From patrolling the top of Australia, to becoming Chief of Navy, to heading the new National Indigenous Australians Agency, Ray Griggs has had a lot of experience at the top.

Some of his early years were spent living in Darwin until he was about 22-years-old.

“It gave me a range of perspectives and a range of experiences, many of which I found – even as a kid – quite confronting,” Mr Griggs said.

“When I joined the navy, I worked on patrol boats in Cairns right across the top end down to Onslow.  I spent a lot of time in Broome, Derby and Wyndham.”

Spending a total of 40 years in the navy, Mr Griggs said the Indigenous component was quite small and that he noticed most Indigenous Australians in the navy gravitated toward working in the north.

“When I became Chief of Navy, I was determined to try and improve our participation rates and our retention rates,” Mr Griggs said.

One of his first moves was to appoint an Indigenous Strategic Adviser who reported directly to him.

This allowed Mr Griggs to form a connection to Indigenous Australians in the navy.

“We created a performance group called Bungaree,” Mr Griggs said.

The group’s first performance was on the Sydney Opera House’s forecourt on the night of the 2013 International Fleet Review.

The inaugural performance paid off.

“About three of the young guys came up to me that night and said, ‘I was going to leave the navy, and you have just given me a reason to stay in that you’re acknowledging my culture and allowing me to express my culture and my identity in a work setting’,” Mr Griggs said.

“It’s grown to where individual ships now have their own performance groups which are made up of those Indigenous and non-Indigenous sailors. They go around the world and they express [Indigenous] culture to people in many different countries.”

Mr Griggs said these smaller performance groups allow non-Indigenous Australians in the navy to learn and understand more about Indigenous culture.

“It’s a really good practical reconciliation step,” Mr Griggs said.

Other strides Mr Griggs took as Chief of Navy were in the recruitment process for Indigenous Australians, making sure courses were tailored to the particular circumstances of different Indigenous Australians.

In Cairns the navy now runs a six-week course which helps Indigenous Australians transition into the military environment to avoid experiences of culture shock.


Guiding a transferable skillset
Despite holding an Order of Australia, a Conspicuous Service Cross, and being former Chief of Navy and former Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Mr Griggs remains humble about his appointment to CEO of the NIAA.

“The reason I was asked to do it was for the leadership and organisational management skills,” Mr Griggs said.

“I don’t profess to be any sort of expert.”

Although not a First Nations man himself, the new Chief Executive said 25 percent of his workforce and half of his leadership team are Indigenous Australians.

“[They] give me that guidance and teach me … I bring that organisational leadership and management.”

Mr Griggs said his experience in the Defence Force has given him a lot of transferable skills, such as resource management, prioritisation, strategy and planning.

“I have run very complex programs in Defence,” Mr Griggs said.

“One of the things we do well in the military is strategy … strategy and planning. Those sorts of skills are useful if you want to make an organisation like the Agency a high performing one.”

While Mr Griggs admitted he is not the only person with this skill set, he said he has 40 years’ experience and at least a decade of using that skill set at “very senior levels.”


The New Agenda
With a new role comes a new agenda, and Mr Griggs’ priority is making sure everyone transitions across from the old Indigenous Affairs Group to the new Agency under the Prime Minister’s portfolio.

“[To] get the agency working effectively – that’s obviously important,” Mr Griggs said.

The next step is implementing the government’s platform which, according to Mr Griggs, has a big focus on mental health and youth suicide, getting kids in school, jobs, community safety and the “big architecture piece” – constitutional recognition through a Voice to Parliament.

“It’s a big agenda and [it’s] something that we’re really focused on,” Mr Griggs said.

Mr Griggs gave no hints as to whether the re-elected Coalition would endorse the Uluru Statement From the Heart via the Agency, stating it’s the government’s prerogative to decide that.

“They have provided $7.3 million to run a co-design process around the Voice,” Mr Griggs said.

“We will obviously have a pretty central role, from a government perspective, in helping that process.”

As for work on the “red dirt” as Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has previously put it, Mr Griggs wants to get out and spend time in Australia’s Indigenous communities, listening and learning from people on the ground.

He has already visited Walgett, Dubbo, Alice Springs, Goodooga, APY Lands (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara), and Shepparton, and will soon be visiting other communities such as Jigalong and Garma.

“The other really big thing is making sure the partnership we now have with the coalition of Indigenous [peak bodies] … works, making sure we work in a way that makes it effective,” Mr Griggs said.

Mr Griggs said working in partnership with others requires working differently.

“Bureaucracies have traditionally not been fantastic at working differently. So, we know that we have to find the right balance to make sure that partnership works, and I think that partnership is hugely important when it comes to the Closing the Gap agenda.”

By Hannah Cross