Why Indigenous values matter for all public servants and all communities

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occupy a unique position as the first sovereign peoples of Australia. And while governments have been striving to improve their relationships with as well as their abilities to represent and provide services to Indigenous Australians, there is still a long way to go.

In this post, the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s (ANZSOG) Aurora Milroy discusses why Indigenous values and culture should be embedded in the Australian Public Service (APS), and outlines practical solutions for helping the Commonwealth begin to reset its relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Aurora Milroy is a Palyku woman from Western Australia who lives and works on the lands of the Kulin Nation. She is the Advisor, First Peoples Programs and Strategy, at ANZSOG.

The Australian Public Service (APS) is just one of many institutions and systems set up in the Western tradition that has never really been fit for purpose for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous values, and ways of knowing and doing are not central to the way it operates. Indigenous peoples are not represented in population parity in the senior decision making roles of the public service, and until a few weeks ago—when the Hon. Ken Wyatt was sworn in—we had never had an Indigenous Minister for Indigenous Affairs. 

The recent Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, chaired by David Thodey, was an opportunity to rethink the APS as a western institution, and the ways it represents, works with, and delivers value for Indigenous peoples and communities. In May this year, I worked as part of the First Peoples team at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) to prepare a submission to the APS review titled Indigenous Values for the APS. The impetus for the submission was a presentation by Dr Mary Graham at the ANZSOG Indigenous Public Servant Forum in December last year. In this presentation, Dr Graham called for the “Aboriginalisation” of the public service, including through recognition of an Indigenous value of “relationality”. We also prepared the submission with the advice and contributions of an expert team of Indigenous public servants and academics.

How can we bring Indigenous values into the APS?

Indigenous governance is the first form of governance in Australia and one of the oldest continuing legal and political models in the world. It is rooted in a uniquely Indigenous worldview which gives rise to key obligations and behaviours including maintaining and respecting relationships, and consensus decision making.

In the Indigenous Values for the APS submission we recommend a number of changes to the Public Service Act 1999 to better reflect Indigenous values and ways of doing, including:

1.    Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and our historically fraught relationship with government

2.    Introduction of a new APS Value of working “relationally” with communities to develop policy, design services and develop strong and genuine partnerships.

3.    Introduction of APS principles that reflect Indigenous values of service, merit, stewardship and relationality.

4.    Accountability of senior APS officers for representation of Indigenous people in decision-making positions in the APS, as well as accountability for broader Indigenous employment, and stewardship of the APS relationship with Indigenous communities.

We need to reset the relationship between governments and Indigenous peoples

Incorporating Indigenous perspectives into the Public Service Act is one step on the longer journey of resetting the relationship between governments and Indigenous peoples. Colonisation and a history of racist and discriminatory government policies have damaged the relationship, but something needs to shift. Recognition of this need for change in the relationship is reflected in the debates around constitutional recognition, a voice to parliament, treaty and self-determination. It is also why public services are increasingly moving away from the rhetoric of consultation towards co-design and community partnerships. Building strong relationships, grounded in trust, respect, and deep listening is central to the public service being fit to serve Indigenous communities.

The APS can demonstrate its genuine commitment to working better now, which is why the ANZSOG submission repeatedly states that any changes to the Public Service Act or the values and culture of the APS should be co-created with communities. The recommendations in the submission are discussion points and should not be adopted at face value.

Better for some means better for everyone

Incorporating Indigenous values and approaches into the Public Service Act will not only benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but all communities. Working in a more relational way that centres local decision making, community self-determination, and commitment to ongoing rather than transactional relationships is a big step towards more effective governance. Indigenous values are Australian values, and all Australian people, communities and institutions can learn from our ways of knowing and being.