ORGANISING GOVERNMENT CAN be as important as policy. In his 2017 Wentworth Lecture to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Martin Parkinson noted that there had been eleven structures of Commonwealth Indigenous affairs administration under twenty-one ministers in the fifty years since the 1967 referendum. This, he argued, was ‘churn’ in the machinery of government, which impacted on ‘the transfer of knowledge and capability from one generation of public servants to the next’.
I count administrative arrangements in Indigenous affairs since 1967 in five organisational eras, each with multiple internal variations. This places my numbering of organisational arrangements both above and below Parkinson’s eleven. But what seems more important than numbers is the diversity of these arrangements, and whether we have yet identified an administrative structure that might endure. As a scholar of government and public administration based at the Australian National University, I argue that Gough Whitlam was on the right track in organising Indigenous affairs during his term as prime minister from late 1972 to 1975 – and that it is useful to revisit his vision.
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