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About our research agenda

In 2013, the NSW Government released OCHRE (Opportunity Choice Healing Responsibility Empowerment) – a community focused plan for Aboriginal affairs.

To support and inform the policy changes that flow from OCHRE we have built a research agenda for our time. Our agenda makes a calculated and, perhaps, historic shift in emphasising hope over despair, aspiration over services, and placing the transformation of the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and government at its centre.

Our agenda reflects our desire for a new narrative in Aboriginal affairs and demonstrates our commitment to embedding Aboriginal voices and perspectives into policy development and implementation. We cannot do this on our own. The extended research community will be critical in delivering the evidence that supports Aboriginal communities and the NSW Government to work together to determine what works, what’s worth trying and what success looks like.

Download our Research Agenda - Transforming the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the NSW Government 2018-2023

Inside our research agenda

Our research agenda has eight chapters: Return of public lands to Aboriginal control/ownership, Aboriginal languages, Cultural capability of New South Wales public servants, Economic prosperity, Self-determination, Influencing the public discourse, Improving research and evaluation practice with Aboriginal peoples and communities, and the impact of Aboriginal perspectives on policy development. A summary of each chapter is provided below.

  • • Return of public lands to Aboriginal control/ownership
    Heidi Norman provides an overview of the unique history of Aboriginal land recovery in New South Wales. Crucially the continuing return of substantial land holdings to Aboriginal peoples will open up significant cultural, social and economic opportunities for Aboriginal communities across New South Wales. In Norman’s view, this will increasingly position Aboriginal peoples as central actors in development, planning and conservation. This, she concludes, will validate Aboriginal approaches to nation-building.
  • • Aboriginal languages
    Britt Jacobsen and Anthony Seiver explore the history of Aboriginal language policy in New South Wales, in the context of the 2017 consultations with Aboriginal communities on proposed legislation to recognise and protect New South Wales Aboriginal languages. In reviewing international, Commonwealth and State approaches, Jacobsen and Seiver emphasise Aboriginal languages are an essential ingredient in promoting Aboriginal community ownership and the development of the cultural essence of distinct peoples. Importantly, Aboriginal people draw overwhelmingly positive support for the nurturing of Aboriginal languages from a clear majority of New South Wales citizens, a hopeful foundation for the new relationship now sought.
  • • Cultural capability of New South Wales public servants
    Gabrielle Russell-Mundine considers the normative narratives embedded in Australian society about Aboriginal people and evidence of these in public service practice. Charged with developing and implementing government policy, the goal is a public service able to engage in a meaningful and sustainable way with Aboriginal communities. Simply put, this requires a ‘culturally capable’ public service, which defines appropriate capabilities, understands them fully and then incorporates them in all policies and practices. For this to become ‘business as usual’ in New South Wales, Russell-Mundine sets the important goal of a context specific cultural capability framework.
  • • Economic prosperity
    It is the long-lasting impacts of colonisation, examined by Kirrily Jordan and Nick Biddle, that so clearly shape major aspects of Aboriginal life. These include the legacy of the violent displacement of Aboriginal peoples from their lands, the alienation of successive generations from economic resources and the resulting limitations on their capacity to accrue wealth to pass onto their children and grandchildren. The elements and determinants of economic prosperity are examined carefully including demography, racism, education, employment, enterprise, housing, and land and sea management. Here we see the link to Heidi Norman’s discussion of the potential benefits of increasing land returns to expand the Indigenous estate. The need to enhance and support self-determination in the setting of goals and the design of policy related to economic prosperity also become clear. Jordan and Biddle argue this would require further exploration of what economic prosperity means for different Aboriginal people, communities and organisations in New South Wales, as well as appropriate strategies and measures to realise it. The genuine power-sharing and co-production required to achieve this remind us of the importance of a competent public service that understands self-determination for Aboriginal people.
  • • Self-determination
    Self-determination is the subject of Janet Hunt’s contribution. History shows that self–determination can be interpreted in a variety of ways; including as an Indigenous community sector model, as First Nation building to drive the self-determination of groups, and as the possibility of treaty discussions to define the legal terms of self-determination. As any meaningful return to a policy of self-determination depends on major changes to the status quo, Hunt analyses the preconditions for such a power shift. She suggests this would first require recognition that self-determination is an inherent right and that although its meaning may vary in practice, acceptance of the legitimacy of Aboriginal governance of organisations is necessary. Attention to institutional arrangements and the Commonwealth Government’s policy environment is also vital, along with an approach developed with Aboriginal communities including agreement on financial resources and accountability arrangements. In this discussion, the importance of land, language, culture, economic prosperity and a culturally-competent public service resurface as key, interdependent elements of self-determination.
  • • Influencing the public discourse
    Jeff McMullen draws our attention to the central positive role of the Aboriginal voice in the context of what McMullen sees as a “relentless, humiliating devaluing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as human beings and a misconceived, one-sided fixation on the ‘Aboriginal problem’” that commenced when Aboriginal peoples were first sighted by Lt. James Cook in 1770. He argues that the ‘deficit discourse’ is shaped by our limited contact with, and knowledge and understanding of, Aboriginal Australians. Our self-interest is shaped by the degree of our family privilege, cultural upbringing, education and by an eternal fear of difference. What is compelling about this journalistic reflection on the negative public discourse is his belief that even best-intentioned Western media practice can give voice to the gravest Aboriginal concerns. By contrast, transformation occurs through listening carefully to those who hold the key to a positive discourse - Aboriginal people.
  • • Improving research and evaluation practice with Aboriginal peoples and communities
    BJ Newton and Ilan Katz assess current research guidelines on ethical practices for working with Aboriginal people and communities. Drawing on their experiences in evaluating OCHRE, the authors present thought-provoking examples of the difficulties that can arise in building community trust and genuine partnerships within the constraints of budgets and time. They discuss the challenges for researchers including maintaining independence from government, the nature and meaning of ‘community consent’ and ‘community control’, and what is required when working with both Aboriginal and Western knowledge and practice. Their reflections on ethical research practices challenge us to understand more deeply how Aboriginal people see self-determination, the cultural competency of the public servants they are dealing with and the effectiveness of government commitments to hear Aboriginal voices.
  • • The impact of Aboriginal perspectives on policy development
    Here Jason Ardler puts the case for co-developed policy. Following a long period of too much government policy and too little community involvement in policy implementation, a new relationship must express local voices, two-way responsibility and accountability. In carefully plotting the course to the publication of OCHRE, Ardler’s analysis highlights the potential of the co-production of policies and goals to achieve outcomes that ‘walk the talk’ of self-determination. With an acceptance that policies have not worked in the past, the voices of Aboriginal peoples must guide us towards a more hopeful future.

Our areas of research inquiry

Our agenda is wide-ranging and seeks answers to new questions about the relationship between First Peoples and their lands and languages, the cultural capability of the public service, the nature of Aboriginal economic prosperity, and the negotiations that must define self-determination – information needed to support a positive, respectful and enduring relationship between Aboriginal peoples and government.

For the next six years we will focus on eight areas identified as priorities by Aboriginal communities:

  1. How might conversations about land justice and land access be advanced?
  2. How can the Native Title Act and Aboriginal Land Rights regimes be better aligned to enhance complementarity?
  3. How is Aboriginal language custodianship determined and does this differ according to the status of the language? Who has the authority to make decisions about language and what responsibilities come with this? What relationship is there between activities to nurture and grow languages and community governance bodies that run or oversee these programs?
  4. How is cultural capability understood in the New South Wales public service and how is it practiced? What influences practice? How is genuine interest in and commitment to culturally safe practice established and maintained in public service practice? How do the cultures and ‘disciplinary’ knowledges of different departments facilitate or hinder implementation of the key principles contained in OCHRE?
  5. How is Aboriginal economic prosperity defined and who defines its meaning?
  6. What is the connection/s between land ownership and local economies? What works and what does not? How are the benefits (economic, social, cultural and wellbeing) of land recovery realised and how can such benefits be measured and evaluated?
  7. What are the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in New South Wales for self-determination and wellbeing? What does self-determination mean to them? How do they understand wellbeing and how do they think their community wellbeing could be improved? In what areas of life do they want greater decision-making and control?
  8. What is best practice advocacy, policy promotion and media reporting that highlights the strengths of Aboriginal people?


Go Back

The Hon. Sarah Mitchell MLC launches research agenda

At the launch of the NSW Aboriginal Affairs research agenda at NSW Parliament House, Jeff McMullen AM, Aunty Jean Hands the Chair of the Northern Rivers Regional Assembly, and Jason Ardler the Head of Aboriginal Affairs in NSW, yarn about the importance of research in delivering the information that Aboriginal peoples in NSW are after.

Watch on Filmpond here

NSW Aboriginal Affairs Research Agenda 2018-2023 – insights

The Head of Aboriginal Affairs NSW Jason Ardler talks about the development of the research agenda and the areas covered.

Watch on Filmpond here

Implementing the research agenda – priorities for 2018

The authors of the Aboriginal Affairs research agenda discuss the three priority research areas where study will begin within the next year, why these areas were selected and the studies proposed. These research areas are the cultural capability of public servants, agreement making and building the Aboriginal language workforce.

Watch on Filmpond here