Nyiyanang wuunggalu (let’s work together) – but on Indigenous terms

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Policy influencers across government, community and academic sectors descended on the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, to hear the insights presented at AIATSIS’ second symposium on culture and policy: Nyiyanang Wuunggalu (19–20 February). The message was clear: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities are making their own policy, and if government wants to work ‘with’, rather than ‘to’ or ‘for’, them, then real structural reform is needed.

Day 1 of the Symposium opened with a powerful Welcome to Country by Ngunnawal Elder and AIATSIS Chief of Staff, Jude Barlow, who reminded delegates of the very real impacts of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. AIATSIS CEO Craig Ritchie’s opening keynote then set the scene of the dominant ‘Aboriginal policy paradigm’ that has and continues to constrain government policy making, arguing that ideas such as Indigenous incapacity need to be replaced by a real appreciation and understanding of Indigenous assets, such as resilience and innovation. Professor Colleen Hayward echoed this sentiment in her urgent call that what was once enough, is no longer – we need to move beyond simply having more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in leadership positions, we need to start thinking about how frameworks of leadership can be structured around Indigenous ways of doing and thinking; place-based policy is not sufficient, ‘face-based’ work is needed.

What followed was a series of insightful keynotes that highlighted different angles from which to see the challenges of Australia’s current policy frameworks. Hoani Jeremy Lambert highlighted how Maori styles of leadership were being put at the forefront of changes to the Aotearoa/New Zealand public service. Kevin Smith suggested that we need to rethink policy as operating in a ‘quad-partite’ structure – adding Indigenous peoples’ governance and the Indigenous Estate, on top of the existing three layers of Commonwealth, state and local government. Dr Josie Douglas outlined the policy perspective from central Australia, where she works, demonstrating the large gap between public servants in Canberra and those working in communities ‘on the ground’. Finally, Professor Daryle Rigney outlined the nation building activities of the Ngarrindjeri people, adding to Dr Douglas’ picture of policy work outside of the Canberra bubble.

Day 2 saw a series of panels that elaborated upon many of the themes raised in Day 1, guided skilfully and entertainingly by MC, Shelley Ware. Although intended to provide the ‘practical’ aspect of the ‘theory’ outlined in Day 1, it soon became evident that such a separation is unhelpful. There are no hot ‘policy tips’ that can simply be slotted into government business as usual; the whole business of government needs to be re-thought in order for it to be re-done.

Graphic recording by Sarah Firth - www.sarahthefirth.com

Christopher Simpson, speaking about his ‘engagement’ work, gave the advice that policymakers need to ‘hurry up and wait’; to carry out proper engagement, and ‘co-design’ requires that governments recognise that their timelines often do not align with those of communities they wish to work with. Gail Beck noted in a similar vein that governments need to be working towards their own removal: true co-design should end in programs where government is no longer a part of implementation, and Geoff Richardson echoed this point in highlighting how place-based policy should ultimately be about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.

Graphic recording by Sarah Firth - www.sarahthefirth.com

Day 2 ended with a highly engaging panel from a group of emerging Indigenous leaders who echoed the themes of the past two days. Dr Kris Wilson reiterated the clear link between historical policy and the present, sparking a discussion about the role of truth telling, and how truth (and treaty) offers a way to fix the fundamental contradictions in the legal foundation of Australia. The panel ended with a recognition of the important policy work that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do – not only within the constraints of the public service, but outside, in community led and controlled organisations too.  

Graphic recording by Sarah Firth - www.sarahthefirth.com
Graphic recording by Sarah Firth - www.sarahthefirth.com

Nyiyanang Wuunggalu ends with the ball in the court of policymakers. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities are already heavily engaged in the process of making policy, inside and outside government. How will you build on their work – as friends, colleagues or allies – to create a better policy future that is truly led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and peoples?


Last reviewed: 16 Mar 2020