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Advise on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage

Focus on ensuring we are a trusted advisor delivering world class expertise on the situation and status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage.

In 2020–21 AIATSIS delivered the following initiatives in line with our mission and functions. Our actions focused on reporting against our Corporate Plan.

  • Reports and briefs
  • Engagements

Feature 15: Reports and briefs

Refer to TABLE 5: ADVISE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER CULTURE AND HERITAGE. and Table 5a: AIATSIS reports and policy briefs produced for statistics on reports and briefs.

Notable achievements include:

  • the release of the National Indigenous Languages Report and an associated AIATSIS and ANU policy forum to explain the findings and implications
  • contributing to parliamentary inquiries such as those on the destruction of Juukan Gorge and on the Aboriginal flag
  • commencing the process of regularly reporting on the situation and status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage.

National Indigenous Languages Report

The National Indigenous Languages Report was released in July 2020.

This major report – a collaboration with the Department of Communications and the Arts and the ANU – incorporated the results of the third National Indigenous Languages Survey, carried out by AIATSIS in 2019. The report and AIATSIS advice informed the targets and measures for language (Target 16) set out in the National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap.

This is the first time cultural indicators and targets have been included in the Closing the Gap framework. AIATSIS and ANU held a policy forum to explain the findings and implications of the report in November 2020.

Submissions and advice

Other notable achievements include our contributions and submissions to a number of significant government inquiries and reviews, including:

  • the parliamentary inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia into the destruction of Juukan Gorge
  • the NIAA’s draft report on the Commonwealth review of reforms to the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (Cth) (CATSI Act)
  • the Senate Select Committee on the Aboriginal Flag
  • Commonwealth consultations on the Indigenous Voice co-design process.

AIATSIS also provided considered advice to government on:

  • a government-wide priority-setting workshop on the Productivity Commission’s Indigenous Evaluation Strategy, held in Canberra on 14 August 2020
  • the draft Australian Government response to the Juukan Gorge inquiry
  • the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework
  • the National Soils Policy
  • the intersection of Commonwealth heritage protection laws and native title.

Our submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia led to an invitation for Dr Lisa Strelein to appear before the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia and to a number of questions on notice to AIATSIS from the committee. The submission and a number of supplementary additions have been published on the committee’s website.

AIATSIS also made submissions responding to the NIAA’s draft report on the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 (CATSI Act) review. The AIATSIS submission focused on the needs of registered native title bodies corporate (RNTBs) and how the proposed changes to the CATSI Act may impact on RNTBCs’ ability to self-govern and on their aspirations for autonomy and self-determination. The NIAA requested permission to quote from the AIATSIS submission for their final report. Also of note in this regard are AIATSIS’ contribution to the Native Title Representative Body Legal Workshop and the online community conversation about marine rights practice.

Situation and status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage

Reporting on the situation and status of Indigenous culture and heritage is a specific function under the AIATSIS Act. AIATSIS is developing a framework for reporting regularly on the situation and status of Indigenous cultures and heritage as a specific embodiment of this function. The framework for the report was launched at the AIATSIS Summit to a packed room of over 250 delegates. The Report on the Situation and Status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures and Heritage aims to address the lack of a coherent way of understanding the place of culture in our lives and in public policy and public action. There have been other reporting frameworks for measuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing or the performance of Indigenous policy and programs. But these previous frameworks have focused on health and socioeconomic indicators, often with a deficit approach and a narrowly quantitative lens, rather than the health of culture itself.

The most recent National Agreement on Closing the Gap acknowledges what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always said: that ‘cultures are fundamental to improved life outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’. Importantly, it states that culture should be promoted rather than diminished through Closing the Gap actions. However, it is evident that there is no adequate framework for measuring cultural vitality and assessing the impact on culture of actions by communities or governments. The AIATSIS Report on the Situation and Status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultures and Heritage will address this gap.

The report will strengthen our partnership with the Mayi Kuwayi Study of Cultural Determinants of Wellbeing. AIATSIS is a founding partner in this ground breaking longitudinal large-scale survey, which is now producing significant data on various domains of culture.

Feature 16: Engagements

Refer to TABLE 5: ADVISE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER CULTURE AND HERITAGE. and Table 5b: Engagement with decision makers and policy leaders for statistics on our engagements.

This measure is directed to measuring our influence, through engagements with decisionmakers. During the year, AIATSIS Research and Education group staff recorded 12 substantive engagements with decision makers, where a direct impact or influence could be expected. During 2020–21, the CEO actively participated in approximately 62 meetings/gatherings where he consistently shaped our national narrative strengthening the place of the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia and creating conditions for cultural resurgence. Topics of engagement were diverse, including:

  • potential partnerships with the Learned Academies
  • the use of First Nations languages in the Disability Royal Commission’s work
  • the Pacific Regional Culture Strategy 2020–2030 with representatives from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications
  • the Productivity Commission’s Indigenous Evaluation Strategy
  • the Ngunnawal language with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • cultural competency with Rio Tinto
  • cultural determinants of health policy
  • the Decade of Indigenous Languages with the UNESCO steering committee
  • the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) review in relation to Indigenous engagement standards
  • work on the AIATSIS National Resting Place with the Healing Foundation.

Each of the Executive Directors and their Directors engage with our stakeholder groups: academia, the cultural sector, AIATSIS members, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the general public, and government to inform policy and practice, create greater understanding and appreciation of the value of Indigenous cultures and knowledge and motivate them to become more involved in our work.