What will it take for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to live vibrant, joyful lives?

A Families in Focus webinar

Content type
Event date

10 June 2020, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Richard Weston




About this webinar

This webinar was held on Wednesday 10 June 2020.

This webinar was presented by Richard Weston, CEO, SNAICC – National Voice for our Children. Richard Weston discussed SNAICC’s work in policy development and advocacy to help more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children to have happy, healthy childhoods that set them up to have the best opportunity for a good life.

While the 16th biennial AIFS Conference has been postponed until June 2021 because of the pandemic, we are pleased to announce we are hosting webinar presentations by some of our keynote speakers as part of our “Families in Focus” program in the month of June.

Families have done a lot of the “heavy lifting” to adapt to rapidly changing social and economic conditions during the pandemic. We are interested in how families and individuals are experiencing these challenges and what we can learn about how to design better policy and service systems in the future.

Audio transcript (edited)

MS HOLLONDS: Hello everyone and welcome to our first webinar in the AIFS Families in Focus month of June. My name is Anne Hollonds and I'm the Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I'd like to start by first acknowledging the traditional custodians of all the lands we're meeting on today. I'm here on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and I'd like to pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, and of all of those on all the lands where you're participating from today, right across Australia. We have over 875 people registered for this webinar today and we're really pleased. Obviously this is a very important topic at this time for us in Australia so I'd like to warmly welcome you all.

The Families in Focus month grew out of the pandemic. As you know, we had to postpone our conference that was due to start today, 10 June, and it's now to be held in June 2021. And you can actually register for that now by going to the AIFS website. So we thought since we couldn't have our conference this year, it was a fantastic opportunity to hear from some of the keynote speakers who will be presenting next year and we're really delighted today to have with us Richard Weston, who is the CEO of SNAICC, the national voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Richard is a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. He's worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for 25 years in a range of government and non-government roles. This includes as Chief Executive Officer of Maari Ma Health in far west New South Wales and of the Healing Foundation. You will know SNAICC well for its influential policy work in improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, its training and sector development work and its high profile events such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Day and of course the SNAICC Conference.

Richard is a board member of Families Australia and he's one of SNAICC's representatives on the Coalition of Peaks negotiating a partnership with the Australian government. He's co-chair of the Family Matters campaign and was appointed by Minister Ken Wyatt to the National Co-design Group that will lead the co-design process for a national indigenous voice and advise the government on preferred options for a voice to parliament. Richard is also the SNAICC representative on the Early Childhood Education and Care Reference Group.

After Richard's presentation, which he recorded last week, he's going to be here to address the questions that you have for him so please start thinking now about what you would like to ask Richard and you can post your questions any time in the questions section of the GoToWebinar platform. These will be read and collated by my colleague, Tracey, and I will put as many of these questions to Richard as we have time for. So over now to Richard Weston. He's presenting on the topic, 'What will it take for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children to live vibrant, joyful lives?' Please welcome Richard Weston.

MR WESTON: Hello. I'm speaking today on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I live in Melbourne and I pay my respects to the ancestors of the Wurundjeri people both past, present and emerging. I'm a Meriam man and my people hail from the Torres Strait. I'm the CEO of SNAICC, national voice for our children. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are born into the oldest living cultures on earth on a continuum that has inhabited this world, this continent, this place we call Australia, for the last 60,000 years. Let that really sink in beyond just the words. We have to get to what that feels like spiritually and emotionally.

It means our children have an inherent legacy, their birthright, that connects them to this ancient land through ceremony, song, art, lore, values and beliefs that date back to the earliest known existence of human life on this whole planet. The whole planet. Our children belong to cultures that had sophisticated social structures that passed on important knowledge from one generation to the next, knowledge that had one purpose; to ensure the survival of culture and of our people. It's not hard for me to imagine that if a child knew these basic facts about who their people are, where they are from and where they sit in the history of this country, that they would have almost the perfect basis on which to have a happy, healthy childhood and to live vibrant, joyful lives.

But in Australia today, that is not the case. As the Prime Minister Mr Morrison said in his Closing the Gap speech on February 12th this year, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia today do not have the same opportunities as all other children growing up in Australia. They never have in Australia. Never. In the conversation about what it will take for our children to enjoy happy childhoods, it's important to start with recognising the depth of the problem we are trying to address. We have to understand the challenge from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander point of view.

In the last 232 years the impact of another culture, Western culture, with its belief, values and Westminster system of law and philosophy has been forcibly introduced into this country to establish the nation state of Australia, heavily modelled on the nation state of Great Britain. The process to establish the nation state of Australia is called colonisation. It began in earnest in 1788, though many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people argue that it started when Captain Cook sailed up the east coast in 1770. Many of us also argue that it continues to this day.

Many of the social and health problems Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face today stem from our country's history. They began far in the past and the duration of these problems are often lifelong. Whilst many experts in health, education, psychology, social work, research, et cetera hold expert information about possible causes and treatments, only our people can provide the story of how these problems have affected their lives over time.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not just partners in dealing with health and social problems but they will be the principal source of solutions and the experts in dealing with their own problems. The levels of trauma that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have endured over the last 232 years are almost unimaginable. From the very early days of the colony, disease, dispossession of land, frontier wars and massacres, the mission system and the forced removal of children through the 19th and 20th centuries with high incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and juveniles and growing numbers of children being removed into the out-of-home care system, trauma has been widespread within communities and across generations.

High levels of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, which are a cluster of 10 common traumatic events that can have long lasting impacts and are a strong predictor of health and social problems over the life course, underlie the challenges in our communities. On many health and social indicators, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children fare much worse than their non-Indigenous counterparts. When we look at the data, we see the magnitude of the challenge. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are over two and a half times more likely to be developmentally vulnerable on two or more domains at age five, as measured through the Australian Early Development Census, but have significantly lower levels of access to early childhood education and care services and infant mortality at twice that for non-Indigenous children.

There are many other indicators about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's levels of disadvantage that demonstrate more needs to be done to positively impact these young lives. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 10 times more likely to be in the out-of-home care system, which threatens their connection to family, cultures and identity. Nationally, 37.3% of all children in out-of-home care are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders when they comprise just 5.5% of the total Australian child population. Data projections suggest that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care will more than double in the next 10 years if we do not change our course of action. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care are at serious risk of permanent separation from their families, cultures and communities.

The trauma associated with child removal is intergenerational. Children living in a household with members of the Stolen Generations when compared with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were four and a half times as likely to have missed school without permission, 1.8 times as likely to have poor self-assessed health and 1.6 times as likely to live in a household with cash flow problems. We can go on listing the negative health and social impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but some experts tell us that we are using deficit language, which is unhelpful. Actually, I think we need to talk about these negative impacts to understand properly the scale of the problem to be solved. It doesn't mean the conversation stays focused on these health and social statistics. It just helps us understand what we are up against.

Compounding these many challenges and problems are poverty, one third of our people are below the poverty line, and racism. The challenges before us are great. To create the environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to live vibrant, joyful lives will not happen by doing business as usual or without a shift in power and a shift in the levels of investment. Solutions will involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participating in action at a range of levels in the system that impacts on the lives of our children. At a practice level, at an organisational level, at a systems level and at a policy level.

For example, at a community level, respecting local and regional decision making and leadership in formal partnerships. Empowering children, families and communities to be better able to express their aspirations and needs and support the development of community champions for children. Supporting partnerships between practitioners and the community to foster a balanced two-way learning about what works best for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's development based on community knowledge systems and Western evidence.

At a practice level, building into practice recognition, respect and understanding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's childrearing practices. Building on the skilled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce to work in the early years services across child development, health, education and child welfare services. Supporting workforces to become better skilled in delivering a trauma aware, healing-informed approach that takes account of the impact of intergenerational trauma and adverse childhood experiences and creates opportunities for healing.

At an organisational level, investing in the development of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled sector in early years where there are gaps, such as in the child protection system. Investment in building trauma-aware, healing-informed organisations that are better equipped to deal with the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and create programs that support healing.

At a systems level, begin privileging and investing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge in planning and development of services and programs. Support mechanisms that capture the voice of children and their families. Tackling racism. Investing in the development of a community controlled early years sector with a mix of new funding and a gradual transition of investment from mainstream providers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services. Greater investment in the preventative early intervention end of problems rather than later when they are entrenched and difficult to resolve.

And then finally at a policy level, implementing the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early childhood strategy which is a partnership between the Commonwealth Government and SNAICC who will engage with a range of indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders. Establishing a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's commissioner to provide accountability, monitoring and oversight on matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Establishing similar roles in each state and territory. All governments committing to the Closing the Gap targets concerning children and the issues that impact on children's wellbeing and the priority reforms, like meaningful partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations. Investing in growing the community controlled sectors, early childhood education, child protection, maternal and infant health. Getting more out of mainstream services and better local and regional data for communities to be able to make decisions about their priorities. Ensuring that the next generation of the national framework for protecting Australia's children continues to build on privileging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, and that we use the next iteration of the framework to better implement a public health approach that better targets resources to the preventative and early intervention end of problems. SNAICC has produced a range of resources that can support organisations and practitioners think about how they engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

So in conclusion, the challenges and problems facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families are big problems that are inextricably linked to Australia's settlement history. Addressing these issues will require robust solutions. If we look at what is happening in the US because of the systematic marginalisation of African Americans over two or three centuries, we see problems that are almost unsolvable. Underpinning the creation of an environment that will nurture Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are key principles of the rights of children and self-determination.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, their families and their community must be involved in developing solutions. Their knowledge systems should be privileged and sit alongside Western evidence. Whilst most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are doing well, there are too many who are not. For all the children, for all of our children to live vibrant, joyful lives would take significant action across a range of policy and service domains. And as the Prime Minister said in his Closing the Gap speech on February 12th, this is the ultimate test of our efforts, that every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boy and girl can grow up in this country with the same opportunities and expectations as any other Australian boy and girl. Thank you.

MS HOLLONDS: Thanks Richard and welcome again to everyone listening wherever you are today. Please send through your questions. We have a thousand people registered now and we're going to do our best to get through the issues that you would like to put to Richard, who's given us a very comprehensive outline of what needs to be done, what the issues are and what needs to be done, and there's really so little time and so much to discuss but let me start first, Richard, with a question from me. Right now we're all thinking about racism, as demonstrated by deaths in custody, not just because of George Floyd but especially David Dungay and the 431 other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died since the Royal Commission in 1991. What does this mean for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child observing today, growing up in Australia, watching the protests? How are they making sense of what they see and hear?

MR WESTON: Well Anne, I was talking to my own son, 11-year-old boy, Jacob, last night about this, just trying to tap into what he's thinking and what he's feeling and he has been – just in the last couple of days has been very emotional and I think, you know, just exhibiting – he's anxious and uncertain about – you know, about the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, about himself, in the community. You know, he's seeing images of police, particularly in the United States, being very physical with protestors. So it's just raising a lot of questions for him to think about, you know, what does it mean to be – you know, what's out there for him, what is the attitude of the community to him? So I think that for all children at the moment, and I can't – you know, without really speaking to children properly, I can only imagine that they would be feeling anxious and to some degree fearful. So they will need lots of reassurance, they will need to have their confidence built by their families. But these are really challenging times I think.

MS HOLLONDS: So how would – how do you go about trying to reassure your young son in these uncertain times? I mean it is very confronting I imagine watching the very public protests but also the public violence that we've all been confronted by. How can you reassure young Aboriginal children today?

MR WESTON: Look I think what we do is we have to speak truthfully to them. We have to explain in a way that's not – not in a way that's going to terrify them but in a way that they can digest about the history of Australia and what that's meant for our people and their ancestors. But we want to instill in our kids and what I try to do with my boys is instill in them about it's so much better now. Even though things aren't perfect, there's so many more opportunities for them to, you know, be strong in their identity, strongly connected to their culture, and use that as a springboard that they can take forward into their life.

And my boy Jacob, you know, he loves his culture. He does a lot of artwork, he's a painter. He dances when he can. He's very proud of his identity. He talks about it unashamedly with peers and his school community and others and he's always quick to tell people that he belongs to the Barkandji and the Meriam people. So really instilling that confidence and the strength of that connection to 60,000 years of living, surviving culture I think is the way to get our kids through.

MS HOLLONDS: Wow. I mean I guess we're all needing a bit of reassurance at the moment. It feels quite overwhelming, if I can speak personally, and so that's nice to hear that you're able to reassure your own kids in that way despite what are clearly very important and big challenges that we still face. We've had some questions, Richard, on Closing the Gap, so I might go to your role in that work now.


MS HOLLONDS: And to just put to you, for those of us not inside the tent with the Closing the Gap work, can you tell us how it's progressing? Will it in fact – do you have hope that it will create the changes that we need to create that environment so that Aboriginal children can live vibrant, joyful lives? And how can those of us not working directly on it, how can we help?

MR WESTON: Well I think, going to the first part of the question, about hopefulness about what the agreement might deliver, I'm always hopeful and optimistic, Anne, but I think our experience and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whether you're a member of a community and just – or whether you're working actively in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs space, I think there's an expectation that somehow disappointment isn't too far off around the corner in spite of, you know, I guess people's – you know, the aspirations and the commentary of government in terms of wanting to work with people and get better outcomes. I mean we've heard that for a long time with Close the Gap, for 10 years, and we haven't really seen much change in many of the targets but I'm always hopeful.

I think what's different about this new process, this new agreement, is the strong partnership between a Coalition of Peaks, around 40 to 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, that are working in partnership with both the federal, the state, the territory governments to develop and agree on targets and a number of priority reforms in the system. So I think there's some good reasons to be optimistic but the proof in the pudding is always in what happens in the implementation, what are the outcomes, and I think if we go by history, we'd have to be – we'd probably lean more towards being sceptical as opposed to being positive that we're going to get really, really good change.

MS HOLLONDS: And can you say a little bit about how the work that's being done, how you see it contributing to changing those conditions that would enable kids to live a vibrant and joyful life?

MR WESTON: Well I think one of the things that – there's four priority areas that the government and the Coalition of Peaks have agreed on for change and one of those is from the partnerships at all levels with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities. A growth, an investment in growing the Aboriginal community controlled sectors. Better outcomes and more accountability from mainstream services and actors that operate in the Indigenous affairs space. And reforms around the availability of data, particularly for the local and regional communities, to help them make decisions and you know, lead the charge on what should be happening in program and policy and service responses in their own region. And I think those are really important reforms.

They weren't in the previous Closing the Gap arrangements, which were really predicated on, 'Well let's set some ambitious targets' and then that's it. There wasn't really – there wasn't enough action, there wasn't enough involvement and engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, Aboriginal leadership, Aboriginal organisations, to partner into those arrangements. So that's what's a bit different this time around and certainly there are specific targets that deal with the needs of children. I think they're going to play a central role in Closing the Gap going forward. But as I say, I'm always – my optimism is always tempered by what's occurred in the past and also by the scale of the challenge going forward.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. Thanks Richard. I'm just now looking at some of the other questions that are coming through. Maybe we might go to a more granular level. I mean you covered in your presentation the different levels, the community level, practice level, organisational level and the systemic and higher levels. One of the issues, I think this comes up a lot, is what can organisations that are non-Aboriginal controlled, what can they be doing to support the work of Aboriginal community controlled organisations and, indeed, what can they do on a practical and concrete level on the ground in their work with Aboriginal families? So you know, just a little bit more – I know we've got a lot of practitioners who are listening today and go practitioners, we love you. Something – I guess some reflections for them about what they can be doing right now. Right here, right now.

MR WESTON: Look I think just firstly before I answer that, I just want to acknowledge the non-Indigenous people that do work, you know, with our children, with our families and with our communities and really recognise how important they are in what we're trying to achieve in terms of getting better outcomes for our people. We can't do it all on our own, we do need really strong and skilled and knowledgeable non-Indigenous practitioners to be there working with us in partnership. But I think – it's really important I think that practitioners can gain an understanding, get an understanding of the community and the people that they're working with, what is their history, I think a good recognition, becoming, I guess, familiar with what it means for these – for the people they're working with to be part of the oldest living culture in the world. Honour that and recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn't survive for 60,000 years by luck.

You know, we had systems, we had practices and many of those have been disrupted by colonisation, by the movement of people, the removal of children and so forth, but in spite of that there is still really good leadership and there is good knowledge in communities. So recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a knowledge system, that it worked very well for a long time, and aim to tap into that. Aim to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and their children in the work that you're trying to achieve, on the outcomes you're trying to achieve.

Aboriginal families want good outcomes for their kids. You know, parents want to see their kids thrive, they want to see them get an education, they want to see them healthy and happy. And you know, people who work at the coalface with our communities, with our families, are important to helping that to happen.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. Thanks Richard. Just checking the board. Now we've got a few questions on child protection and out-of-home care and I'll just pick on the one about permanency. Have you got any comments to make about permanency and the way that out-of-home care is being handled by the states at the moment?

MR WESTON: Well we think it's being handled pretty poorly. I think that's – but in terms of permanency, permanency is where families are given – there's a time limit given, I think in some places it's two years, and within that time if reunification can't be achieved of a child who's been removed, if reunification with family can't be achieved, then the child is into what we're calling forced adoption. And we think that's a really dangerous policy for a number of reasons. One, it fails to recognise the complexity of the issues and challenges that we're dealing with. It fails to recognise the – you know, the challenge of or the importance of keeping kids connected to their culture and their identity. We know that kids do better in their families, in their culture and connected to who they are as a person. We see forced adoption as just another – you know, another way of removing children from their identity.

I think one of the most alarming things we see – there's a couple of things. Almost every – most of the states and jurisdictions have permanency in their – it's in their legislation. But a number of the jurisdictions have said they're not going to apply it to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but it still remains as an option if it's in the legislation. And the other thing is that we worry that departments' child protection systems will use that time limit as a way of not doing enough to reunite children with their families. And you know, we really need to see the application of the child placement principle and family-led decision making but, yeah, this permanency approach poses great risks for kids because we're so over-represented in the out-of-home care system so they're more likely to have it applied to them.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. We've got some questions from teachers, Richard. I'll just see if I can find them again. No. Oh yeah, what – for example, what is your advice for teachers who want to acknowledge the issues but at the same time want to move beyond deficit views? So you touched on that sort of tension in your presentation. What practical advice do you have? And we've got a – so one small example would be making – someone's suggesting here one small example would be making sure school teachers have good quality training in understanding Aboriginal culture but this doesn't seem to happen. Do you have any comments for teachers out there?

MR WESTON: Look I think my earlier comments about people working with our children apply here as well. Look I think teachers are such a valuable resource for our kids, you know, for all children but particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. They are really a gateway to knowledge, critical thinking, you know, how to navigate the world and I think that we often find that children do well if there's a really good, skilled educator, you know, in the classroom with them but – and similarly kids, where they're not exposed to a good educator, they do poorly. So teachers are really critical. And I think that, you know, we have a problem in the curriculum where we don't see enough, you know, Aboriginal history being taught. We don't see enough about the – from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective of the impact of, you know, settlement in Australia. So that's a real barrier.

But I think in terms of training teachers, we need to do more – particularly in challenging communities, we need to do more to get skilled, experienced educators into those places. We should be tilting the system to have our best educators work with our most challenging children. What tends to happen is that, you know, remote communities, rural communities become the first placement for young teachers coming out of teacher training. And they do that, they go and spend a couple of years there so that they get a better option later on to transfer to what you might call a more attractive location. So we need to tilt the system to put our better educators with the children that need – you know, with the most need.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. Well just thinking about teachers who are very much in that frontline and you know, with their – you know, we're asking a lot of them I guess all the time but they really do need to be equipped and supported to do this work. And recently I – you know, I mentioned to you, Richard, earlier that I managed to get to watch that film 'In My Blood It Runs' and as a non-Aboriginal person really seeking to have an understanding beyond the intellectual level of what these issues are that we're discussing, I found this film incredibly powerful – and I'm mentioning this now for everyone listening, I highly recommend it, to be able to see through the eyes of the child Dujuan that disconnect between an education system that's designed for non-Aboriginal people. That, you know, he embodies that disconnect in his struggle. Despite his family encouraging him to go to school, he – you know, you can just – it's just a visceral experience watching him struggle with this education system. So it's a very powerful embodiment of exactly what you're talking about, Richard.

MR WESTON: Well I think the – yeah, the film is a great film. I think you get a glimpse into the classroom environment and the kids are completely disengaged, the teacher's talking about their – you know, things like, you know, dreaming and creation stories and makes a comment like, 'Oh I suppose we have to believe them'. So there's – you know, you've got this disconnect between these kids who belong to this ancient culture and a teacher that just can't – is trying to teach from a Western perspective. And look it just highlights the need to have, you know, more cultural training for non-Indigenous teachers but we need more Aboriginal people from the community, you know, working with them, alongside them, and we need – kids need to be able to learn in their own language as well.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. It's a missed opportunity, isn't it, given how important education is that we're not doing it in the way that - - -

MR WESTON: Yeah, in that boy's example, he's a really intelligent, smart kid and since that film's been made, he's been off to the UN and addressed the UN.

MS HOLLONDS: Has he? Wow.

MR WESTON: So it's – yeah.

MS HOLLONDS: Wow, yeah. I'm going to go to our questions now. I might go to the Productivity Commission question about evaluation just for a different tangent for a minute. So it goes, 'The Productivity Commission released a report last week on Indigenous programs and reported that most of them have no input from Indigenous communities in evaluating the efficacy and they recommended an office of Indigenous policy evaluation and that this would assist to improve the services. Is this what you mean by saying we need to have Indigenous knowledge respected and valued at all levels?'

MR WESTON: Yeah, look I think that – I haven't had a close read of that report but I did read that recommendation. But I think what I've found in my experience, when we're looking for solutions to these difficult problems, and I've worked in regional and remote areas, the things that made a difference, the things that worked were when Aboriginal people were engaged in unpacking the problem, highlighting and talking about what their priorities were, what did they think the issues were and using, you know, the experts of – non-Indigenous experts.

And I worked in the health space to really help and work with the community to design the program responses and that – and part of doing that kind of process really needs to – well what we found worked really well was to have an evaluation framework around it. And we did the same thing when I worked at the Healing Foundation where I spent nine years prior to coming to SNAICC but we – every piece of work we did, we had an evaluation framework around it.

And the evaluation framework was in – you know, it wasn't done at the end of the project, it was done as we went and it involved the community. So the community were part of the evaluation team and it helped them unpack, you know, what – you know, look at, well what are the goals and objective we're trying to achieve and what's happened? All right, what's worked? So they've been able to identify, okay, here's what's worked, let's keep doing that. So what hasn't worked and why hasn't it worked? And then let's try something else. So evaluation isn't just sort of an audit at the end of a project. It's very much a dynamic process that contributes to successful outcomes.

MS HOLLONDS: So really what I hear you saying is that right from the design of the policy and the services all the way through with ongoing attention to evaluation, it needs to be a participatory approach that really attends to what are the aspirations of the people who – that are seeking – you know, that we're seeking to help.

MR WESTON: Yeah, well the people in the community are designing and developing the program, they're part of the delivery. If they're part of the evaluation, they have – they develop a stronger ownership of the project, they become champions for the work. And I think it's important that, you know, any type of service or program has an evaluation – an evaluation of resource is attached to it. But the people who are most affected by the program or the service are the ones who are going to give you the best information and they'll tell you and they'll know whether it's working or not.

MS HOLLONDS: M'hmm, m'hmm. Richard, before we start to wind down, I'm just scanning the questions and there are some examples being given, for example, of training student teachers in bicultural practice in New Zealand, there's – justice reinvestment is being mentioned and questions about how is justice reinvestment going here in Australia. Also back to New Zealand, there was another one about fast-tracking Māori teachers. You know, I guess these are examples that are coming up of perhaps some green shoots. Obviously, you know, nothing's perfect, we know that, but do you have any reflections on those sorts of examples or other green shoots that you might be seeing in Australia?

MR WESTON: Yeah, look I think there's – look there's some – there are some very good, you know, things that are happening out in communities. I was watching a program last night, a couple of friends of mine were interviewing a Hope Vale mens' group from up in Queensland and the men were fantastic and talking about how they dealt with the COVID crisis, the things they were doing to engage men, you know, to be more constructive and better contributors into the community, how they were dealing with feuds. You know, how they were enabling men and supporting men to be better engaged with the – you know, with supporting their families and their partners and their children.

That sort of leadership is in – I've seen that kind of leadership in Aboriginal communities all over Australia and I think we have to change the mindset that some expert has to go in to a community and build and deliver a solution. The solutions are already there on the ground. It's about using Western knowledge and expertise in a partnership approach to help shape what the community wants to do and be responsive to the community's aspirations rather than what the expert's goals and objectives are.

So these things are – and they're just there to tap in. We don't necessarily need to import models from other countries. We have the ability here to grow things from the ground up and there's plenty of examples I think of things that have worked, promising practice, but they just haven't been resourced enough and we haven't – we don't have a mechanism for creating ongoing investment to scale good work up and we don't seem to have the ability to stop doing the things that don't work.

And I think that the process I described earlier about the partnership approach in Closing the Gap I think can help free some of that up. I think – I also said in my address there needed to be a shift in power and a shift in resources and a shift in power means that Aboriginal people have to be in equal partnership with policy makers, service providers, and that's a challenge for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but it's also a challenge for the non-Indigenous, you know, mainstream services.

MS HOLLONDS: Yeah. Look, I'm going to just again change tack now, Richard, and go to another important role that you have. You're part of the National Co-design Group formed by Minister Wyatt to provide advice on the voice to parliament. Can you explain why the voice is important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and how will it make a difference to their lives?

MR WESTON: Look I think what the voice is trying to do and what the minister wants to do is, he's been very clear about this, he wants to see the voices and aspiration of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and regions reflected in a national voice to the government or to parliament, and that's a different approach. I mean it's – there's a process going on, there's quite a few people involved in coming up with what that might look like or what some options are but ultimately it'll go back to the regions and the local people to have a strong input into what that's going to look like and how do they want to be represented and who do they want speaking to the government on their behalf.

But it'll also mean that all governments, state, territory, local government and the federal government, will begin developing local and regional partnership agreements with communities, with regions, around – set around the priorities that communities identify. And I've seen that work in a number of places, particularly in the Murdi Paaki region where I spent 13 years and where there was a governance framework and a community-led governance framework which – you know, which worked really well in terms of focusing effort on the aspirations of communities rather than the aspirations of government.

And you know, when you put together Closing the Gap, you know, what that's trying to achieve, the design of this national voice, what that's trying to achieve, these are the sort of things I think that are hopeful about bringing change. But you know, it really will come down to that engagement at the local and regional level. And it will mean it will require communities to step up and take responsibility and ownership of their destiny but it'll also require, yeah, governments, policy makers, to work in a different way with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We won't be – you know, we won't be just the subjects of a policy. We'll be actually partnering with them in the design and the delivery.

MS HOLLONDS: M'mm. So really whilst we hear in the media about the voice to parliament at the parliamentary level and you know, a lot of debate about is it another chamber and all of that stuff, what you're saying is that it actually means a voice at all levels, right down to that local level that might help to change the school that Dujuan goes to in that - - -


MS HOLLONDS: In that film. You know, that it is the voice of the people themselves that is able to be heard at all levels. That's what it actually is. Have I got that right? Have I understood that? Or would you put it a different way?

MR WESTON: Look I think that's a good way to put it, I think that's what the goal, the objective is. And it does sound, you know, like a huge task, a huge undertaking but the reason the voice is important is because it's important for all Australians and the reason it's important for all Australians is because it's important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We just have not been able to – inspite of good intention, you know, strong support from the non-Indigenous community for things like Black Lives Matter, we saw that in protests across the country, support for reconciliation, support to have a better relationship between non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people, we haven't been able to shift the dial very much on closing that life expectancy gap.

And it goes to this – what we are trying to untangle is 200 plus years, 230 plus years of, you know, the imposition of a Western culture onto our cultures. And it seems that progress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has always been measured by non-Indigenous people and its always been measured on how much alike we can become like non-Aboriginal people, so how much can we be like white fellas. So policies like the assimilation process, the removal of children. All that was designed to make us become more like white fellas and it hasn't worked. It's been going on for 200 years and it hasn't worked. We know it's caused a lot of harm, we see that in our Stolen Generations. We see that in the film with the young boy Dujuan.

But, so we really need – so we do need to have these structures, this systemic addressing of this imbalance of power so the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can come to the table and work in partnership. And that's not a motherhood statement. And I can tell you that the conversations we're having in the Closing the Gap agreement, you know, negotiating agreement, negotiating a target, we've got 50 coalition organisations, Aboriginal organisations, we've got the Commonwealth, all the states and the territories and all the dynamics that go on, trying to reach an agreement, it's hard work, it's really hard work. But the challenge is big. You know, it's not going to change easily, it's not going to change through motherhood statements.

MS HOLLONDS: Well, and really what you're saying, if I can sort of put it in – back in your words from your presentation, I think you said somewhere that business as usual is not going to work. That, you know, the question is what does it take for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to live vibrant, joyful lives. Well we know business as usual will not cut it. And so here you're describing something that really is quite transformational, not just in relation to what it would mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but actually how policy is done in this country across the board because you're describing a very different approach where the voices of the people really are driving the design and the implementation of a policy.

MR WESTON: Yes, well we - - -

MS HOLLONDS: So you know, this is big. It's big and bold.

MR WESTON: Well it is big and yeah, I mean we've – I think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have always had big aspirations and we've found government have never been able to meet those. But you know, there's a whole – this is – there's a whole range on many levels from service provision, education systems, working in partnership with people, but there's – it also goes to the question of what – you know, what our country's about. You know, what does our country stand for? And you know, Australia – if any country in the world is going to address the challenges of disadvantage in a First Nations community, it's got to be Australia. We know across the board, whether it's the Māori people, Canadian Indians, American First Nations peoples, we all have similar – you know, similar disparities in our social and health outcomes.

But in Australia, we have these mechanisms now starting to be developed and evolved and they've taken a long time to get there but there's an opportunity to really deliver, you know, real change and really, you know, in a fair, like a genuine way, close that gap. It will require – it will be a big ask for non-Indigenous people to step back. It will be a big ask for non-Indigenous people to support Aboriginal leadership on a range of issues that are important to us. But unless we have control of our destiny, unless we can determine our own futures, then we'll just continue to roll along, you know, making a few gains here and there perhaps, but we will have this – we'll be dragging this chain of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage for a long, long time in the future and nobody really wants that.

You know, I think we all want our nation, our country, the place we want to grow our children up and the future we want to create for all children – but the future we want to create is one where people are equal, you know, there is equity and that's what Australia stands for. It's always been – it's fought for those sort of things.

MS HOLLONDS: Richard, I think that's a fabulous place for us to wrap up now and you know, thank you so much for both the presentation and, as well as, you know, addressing all these questions that – we could be doing this for another several hours of course. Apologies to all of those whose questions we couldn't get to but I think we covered quite a lot of territory there. So all that remains now is for me to say a big thank you to Richard, to you again. This has been a very important moment for us here at AIFS to be able to have this conversation with you and to share it with a thousand people around Australia and hopefully more who might watch it – watch the recording later. Thank you so much for your contribution today, for the wisdom and the inspiration that you've shared with us. And thanks everybody.

MR WESTON: Thanks a lot, Anne, and thanks everybody for tuning in. Thank you.

MS HOLLONDS: Bye everyone.



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CEO, SNAICC – National Voice for our Children

Richard is a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. He has worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for 25 years in a range of government and non-government roles. His most significant roles have come in the last 20 years as Chief Executive Officer at:

  • Maari Ma Health (Murdi Paaki Region, Far West NSW, 2000-09)
  • The Healing Foundation (Canberra, 2010-19)

His current CEO role is with Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC – National Voice for our Children), based in Melbourne, Vic. SNAICC is known for its influential policy work aimed at improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, its training and sector development resources and its leadership on National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day and the biannual SNAICC Conferences (arguably the largest national Indigenous conference in Australia).

Other current roles:

  • a board member of Families Australia
  • one of SNAICC’s representatives on the Coalition of Peaks negotiating a partnership agreement with the Australian Government
  • Co-Chair of the Family Matters Campaign (to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care across Australia)
  • has been appointed by Minister Wyatt to the National Co-Design Group that will lead the co-design process for a national Indigenous voice and advise the government on preferred options for a voice to Parliament
  • SNAICC rep. on Early Childhood Education and Care Reference Group (Australian Department of Education).