  Economics and law.  And you’ve heard the old adage, that if the only tool you’ve got is a hammer than everything is a nail.   It’s a little bit like that.  We tend to in our world approach things as either an economic problem whose origins is in economic marginalisation and poverty, and so on and so forth, and then we respond accordingly.  Or we regarded as a legal problem and then we generally respond in terms of surveillance and monitoring, legislation and enforcement. 

Think about how we approach complex issues like a violent extremism, for example.  We tend to regard it as a fruit of economic and social marginalisation, or a legal problem that we can solve by just monitoring and law enforcement, when actually, it’s deeply sociological.  It’s deeply about the relationships that people have within communities and how people live together. 

So, having said that, one of my PhD supervisors is an economist, so he’s not here, so that’s all right.  He’ll just get to read it at some point.

I think the most obvious to us, but most blind or not obvious to other people, is the deeply radical whiteness that characterises our systems, our social, our political, our economic systems.  And I mean radical in the sense of being right at the root of something, not radical as being kind of way out.  Okay, they flash the lights when it’s time to shut up, is that what happens?  Not quite, cool.  It’s deeply moving, alright. 

So, basically by this I mean that everything we do is carried out in an environment where the customs ideas and social behaviour of non-Aboriginal, the non-Aboriginal other is positioned as a superior dominant, irrevocably and often belligerently normative. I’m amused when people in the popular press get anxious about the impending demise of western civilisation in this country.  When every day, I wake up in a city that’s designed by white people to look like a city designed by white people.  I speak a language that’s a foreign language every day.  I’ve grown up speaking that language.  I work in systems, and all of us are the same, we work in systems and structures that are all defined and embalmed with whiteness.  And people are worried about the demise of western civilisation.  I think it’s in no danger in this country as it stands at the moment, I think people can just chill out.  And maybe watch, watch a few less shock jocks.  Watch?  Do you watch a shock jock?  You listen to them.  Only if you don’t change the channel quick enough.

It’s deeply there and it characterises everything.  It infects everything that we do.  But we know this, this is not new.  Our scholars have already told us about this.  So from people like Aileen Moreton-Robinson from this university, Laurie Bamblett, who formerly was, not formally a Wiradjuri historian, he currently is a Wiradjuri historian, formerly a staff member at AITSIS, we know how this plays out in deficit discourse, because once you establish whiteness as the norm, everything else is judged by how close or far it is from that norm.  And so it plays out in our context in questions of deficit.  I’d spoken about earlier about the notion of Aboriginalism, but I won’t go back over that.  But we understand how this is playing out. 

So those syndromes, external definition, deeply embedded radical whiteness, fetishised data collection technology, technocracy and expertise, play out.  And so there are a number of emergent issues that you’ll have to come and talk to me about because I’ve just been given a warning.  I want to move quickly to sum up with what kind of research endeavour is going to be needed to be able to respond to that.  So first of all address that set of syndromes, the current malaise, but also speak to emerging issues that are complex in nature.

To name two, the question of indigenous sovereignty as it relates to data and information that’s held about us.  And secondly, emergent, and I would suggest inevitable, in the sense of indigenous nationhood as we transition from being indigenous communities to First Nations, understood by others and understood by ourselves as First Nations rather than just the Aboriginal community of X or Y place, really important. 

So what kind of research endeavour do we need?  No pun intended, of course, as we approach the looming, jingo fest that is going to be the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook discovering us next year, and beginning a process, beginning that process of objectification and destruction and dispossession and all of those things, and dispossession of our knowledge, as much as anything else.

So what kind of research enterprise do we need? The first is, I’m a deeply committed social scientist.  So I think, and obviously my remarks about economics and law, troublesome though they might be, will drive me to a conclusion that we need a much more sociologically informed approach to thinking about our issues, perhaps a little bit less anthropological and a bit more sociological.  But certainly a sociological, sociologically informed one, and I would suggest even a little less positivist than perhaps many of us are used to doing.

The second characteristic of this is to pick up the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s two word phrase, as opposed to a three word slogan, and that is about doing with, rather than doing to or doing for.  For me, we need to think about what that actually means.  For me, it means that our research endeavour needs to be indigenous led rather than investigator driven.  That there needs to be an absolute connection between what we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our communities think is important and is necessary, and the activity that that those of us who are engaged in the research endeavour are doing, we have to connect those things in a way that’s indigenous led. 

I would also argue that a 21st century research agenda needs to be policy oriented, that is, in the sense that that phrase was originally conceptualised as problem solving, and again, it relates to those issues that we think are important.  And finally, and none of this is really new, it needs to be linked to the sociological bit, interdisciplinary. 

I don’t think economics and law are useless, just for the record, just insufficient.  And so, interdisciplinary activity is critical, because it brings different perspectives and different ways of examining questions, and different questions to ask.  And of course, the thing to realise about all of this is that for those of us who are absolutely and Torres Strait Islander and in some way engaged in the research endeavour, we don’t do it from the lofty position of a disengaged, disinterested observer.  It’s not about them.  It’s about us.  And we are deeply, and as you know, intimately connected with all of that.

So look, I’m going to take a little bit of extra time because there is something really important that I need to do.  And that is I’m very proud and very excited this morning to speak to the work that’s been going on that Lisa and her team have been leading to revise our guidelines for ethical research in Australian indigenous studies, the GERAIS.  A landmark and benchmark setting piece of work in its day for the last, what, 20 years, something like that.  And I want to, they’ve been engaged in a process of getting feedback from many of you about how to improve those guidelines, how to revise them in a way that makes them much more relevant and much more useful. 

And so we are announcing today that the revised, the draft revised guidelines, with a new name, I think, is available from today as a final document for comment.  And so I want to let you know that will be available, it will be available on our website, for your input.  Many of you have been engaged in this process, but we want to make that available today for final comment.  So I’m happy and very pleased.  I’d like to acknowledge the work that Lisa and her team have done.  The principles of the new revised guidelines, I’ll quickly read through them because I’m taking Angela’s time, indigenous self-determination, indigenous leadership impact and values sustainability and accountability.  And we think that they are landmark today in the 21st century as they were 20 years ago, when they were first released.  So please take the time to engage with those guidelines, the draft set, and provide us with your feedback.  Thank you so much for taking the time to be here in Queensland.  For a Canberran, and it’s a little sweltering, I’ve got to say, but that’s alright.  I’ll be slimmer when I leave than when I arrived, and I look forward to engaging with you over the next few days.  Thank you very much.