The relationship between government and Aboriginal communities is quite a tight one. Even now, people look at Aboriginal communities and say: “The government should do this”. But early on, I decided I’d get involved for my people inside government and the community sector, because I believe they can work together.
When I started in the public service in 1986, the country was being dragged out of the second half of the 20th century by governments interested in establishing where society and economies might go in the long term — not just the challenges of the day. There was a sense government could play a positive role in the lives of all people.
Having said that, Aboriginal people were often seen as a problem, like there was something wrong with being Aboriginal that needed fixing. That malaise still afflicts parts of governments today. Obviously, we want fewer blackfellas in jail. More importantly, we want social and economic equity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
My whole career I’ve worked on shifting people’s understanding of Aboriginal people so we can have a proper place in the Australian social and economic landscape.
Social policy on the front line
In 1988, I was at the Department of Employment, Education and Training working on a program to promote the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy that came out of the Miller Report (published in 1985). It was the first time people started talking about Aboriginal people in an economic frame instead of a welfare frame.
The next step was getting equal opportunity and human rights law taken up by the Aboriginal community. So I went to work with Moira Rayner, the then Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in Victoria. Under Moira’s leadership, we started seeing people exercise their rights and I take great pride in being part of that team.
When you’re on the front line you have to deal with people who are affected by the policies — it’s not abstract — and as I went on in life, those experiences have stayed with me.
I think about what a strategic policy means for the person on the ground.
At the First Nations Foundation, where I’m chair of the board, we do research and policy development on the financial wellbeing of Aboriginal people. Originally, the foundation provided face-to-face financial literacy training, which was more about managing a budget.
A few years ago, we switched to talking about Aboriginal economic development.
We’re going to work with the financial sector, using our My Money Dream program and app, that looks at investment, superannuation and insurance — all those contributors to financial wellbeing. It’s about Aboriginal people participating in the economy for their entire life with increasing income, and how they maximise that.
Reconciliation plans are a good start, but it’s not just about giving your meeting rooms Aboriginal names. How many blackfellas are in your boardrooms?
The art of advocacy
If you want to drive change, your advocacy has to have substance: you’ve got to believe in the change and demonstrate the logic behind it; help people understand why it’s worth doing. Think about the last time you heard a decent speech like Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”. Have something people aspire to: here’s where can get to, whether in 10 years or a generation. Then it’s about the mechanics of how we get there and why we want to get there. Make the connection to the destiny and that’s where you get the best people believing in it and signing up to make it happen.
I did that as the executive director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria and as President of the Western Region Football League. The WRFL had started to look at racial vilification and I was asked to join as a racial vilification officer because of my experience at the Equal Opportunity Commission. Many of the clubs in the league were struggling with multicultural/racial playing groups and didn’t know what to do when racial vilification happened. That’s where I thought I could help. I ended up league president two years later.
Some people thought I was a bit of a nutjob when I started talking about the contribution our football league could make to a better society, but most people got it. As a football player, I was a good ordinary player, but I was much better playing the administration game. And that started my interest in boards.
Vision for leadership
Alf Bamblett, who was a heavyweight in the Aboriginal community for many years, taught me: “You don’t lead because you happen to hold a position with a title to go with it — you lead because people believe in your vision. And always treat people with respect and dignity, it doesn’t matter who they are.”
Leadership isn’t a technical skill you can learn. In fact, bad leaders try to get involved down in the weeds with everything, but they’re only getting in the way. Your job is to get the best out of all the people in the organisation. So, it comes back to having a vision and inspiring people to have faith in you.
Find ways to bring disparate people together on a couple of things first. Build on the human side of things — what motivates people to get out of bed in the morning and how do you tap into their common humanity? That might sound a bit esoteric for how you lead a board, but it’s the same thing. You focus on getting people to work together, with a common purpose and vision, and bring out their best.
I’m also very involved in leadership opportunities for young Aboriginal people, such as the board observer’s program. They do all the coursework, but it gives them exposure to how boards need to think strategically. It helps them consider bigger things for their futures, such as board careers.
You need broader diversity to give you a better understanding of the social contract you’re part of. If there is one group in Australia that understands the necessity of the group above self, it’s Aboriginal people.
If organisations want to support Aboriginal advancement, it’s critical they support Aboriginal businesses. Growing businesses will build economic robustness in communities. I look at some of the programs run in bigger organisations aimed at our community and think: “Is it a commitment to helping the Aboriginal community grow? Or is it about a business opportunity that they can get out of blackfellas?”
So, if organisations want to support things like the First Nations Foundation, follow our lead, because we know what the Aboriginal community needs. Reconciliation plans are a good start, but it’s not just about giving your meeting rooms Aboriginal names. How many blackfellas are in your boardrooms? Not as people serving your team, but sitting at the table as board members.
If you want real diversity, you need people from different social, economic and racial backgrounds. The banks just blew the social contract with Australia because they didn’t get it. They just didn’t have diversity on their boards and in their leadership groups.
Deciding to have women on your board doesn’t make you diverse if they went to similar private schools to the men. You need broader diversity to give you a much better understanding of the social contract you’re part of. And if there is one group in Australia who understands the necessity of the group above self, it’s Aboriginal people. We bring that way of viewing things as a whole of community that, quite frankly, has been lacking in government and business for a very, very long time.