From Walbunja man and CEO of the Byamee Institute, Simon Jovanovic.
National Indigenous Times welcomes letters to the Editor. Please send letters to
Hannah Cross at [email protected].


Dear Ms Cross,

I am writing to clarify and point out the assumptions and problematic statements made about the lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and over-representation of non-Aboriginal and non-Torres Strait Islander leadership in the National Indigenous Australian Agency (NIAA).

This is in reply to the August 14, 2020, National Indigenous Times (NIT) Letter to the Editor by Ray Griggs AO CSC, Chief Executive Officer of NIAA.

Mr Griggs’ Letter to the Editor on August 14, 2020 was aimed at providing a balanced view of statements expressed by Megan Krakouer that white men are leading the NIAA.

In reply, Mr Griggs reassured NIT readers that 50 per cent of NIAA senior leaders are Indigenous, of which half are women. Also, he knows of no other workplace in the country where there is such a “substantive level of Indigenous representation at senior level”.

Let’s clarify the assumptions from the above statements.

Firstly, I assume by the term “Indigenous” that Mr Griggs refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. The term Indigenous does not recognise the diversity of First Nations communities that exist in Australia. It’s a blanket homogenous term that assumes all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the same and can be classified as one distinct racial group.

Secondly, if 50 per cent of the senior leadership at NIAA is Indigenous, then the other 50 per cent is non-Indigenous.

I pose the following questions to Mr Griggs:

Would it be appropriate to racialise the cultural backgrounds of the 50 per cent non-Indigenous leaders at NIAA under categories such as Anglo Celtic, European or non-European, which are clearly outlined in the April 2018 Report Leading for Change A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership revisited by the Australian Human Rights Commission?

Mr Griggs, why is only half of the senior leadership Indigenous?

Wouldn’t it make better business sense to employ a 100 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce across the country?

Thirdly, Mr Griggs what is the definition of an Indigenous senior leader? Are they people who are identified as leaders in their communities or just the public service? If being recognised as a leader in your own community is not a meaningful qualification, then why not?

Based on what Mr Griggs has stated in his 14 August letter, it’s a fact that the senior leadership has a profound effect on how the agency operates.

The fact that 50 per cent of the senior leadership is non-Indigenous has an impact on decisions the agency makes on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

If the senior leadership was 100 per cent Indigenous then funding for peak bodies such as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples would most likely continue, Indigenous education funding would not be given to a non-Indigenous organisation and more funding would be allocated for Aboriginal Legal Services to address the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults and young people in custody.

Indigenous programs could be tailormade to meet the needs of the community instead of a one-size fits all approach like Closing the Gap.

Indigenous representation at senior levels in government did exist from 1990 to 2004, when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was the representative voice of Indigenous people.

Comparing NIAA to other government agencies who don’t exclusively provide direct services to Indigenous communities is problematic. If the other agencies across government are servicing the needs of only the Indigenous population then that would be a fair comparison.

It would be a fairer comparison to provide data on the non-Indigenous senior Indigenous leadership of NIAA compared to the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), Indigenous Business Australia (IBA), and Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation.

Mr Griggs has voiced support for increasing senior Indigenous representation across the Commonwealth Public Service.

Is there an exit strategy for non-Indigenous leadership to relinquish their positions to upcoming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders?

The Commonwealth Aboriginal Employment Strategy concedes that there is an overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in lower-level positions across the public service. An implicit assumption within the strategy is that Indigenous workers do not have the necessary skills and abilities to be executive leaders and managers.

Mr Griggs concedes that 60 per cent of the overall staff working in NIAA are non-Aboriginal and non-Torres Strait Islander. There appears to be a trend that within NIAA, non-Indigenous people represent the majority yet they provide services to clients who are all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Agencies servicing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be led by members of those communities.

I hope the comments and questions posed to Mr Griggs provide readers with an opportunity to reflect on the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be leaders of departments and agencies that exclusively serve their own communities.

Simon Jovanovic
CEO Byamee Institute
PhD Candidate, Department of Indigenous Studies
Macquarie University