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The Russell Taylor Oration 2023

The Russell Taylor Oration is an annual event that celebrates the achievements and contributions of prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the public service and aims to inspire the next generation of First Nations talent in the public sector.

Guest speaker: The Honourable Justice Louise Taylor, ACT Supreme Court

This event has now concluded.

12:30 - 1:30pm (AEDT)
  • Transcript


    Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional custodians, the Ngunnawal people, my people and Jude's people who are the traditional custodians of the land that we are meeting on today. I extend my respect and welcome all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be attending today's event, both in the room and those of you online. 

    For you who are online, I also pay my respect to your Elders and acknowledge the many lands that you are coming from today. My name is Dr Caroline Hughes and I'm a proud Ngunnawal woman and I'm currently the Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. And I'm your emcee today. I would like to now invite a much-loved Ngunnawal Elder and Deputy CEO to provide our Welcome to Country, Aunty Jude.


    Thanks to my cousin. Yuma, which is hello in Ngunnawal and is, as Caroline says, the Ngunnawal people's gift to you all. So please use it when you're on Ngunnawal country to say ‘hello’, ‘hi’, or ‘g’day’. My name is indeed Jude Barlow and I am an Ngunnawal woman. My family, Wallabalooa people, a family group within the Ngunnawal nation.

    And it is an absolute pleasure and privilege to represent my family and my ancestors today at this very special event, an event where I was lucky enough to deliver the Welcome at the inaugural Russell Taylor Oration. Now, has Caroline has intimated I have returned to AIATSIS as an employee after ten glorious months of retirement and returning to AIATSIS reminds me of when I first commenced my working life here in December 2015, and at the time Russell Taylor was Principal and I had won the role of HR Manager.

    December 2015 was an exceptionally difficult time for me as my darling dad was dying, and I was very concerned that I should not perhaps be commencing a new job while all of this was going on, and I really wanted to do a good job. I felt that it seemed unfair that I should be taking personal leave for Sorry Business in my brand new job.

    But your dad, Russ, was insistent and said that this was the best place for me, that he and his team would make cultural room for Sorry Business, for my Sorry Business and my profound grief. Because you see, Russ understood culture, he understood people and he understood me. And there is a word in Ngunnawal and Wiradjuri that we share in Yindyamarra, which means honouring and respect.

    And more broadly, it implies thoughtfulness, graciousness and kindness. And for me it is also about having courage, having courage to have respectful and meaningful conversations, because sometimes it takes courage to be kind and Russ exemplified in Yindyamarra, as does his beautiful daughter, Louise. And Russ was the consummate public servant. He knew and understood the public he served. He was a man of integrity.

    He was honest. And he was a cultured man, an honourable man. And he was so, so kind and generous to me. And I honour him dearly. And I honour his daughter, Lou. And I pay my deep, deep respects to his beloved wife, Judy, with whom he shared a glorious life filled with love, honour and respect.

    I would now like to welcome you to the land of my ancestors in the language of my ancestors, a language once thought dead, but my ancestors kept it alive, speaking it softly, tucking it away until future generations could awaken it.

    So, you know, it was only sleeping. And we Ngunnawal people, we have awoken it. 

    Yanggu ngalamanyin dhunimanyin 
    Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari
    Mara bidji mulanggari djinyila
    Gulambununyi yarabininyin naraganawalininyin
    Nguna Yarabi yanggu
    Yumalundi Ngunnwalwari dhawuarwari

    And this means today we're all gathering together on Ngunnawal Country. And this Country is my ancestors spiritual homeland. And we are keeping the spirits and pathways of my ancestors alive by walking together as one and in the beautiful words of our much loved and dearly missed Aunty Agnes Shea, ‘you may now leave your footprints here.’

    Welcome to Ngunnawal Country.


    Dhjan Yimaba, Jude. Thank you, as always, for your beautiful Welcome to Country. Always with wise words and always ensuring cultural protocols wherever we are on Country.

    For those of you that don't do not know about AIATSIS, we are the only national institution exclusively focused on the diverse history, cultures and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. We tell the story of our country's First Nations people and seek opportunities for all Australians to encounter, engage with and be transformed by that story.

    We preserve a national collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage, and the core of our work is to tell those stories about our cultures, our achievements, our communities, and our values. Distinguished guests in particular, His Excellency Ronald Recinos, Ambassador of Guatemala in Australia, His Excellency Tim Moore, Ambassador of Ireland in Australia, AIATSIS Council member Michelle Deshong.

    His Excellency Justin Mohamed, Australia's inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People, heads of other national cultural institutions. I would like to firstly acknowledge Miss Judy Taylor and the other members of Russ's family who joined us online today. And of course, how special, Your Honour, Louise Taylor, we are so privileged to have you here with us in honour of your incredible father, a giant, an absolute giant.

    And in honouring your father, presenting the 2023 Russell Taylor AM Oration and to everyone else here at Maraga and those online, welcome to the annual Russell Taylor Oration. 

    This is a significant event for AIATSIS and even more so this year as this is the first oration since the passing of Russ this year, a Kamilaroi man. Russ was the longest serving Principal and Chief Executive Officer of AIATSIS.

    When Russell stepped down from the CEO role in late 2016, he was the most senior Indigenous public servant in Australia. Russell's career spanned more than 30 years in senior executive positions in this in the public sector. Russell was a leader, a mentor, an inspiration to me personally and a friend to many. In 2015, Russell was appointed a member of the Order of Australia for his service to the community as a cultural and public sector leader.

    At the inaugural, Russell Taylor Oration in 2017, Russell urged the public sector to find ways to better engage with First Nations people in the workforce. Russell emphasised that having visible and accessible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander role models in senior public sector positions would make a world of difference. Russ himself was an exemplary role model.  Established to honour the tireless service and legacy of Ross.

    This annual oration, a worthy tradition, celebrates the achievements of senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander figures in the public sector and aims to inspire the next wave of First Nations leaders. AIATSIS sincerely appreciates and recognises Russell's unwavering dedication and loyalty towards our shared purpose. And today we honour you, Russ. 

    Please join me in a minute's silence to pay respects to such an extraordinary man, a true leader for all.

    Dhjan Yimaba, thank you. Today's esteemed speaker the Honourable Justice Louise Taylor is a dear friend of AIATSIS and we are very honoured that you, Louise, agreed to present the oration today, celebrating your dad, your own and other First Nations leaders successes. 

    In 2018, Justice Taylor was appointed as a magistrate of the ACT Magistrates Court, and just recently I was honoured to be there and witness this year that Louise has been appointed as the sixth resident judge of the ACT Supreme Court. I think that deserves a round of applause, people. 

    I, and I'm sure you, cannot think of a more deserving and tremendous person fit for such an important role. Justice Taylor is a Kamilaroi woman, a lawyer and the proud daughter of the late Russell Taylor AM, we are immensely grateful for your company today, Louise. Distinguished guests, please join me in warmly welcoming the ever-inspiring Justice Louise Taylor.


    Thank you, Aunty Caroline, for those kind and generous words about Dad and about me and thank you Aunty Jude, for that, as ever, warm and generous Welcome to Country an important cultural protocol for our people and an important reminder of the resilience of your people, the Ngunnawal people. This beautiful Country has been home to me and my family for over 25 years.

    And from the mighty Murrumbidgee to the heights of the Namadgi, we are proud to call this place your Country home. I acknowledge your elders past and present, and I honour the contribution they’ve made and continue to make to this city. Sovereignty has not been ceded. This always was and always will be, Aboriginal land. I must make one other acknowledgment, and that is to acknowledge the absence of my mother here in the audience.

    Many of you will know that she was a familiar figure here at AIATSIS for the many years that Dad served as Principal and CEO. She was very keen to be here at AIATSIS today, but I directed her not to attend because I was concerned that her presence, knowing she is equal parts proud and heartbroken, would undermine my capacity to deliver this oration as professionally as my father would expect.

    My mother was concerned what people might make of her absence. So, Mum, I know you're watching and I hope you're happy that I've made it clear that you're not here because you didn't want to be, but rather because you're domineering daughter told you not to be so that she could keep it together. It makes sense in the context of this oration that I acknowledge my mum, absent or not, because Dad would want it so.

    It was a consistent feature of Dad's public life that he would take every opportunity to pay tribute to Mum’s support of him and our family. I was present with other members of my family when my father delivered the first oration named for him in 2017. It was held in the grand surroundings of Old Parliament House, a place steeped in the history of our nation's political development.

    A bricks and mortar representation of the evolution of Australian democracy, a place that is a matter of tradition and as a fact of history, did not make space for First Nations voices, deliberately so. It was to some extent a fitting environment for a man like my father, who was unafraid of challenging tradition, while at the same time recognising importance of preserving history in all its forms.

    A man who always honoured the past with an eye on the future. It wasn't lost on me in 2017 that a Kamilaroi man holding the floor in that place would have been unthinkable in our recent past. Yet there he was, occupying the space like he was always meant to be there. It was, I think, a fitting reflection of Dad's life, a life spent carving out a place for himself and for his people.

    It was a proud day for Dad and for those of us who loved him. Dad was never afraid of the success of others, and I know he was very proud to see Katrina Fanning, Leilani Bin-Juda, Josh Smith and Jody Broun deliver the oration in his name in subsequent years, and I reckon he'd be pretty chuffed with this year's speaker as well.

    It's truly an honour for me to be asked to deliver this oration today. Many of you, of course, know that Dad died only in April this year. It still feels rather odd for me to talk about him in the past tense. Those of you who knew Dad will know what I mean when I say that he had a great presence, a charisma that made you want to be around him.

    He was a man of humour and humility. It's difficult to comprehend that a man so great is physically gone, and I find myself regularly having awful moments of realisation. I still think to myself, I lost Dad when I'm trying to land a position on a tricky idea and I get a jolt when I realise that I can't ask him, at least not in the physical sense.

    Now, instead, I'm left to speculate about his answers to my conundrums. A kind of ‘what would Russ do’ approach to the world? I mused to a friend after his death that I'd do anything for just ten more minutes with him. And in her kind wisdom she simply responded. Then you'd only want another ten and ten more after that.

    And she's right, of course. The reality is that no amount of time with the people who anchor us emotionally, spiritually and culturally in this world would ever be enough. And in the interests of being authentic, and because I have the platform, I take this opportunity to say something of the role of grief in our communities, a burden my father certainly carried in his life and a burden our communities seem to disproportionately bear.

    In my work, I commonly observe the pervasive and debilitating effect of loss and grief, in particular, on our mob. And it can be all consuming. We are not especially good as a society dealing with grief or supporting with those around us who are carrying the burden of it. Without the right supports, people have nowhere to put their grief and it often manifests in behaviours that are self-destructive and/or anti-social.

    Even with all the wonderful supports that I have, grief feels to me like the heaviest of cloaks laying over my shoulders. Some days it's oddly comforting and others it feels so heavy. It almost brings me to my knees. I try to keep in mind that Dad hated sadness and as I commented in his eulogy, tears from anyone were his kryptonite.

    He would expect nothing less from his family than getting on with our lives. And so, as I always have, I do my best to live up to his expectations of me. But as I've said, not everyone is well supported. And for many in our community, they experience grief on top of additional trauma. Ngarabal Psychologist Vanessa Edwige speaks powerfully and painfully about the compounding negative effect on the well-being of our people of these kinds of significant events.

    I fear it's one of the factors impacting our people's ability to live happy, healthy lives. I've not accepted many public speaking engagements since my appointment as a judicial officer in 2018. Dad would be absolutely delighted at the idea of me delivering this oration in his name and that, along with the opportunity to honour him, were good enough reasons for me to accept this kind invitation to speak today.

    I hesitate to speak publicly because of the risk that I might say something perhaps considered inappropriate for a judicial officer to say, especially if I go off script. I've given this risk a bit of thought and concluded that for me it stems from this. I don't see myself through the prism of my judicial appointment. I see myself as a Kamilaroi woman, woman with some knowledge of the law and unsurprisingly, I have many thoughts about how the world is for our people, both in and outside the law. With so few of us sitting as judicial officers, there's not an enormous bank of precedent from which to draw guidance. And of course, I might say something as an Aboriginal woman that might have a different blush on it if someone else were to say it.

    It can be a tricky path to navigate, a path that has some real parallels, I think, with the public service, the place within it for our people and the impact of our cultural obligations on that place. And I'll return to these parallels later in my remarks. 

    When my father delivered the inaugural Russell Taylor Oration in 2017, he dedicated it to the memory of one of his heroes, the great Dr Charles Perkins AO.

    It perhaps won't surprise you that I dedicate my oration today to one of my heroes, the great Russell Charles Taylor AM. At the outset, I also intend my remarks to follow as a tribute to those First Nations people who have ever been part of or who are currently a part of the Australian Public Service, the APS.

    In preparing my remarks today, of course, I went back and revisited the words of my father in 2017. I could only read them as listening to the oration means hearing that distinctively husky voice. And for the moment, it's too much for my heart to bear. I begin with this personal observation. It amused me no end to read Dad's words, where at the outset he is at pains to make it crystal clear that the oration was not to be about him.

    So typically ‘Russell Taylor’ to dim the spotlight on his own achievements. The oration is named for him and he still disavows that he should be the focus. It made me laugh. The instructions I was given for this oration were perhaps deliberately broad. I was helpfully reminded by the organisers that the oration is intended to inspire the next generation of First Nations leaders in the public sector.

    And I was asked to honour my father, reflecting on the ways in which he inspired me. The latter is not a difficult task. The former I cannot guarantee, but I will do my best. In order to try and fulfill the riding instructions I was given. I think I am required to paint something of the picture of the man I am called upon to honour.

    In particular, I think it's useful for the purposes of this oration to track his pathway to the public service if he were here now. It's at this point he would cringe and tell me just to get on with it. But he's not here, so I get to do it how I like. I've reflected on some of the references I make in this oration to my father's private thoughts and experiences, and I feel comfortable that Dad would be content with my approach.

    And even if he wasn't, Dad would not have demanded that I change my words. He'd have raised his concerns and levelled that steely gaze at me and left the prospect of his disappointment hanging, a parenting tool he used to great effect over the course of his life as our dad. 

    Dad was not a career public servant. A Kamilaroi man, our family hailing originally from the magic Liverpool Plains areas of Barraba and Walhallow. Dad grew up, as I did, on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation in Millers Point, a small public housing community in the heart of the city in Sydney. It was a tough place, Millers Point, and because of it, Dad was a tough bloke. Dad would privately reflect on the ease with which his life might have gone in a different direction.

    His family was not of any means. He had both family and friends who spent time in prison. Employment at the point depended heavily on the waterfront economy. He had a lifelong friend who was murdered after becoming involved with drugs and as a younger Aboriginal man, he had his own interactions with the law. Those factors all combined to see Dad, a student of the human condition and careful, I think, in his judgment about the failing of others.

    After finishing high school, the first in his family to do so, Dad needed a wage and as a result, the pursuit of tertiary education was just not on his radar. It would be many years before he considered it an option. Dad was clever and he spent 20 years in the banking sector after he finished high school. That sector provided some of the intellectual challenge Dad craved and also provided an environment for his aspiration.

    Only recently learned that Dad was the youngest bank manager ever to be appointed by the Commercial Bank of Australia when he was promoted into that role. 

    A move away from the banking sector saw a small stint in small business back at Millers Point, and that proved largely unsuccessful, I add here, mainly because of Dad's innate generosity. Those who knew him know that to be a hallmark of Dad's character, running a small business in a community, always doing it tough, inhabited by folks that he grew up respecting, mates he ran amok with and families he broke bread with was something of a disastrous business combination for a man like Dad. He and mum worked so hard, but it's difficult to be overly successful when almost your entire business runs on tick and you can't always bring yourself to call in the debts.

    It was in the face of this small business chapter closing that Dad, mid-1987, was offered entry into the public service through what was then the Aboriginal Development Commission. By none other than the man who would go on to become my father-in-law, Bundjalung man, the late Allan Hedger, a stalwart of the Australian Public Service and Aboriginal Affairs himself.

    Dad and initially commenced work as what he described ‘a very temporary class six project officer' in the Sydney regional office, and soon after that it was with Alan's encouragement and my mum's support that Dad enrolled in a Master of Business Administration at the University of Technology in Sydney in his forties. A typical mature age student, dad relished the opportunity to study and became a total nerd.

    He was absolutely determined to be able to realise his aspiration of senior management, and he saw tertiary qualifications as a key to unlocking professional mobility. He was right. Dad was the first Aboriginal person to obtain an MBA and he would go on to spend three decades as a public servant reaching senior ranks in 1995 in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, ATSIC. 

    Dad spent a period as the CEO of the New South Wales Aboriginal Housing Office before returning to Canberra for his second stint as Principal CEO of this place, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, AIATSIS.

    As has already been commented when he retired in 2016. Dad was the most senior Aboriginal person in the Commonwealth Public Service. He made no secret of the fact that his time at AIATSIS was the highlight of his career. His leadership of AIATSIS was indeed a labour of love. His belief that the work of AIATSIS had national and international significance was a constant source of drive and motivation.

    His confidence that the work of AIATSIS contributed in a practical and symbolic sense to the cultural strength and resilience of our people never wavered. In Dad's words, ‘AIATSIS, through its national role in collecting, research, publishing and associated activities makes an invaluable contribution to the cultural wealth, the national memory, and wellbeing, not just for Indigenous Australians but for the Australian nation as a whole.’
    He was enormously grateful for the role he occupied at AIATSIS and considered it a privilege to have a doorway into our communities across the country through his work. 

    Dad received many accolades, among them appointment as a member of the Order of Australia in 2015, NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year in 2018 and an honorary doctorate from the UTS in 2019.

    Though to again repeat the sentiment I expressed in Dad's eulogy, he did not seek affirmation from the bureaucracies he served, though of course his performance guaranteed that. 

    For Dad, the honour in public service was to be found in the contribution made to community, and I think that's what made the 2008 NAIDOC recognition so very special for Dad. 

    Which brings me to a consideration of these questions:

    Why was Russell Taylor so successful in the public service? 

    Why is it essential for First Nations people to be in the APS? 

    What are the challenges for First Nation people in the APS and by extension, other mainstream institutions and professions? 

    I want to begin here by recording that my own career, while certainly in service of the public, has not been spent in the trenches of what might typically be considered APS life.

    I have spent a career working for the most part at the frontline of the criminal justice system, a world in some ways, quite apart from, for instance, the business of those First Nations people who work within the National Indigenous Australians Agency and in other ways, perhaps not that far apart at all. My relationship with my father, and to a significant extent, my own experience dictates that I have a keen understanding of the challenges, frustrations and rewards to be found in the public service for First Nations people.

    Dad and I spent many hours discussing and debating the APS and the place of First Nations people within it. We didn't always agree on the detail, but we were united in the view that it is essential for First Nations people to be walking the hallways, to be inside the offices, and to be sitting at the tables where decisions are being made in the APS that will impact our lives.

    That view for Dad and I was not limited to the APS. It was our shared and strong belief that critical to improving outcomes for our people is our successful infiltration at levels of influence of all places where decisions are made about us. I'll return to that thought in a moment, but will say at this point that this belief was one of the reasons behind Dad's determination to see the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre established, a goal realised in 2001.

    I have reflected on the reasons behind Dad's success in the public service during the course of my own career and significantly since his death. And I offer you these observations. 

    Firstly, he truly and authentically believed that the public service provided the opportunity for our people to contribute to improving the lives of our mob. Dad lived the idea that nothing about us should be without us.

    And I think his longevity in the APS is proof of the strength of that belief. Four. It was not always easy. In fact, I'm not sure it was ever easy. Dad experienced many periods of great frustration, disappointment and disillusionment with the APS, his role in it, and the constraints of public office. Dad was single minded in his determination to make space for himself and for other First Nations people in the APS.

    And in many respects, it was sheer stubbornness on his part not to be pushed out by those more difficult periods. Notwithstanding those difficulties, in 2017, in his oration, Dad said this, ‘to record that I enjoyed a very rewarding and fulfilling career in the APS would be an understatement. A career in the APS is a most honourable one, one which provides a wide diversity of choice in roles and responsibilities, and one which can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling.’

    Secondly, and simply, Dad saw the APS as a constant source of consistent employment for our people upon which to build social, economic and professional mobility. Employment provides dignity, economic security and personal satisfaction. Those rewards can transform individual lives and in the context of some of the challenges that our people face, they can in turn transform families and communities.

    But I want to make it clear that Dad was no Pollyanna. He also said, ‘for those Indigenous Australians who may have concerns or misgivings around certain government positions, policies and approaches, I simply respond that the APS provides opportunities for those who wish to be change agents from within. I urge Indigenous Australians, he said, to take up this challenge as one critically significant way to bring about positive change while pursuing a satisfying career.’

    These remarks, though clearly tempered for Dad, provide some insight into some of the frustration that I have to say was a consistent theme of Dad's private reflections about the shortcomings of the APS for our people, shortcomings that he forensically and respectfully articulated in his 2017 oration. And I will feature some of them further on in these remarks. 

    As I noted at the outset, Dad had had long admired the career of Dr Charles Perkins and truly treasured the personal interactions that he had with him.
    Dad considered Dr Perkins to have set the example of the importance of us being inside the tent, even when no one wants us there. Indeed, especially if no one wants us there. And it's this approach that I have carried with me my entire career. 

    Dad's capacity to push through his frustrations and disappointments with the APS was driven by the idea that some of us have to be there, and further, critically, that more of us need to be there.

    I'm not suggesting that he possessed some kind of misplaced martyrdom. I'm saying Dad's commitment to the APS was based on his certainty that there was traction to be gained for our people by the presence of our people in places where government policy and bureaucratic processes were operating to impact our lives. Dad referred to this idea in his 2017 oration as a ‘no brainer’.

    There is no doubt that Dad's personal qualities had enormous influence on his success. He never, ever thought that he was better than anyone, and he never forgot his humble start at Millers Point. 

    His integrity was key to his professionalism. He took his work seriously, but he did not take himself seriously. It's an approach I have tried very hard to emulate.
    Dad was a workhorse. For a period of time Dad and I travelled to work together daily, and he was often turning the lights on when I dropped him at the front door and turning him off again when I picked him up. 

    He demanded excellence from himself. This manifested in a sharp eye for detail, meticulous attention to preparation and unwillingness to cut corners and a desire to know as much as he could about a particular topic.
    He was humble enough to know what he didn't know and was the first to celebrate strengths and successes of others, particularly those he considered colleagues or friends. 

    He did not suffer idiots or unprofessional behaviour, and he was not afraid to set people straight in the bluntest of terms. That said, my partner Joe, who's known my father his entire life, describes Dad as someone always willing to let people redeem themselves. And this is so very true. 

    There were times over the course of Dad's career where people mistook his often-gentlemanly manner for meaning that he was a soft touch. And from an interpersonal perspective, he could be. But it was very foolish indeed to underestimate him for his clinical professionalism and keen intellect made him a formidable adversary. Dad's experience growing up in Millers Point meant he was streetwise and worldly. I would say invaluable characteristics for the cut and thrust of APS life. 

    And finally, so that I'm not accused of possessing a blind case of hero worship. I will also say that I know Dad was not perfect. Chief among his more difficult characteristics was his impatience. While a master of the long game, he had no immediate capacity for waiting.

    He could almost be seen to physically vibrate with impatience, and his intolerance for any kind of disruption to his plan was the of legend in our family. In addition, I imagine Dad's expectation of professional excellence for himself, bordering on perfectionism, could be exhausting and perhaps even exacting for those who worked around him. 

    And now against the background of that rewarding and fulfilling career Dad described I move to those shortcomings of the APS that I mentioned, to which Dad referred in his 2017 oration. In the detail of these shortcomings lie some of the answers to improving the experience and longevity of First Nations people in the APS, an aspiration that should be key to improving the business of government in so far as it relates to our lives.

    I set the scene by observing the APS is a powerful beast. It has enormous influence on our lives. First Nations communities have long understood that. Governments have demanded that we engage with their bureaucracies as a means to scrutinize and control us for more than 200 years. 

    Members of the broader community who regularly interact with Centrelink know very well, I think, some of the influence of the APS on their day to day lives, and it was fascinating to observe the reactions of the entire community when a demand for mandatory engagement with bureaucracy became a mechanism for public health control when the pandemic set in.

    And it has perhaps been instructive for some in our community to observe the potential nature of the machinery of the APS in operation by the public hearings and the report produced by the Robodebt Royal Commission. 

    I'm not sure that Dad would have said it publicly quite like this, but the reality of the makeup of the APS is that First Nations people are not in high enough numbers at senior enough levels to be truly influential in shaping the policies that affect us across the APS. It's not a matter of opinion, in my view, it's a matter of fact. In saying so, I mean no disrespect at all to those First Nations people who are part of the APS. Nor do I intend to take away from the contribution they make. 

    But as my father identified with precision in his 2017 oration and Jody Broun in her 2022 version, it's not just the number of First Nations people in the APS that need significant enhancement, but the number of First Nations people in the senior executive ranks of the APS that requires urgent attention. 
    It's no coincidence that Dad and Ms Broun identified the lack of First Nations people in senior roles as a critical factor. As senior skilled bureaucrats they both know very well how it is that decisions are made and more significantly who it is that makes them. 

    Like most institutions, the APS is built on hierarchy and as a matter of practical operation and common sense, it is the roles at the senior executive ranks, without undermining or denigrating at all those operating at APS classifications, that regularly have the opportunity to influence, shape and drive policy development.

    And it's also a matter of fact that despite the clarion call from my father in 2017 about the importance of this factor, there has been no significant upswing in this regard worth mentioning except to note that his imagining of a future where an Aboriginal person again led the Commonwealth agency specifically responsible for us became realised with the appointment of Jody Broun in 2022. 

    Of course, in between Dr Perkins and Jody Broun many a non-Indigenous person realised the pinnacle of their APS careers on the back of our policy affairs in circumstances where there has been no significant movement in the gaps that separate us from non-Indigenous Australians. For those decades in between the leadership of Dr Perkins and the arrival of Jody Broun, where non-Indigenous people were, for the most part, responsible for charting our policy pathway.

    Scrutiny of the failures in First Nations affairs consistently focused on us as the reason for the gap remaining stubbornly fixed. Of course, I acknowledge that there are a great number of non-Indigenous people genuinely invested in improving outcomes for our people, but it must be recognised that while we might be seen as bearing entirely responsibility for our own futures, we have so rarely actually been in control of our own futures because it has been policy designed mostly by a non-Indigenous bureaucracy that has secured our destiny.
    Against that background, it's curious to me that while there is plenty of hand wringing in relation to the glacial pace of any movement in the gap, there has been little accountability demanded from those in positions to truly do something about it. Indeed, it would seem that despite that glacial pace, many in APS career in Indigenous affairs has flourished.

    I don't begrudge folks their careers, not at all. Nor do I intend that observation pejoratively. But it is just a myth that First Nations people have had significant influence on the policies that affect our lives. In 2019, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Research, CAEPR, published a report commissioned by the Australian Public Service Commission's Indigenous Capability Unit in collaboration with the Australian Public Service Indigenous Senior Executive Steering Committee.

    The report, entitled Navigating to Senior Leadership in the Australian Public Service: Identifying Employment Barriers and Enablers for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People makes plain the significant challenge that I am attempting to articulate. The report says this, ‘the 2008 State of the Service report indicates that representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the APS has improved in recent years and currently sits at 3.3%.’
    This is a significant achievement in terms of having met the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy target of 3% representation by 2019. 

    The report goes on, ‘despite this achievement employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the APS is concentrated at the low levels of service. The majority are employed at APS 6 level and below, and the largest proportion are at APS 4 level.’

    In contrast, employment at senior executive levels is very small, just 1% over a ten-year period. Representation at the senior executive service levels has remained disproportionately small, while executive level employment has declined. The challenge for the APS, the report says, lies in finding ways to increase the small cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders positioned at the executive level and senior executive service level and retain them into the immediate and longer-term future.

    In her 2022 oration, Jody Broun frankly identified that there was significant work required if the targets identified in the 2020-2024 Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Workforce Strategy are to be achieved. The 2021 to 2022 State of the Service report, while identifying that First Nations representation in the APS was steady at 3.5%, said this, ‘behind this data issues presenting challenges for the APS are concentration of First Nations employees in lower classification levels, high separation rates and shorter APS careers.’

    Concerningly, the report identified that First Nations APS staff spend almost half the time that their non-Indigenous counterparts spend in an APS career. Reading Dad’s oration in 2017, Ms. Broun's oration in 2020 to the 2019 CAEPR Report and the Commonwealth Workforce Strategy, to which I just referred the challenges for First Nations APS employees are clear and to some extent obvious.

    Those challenges include, as many of you would no doubt be able to rattle off; the level of genuine engagement with our communities, the promotion of cultural competence as core business, identifying leadership pathways and training opportunities, limited regional opportunities, in particular for leadership roles, racism and stereotypes and of course, the burden of what has been described as walking in two worlds.

    And it is here that I return to the parallels that I mentioned at the outset. I can strongly identify with those challenges because they almost universally mirror my own professional experience. And like for the for those mob in the APS, there is professional risk inherent in calling out some of those challenges when you are inside the tent. 

    In particular, I want to talk about the emotional and psychological labour that accompanies what I will refer to as that ‘two worlds factor’, a factor that has been a constant theme of my professional life, including, I must say, as a judicial officer.

    And I know that it was a factor that featured strongly in my father's career. It's a factor that requires us to be exposed to an exchange of ideas that centre our people as the subjects when the challenge of our lives and the experiences of our communities is not theoretical for us. We are invested in the exchange of ideas far beyond the way it impacts our careers.

    For my own experience, it's a factor that has constantly demanded a biting of my tongue, a tolerance for the dominance of Western culture, and a need to express my views carefully, lest I be accused of being overly emotional or too close to a topic. It's a factor that has seen me sit in rooms over the years and have my own people explained to me by non-Indigenous bureaucrats and other professionals confident in their ability to lead us to salvation.

    I've been in situations where those same kinds of people have mused about the position of our mob, like I'm not even in the room. It's a feeling of being outnumbered, knowing that at some point you will have to speak up and the non-Indigenous people around you who have enthusiastic, fully professed allyship at every turn will lower their eyes when you ask them to put their neck out.

    It's the subtle references to my identity as a tactic to suggest that my presence in the room or indeed on the bench is an accident of tokenism, as opposed to a consequence of my skill and ability. The ‘two worlds factor’ has most commonly resulted in a re-evaluation of my place in the system I am part of, resulting in questioning whether that position is sustainable in the interests of my own well-being and my own integrity.

    When I look back on my life and indeed my career, I can identify two different kinds of experience. One where a person hasn't clocked that I'm Aboriginal and the other where they have. But because my skin isn't black, they felt permission to treat me as either being not quite Aboriginal enough or as a potential co-conspirator. The first kind of experience means non-Indigenous people have felt permission to say all kinds of things instructive of their authentic views about our mob, including in recent years a person very involved in the reconciliation movement who bemoaned that reconciliation was going too far because it was seeing Aboriginal people get jobs at the expense of qualified people.

    The second experience has seen non-Indigenous people try to recruit me as potentially like-minded in relation to my own people, including senior education executive who told me conspiratorially that the problem with my people is that we're not ever satisfied. Once we get one thing, we just want more and more. 
    The second experience has also seen it helpfully explained to me, underpinned by broad assumptions about my own lived experience, that I can't really understand the problem of violence against Aboriginal women because I've not seen the way Aboriginal communities operate in the Northern Territory.

    You learn to move around in the world bracing for those experiences and over time you develop ways of responding to them. But it must be said that cumulatively they take a toll and they represent the additional labour that First Nations people take on when we move around in the APS and other places where it's essential for us to be, they are experiences my father would grimace at, rail against and then insist I take in my stride as he did, because the importance of being in the room trumped any personal impact upon us. I'm not sure in the end if that approach is sustainable for all of us, and at some point we have to have the freedom to chart our own business.

    That said, I also recognise that the personal experiences I describe are not anywhere close to the more overt racism I have observed perpetrated in social interactions, in systems and in institutions over the years against my people, many who might more obviously fit the stereotype of what a First Nations persons looks like than I do. But I recite them here to illustrate and reiterate the very real challenge for our people occupying spaces where our numbers are small.

    The experiences also tell the story of why we must put our elbows out and make space for ourselves at tables across the public service and elsewhere, with or without our voices. It begs the question: Who is making decisions about us? 

    In 2009, Dad wrote about Aboriginal identity saying this, ‘we Aboriginal people know who we are. We have been placed in a position of having to defend our position of self-knowledge, not only to challenge and shift perceptions and thereby adjust the historically accrued imbalance with our own constructions and not simply to form a binary opposition, but more importantly to assert the primacy and even exclusivity of our own standpoints.’

    In my view, those words resonate in relation to both the need for us to be at the table and the difficulties for us when we are there. My father in many respects was a proud product of ATSIC. Dad believed that ATSIC built public service know-how and capacity for our people, fostered leadership amongst us and provided a platform for the self-expression of a nationally coordinated approach to our own affairs.

    He was particularly proud that it was the home of some exceptional women leaders, such as Aunty Lowitja O'Donoghue and Aunty Pat Turner. Women he greatly admired. Dad wasn't blind to some of the challenges of ATSIC, but thought it faced intense public and political scrutiny not replicated for other Commonwealth departments who of course, as we know, have their own challenges. That scrutiny, he thought, could only be explained by the inherent distrust in us to be able to manage our own affairs. 

    Dad was absolutely certain that the APS offered our people the opportunity for learning a significant capacity for community contribution and a career where we could, in the right environment with the right supports, showcase our cultures. As he observed in 2017, Jody Broun acknowledged in 2022, there is still work to be done to get us in the door, keep us at the table, and ensure that the pathways to influence and leadership exist for us.

    Despite the challenges that I have identified, I share Dad's core belief that there is honour to be found in public service and particular satisfaction to be had when your work contributes to the greater good of our communities. It is against the background of his 30 years of experience and his view of ATSIC together with his strong belief about the critical need for First Nations people to be in the APS that dad nonetheless considered constitutional reform essential to affect a reckoning of the past and promote a new way for the future, a future that sees us at the helm of our own affairs. 

    And I will wrap up with these final observations. In 2017, Dad not only delivered this oration, he also presented a paper on the significance for our people and for the nation of the outcome of the 1967 referendum.

    I would not be properly honouring his memory if I did not record that Dad strongly believed in a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament as a mechanism to guarantee policy and decision making about us was not without us. He saw it as one way to balance the absence of our critical senior mass across the pipes and as an essential lever for us to seek to influence government transparency and accountability, in particular, over the millions of dollars spent on our affairs each year with little progress seemingly in exchange.

    Dad wrote this, ‘I believe that there is considerable value and benefit to the nation in pursuing and securing both meaningful constitutional change and agreement in the form of a treaty or treaties in order address unresolved issues of sovereignty and historical grievances. He identified a range of misgivings for a public referendum campaign, almost as if he had a crystal ball, including this observation the risk in causing any immediate or longer-term damage to social cohesion and unity needs to be anticipated by the avoidance of any ill-considered public statements and positions.’

    And he made clear that a ‘no’ result would have a profoundly negative effect on our people. He offered this, ‘hand in hand with these misgivings, I reiterate my hard held concerns that an unsuccessful referendum dealing with Indigenous constitutional recognition would deal a tremendous blow to Australia's international standing as a modern nation which values its reputation for liberal thinking, equality and human rights. I repeat my view that such an outcome would speak much more harshly about the broader Australian nation than about its minority Indigenous population.’ 

    Enshrining a voice for us in the Constitution made sense to my father because he saw it as a protection against the whim of governments who might seek to dismantle our capacity for national organisation, something he considered to be at the heart of the abolition of ATSIC, seemingly with the stroke of a pen. 
    Dad saw that as an act in terms of our ability to influence the national agenda about our own affairs that cut us off at the knees, the impact of which was years in the wilderness, further entrenching a sense of powerlessness felt by our people across the country. This sense of powerlessness was represented at every community consultation held in contemplation of constitutional reform in the lead up to the presentation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the Australian people.

    As ever, a man who saw the glass half full. Dad said, ‘I believe that wonderful achievement of collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, which Megan Davis and Marcia Langton spoke about when referring to the impact of the 1967 referendum, could be revisited and repeated at some time in the very near future.’ 

    My father was a kind man and he was a hopeful man.

    I am grateful for the lessons of his life every day. If he was an excellent public servant, he was, in our view, incomparable as a husband, a father and a grandfather. I knew without doubt his expectations of me as a Kamilaroi woman and indeed as a human being, among them cultural and professional integrity, loyalty, humility, decency and hard work.

    I am inherently a more cynical character than Dad, and he’d chip me about it now and then, saying, ‘bub, you've got to be able to imagine something better. What's the point?’ 

    He had the capacity to imagine a future that saw the APS, indeed the nation value and uphold the unique position we occupy as First Nations people of this country and as the experts in our own lives.

    His confidence in our strength as culturally resilient, intellectually capable, collectively resourceful and inherently generous was unwavering. That confidence was the source of his certainty that APS excellence was a key part of our legacy. His own contribution serves as an exceptional example of the need for us to not only be present in the APS, but critically to be influential in the business of the APS that impacts the lives of our people. 

    It was my father's great hope that his APS career would one day be unexceptional for a First Nations person and that one day, in his words, our ways of knowing, our ways of thinking, our ways of doing and who we are would find their rightful place in our nation. Thank you.


    Dhjan Yimaba, Louise.

    How powerful, how incredible, how amazing. Your insights clearly derived from an amazing hero of our people, your dad, and obviously from the experience that you have and the passion that drives what you do for all of us. Your presentation is obviously derived from the work of your dad. An amazing man, an inspiration to you. But to all of us, not just within the public sector, but for all of our communities across Australia.

    I would like to invite all of you to respond to questions. I'm sorry, not all of you to respond to the questions. I'd like to invite you, Louise, to respond to questions from the room and online. And firstly, we'll take a question from the room. For those of you online, please enter a concise question in the panel on the right side of the screen.

    Question from an audience member:

    Thank you, Louise, for a brilliant oration. I'm wondering what you might think, and even if you can imagine what your dad might say to this question about what state and federal governments can do to advance the careers of Indigenous people right now in 2023.


    I don't have to imagine what Dad would say because I would refer you back to his 2017 oration, where he I think I referred to it as forensically and respectfully identifies the actions in particular to foster leadership within the APS. He identifies with precision some of the action. And I know from watching Jody's oration last year that she too identified a number of steps that could be taken to encourage not only people into the APS but keep us there when capacity for longer when we are there.

    One of the things that I know Dad believed in very strongly and it ties in with my reference to his aspiration to set up the Australian Regional Leadership Centre was to create long lasting pathways to leadership. So, to build the capacity in the first instance and then to ensure that it has somewhere to go and that it's supported to go.

    Reading his oration from 2017, the one of the most significant things I think he is trying to express there is the need for cultural competence. And I think part of the purpose behind the examples I gave speaks to that issue. And I have no doubt not only because I hear it from other mob, but because of my own experience, that they are common experiences for First Nation people across public service roles and other institutions and professions that we engage in.


    Thank you. Louise. A message from the online audience, for many members of the online audience. 

    Wonderful oration. Brilliant. Outstanding. And very personal and insightful oration. 

    So, a question from online is: Can you please share your thoughts on how the public service can actively foster an environment that respects and values indigenous cultures, traditions, and knowledge? Big question.


    I think it follows on from the question in the room. I think that Jody referred to it perhaps last year as a value proposition. It has to start with there being recognition of the value of diversity generally and Dad spoke about that in 2017. But the particular value in including First Nations people in the workplace and including them, including us, in a way that allows us to contribute in a significant capacity.

    And that has to come from the top of organisations, not be driven by First Nations people in an organisation, because that adds additional work and additional labour on us to be constantly referencing our identity in order to have space made for it.

    And both Dad and Jody, I think, speak to this powerfully in the content of the oration the need for not just organisations where Indigenous affairs are part of their core business, but organisations who have responsibility for what might be referred to as more mainstream, more mainstream topics have to come to grips with how their work might touch on our lives and our contribution to that work.


    Justice Taylor I’m Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, Director-General of the National Library of Australia, and I wanted to pick up on that comment around valuing First Nations culture and knowledge. My institution is implementing our first ISIP protocol, a big, necessary and challenging change around how we think about the knowledge embedded in collections like the ones here and all around us.

    We're of course, also heading towards the legislation around Indigenous cultural property. I wonder if you have any thoughts about the role that shifting things, abuse and aspirations to structures like this might assist up as we as we kind of go through this some this re-evaluation of who we are as a people and how we value and incorporate First Nations culture into a broader culture.


    Do you mean having rather than just thinking about it? It's a value proposition and thinking about it as core business upon. You have to report against.


    Not just core business, but legislation, because clearly moving from values to core business and values through to a legislation legislative framework that actually says this isn't nice to have, this is a must have that's an interesting pathway and one that I'm not sure people fully understand is entrain at the moment.


    And it's an interesting way that you put it. I think I think you just said nice to have as opposed to must have. And it's clear when I read Federation that he was encouraging a view that the must have approach was the only one that was going to see the kind.

    Improve that we need to see not only in the number of First Nations people in the APS, but the experience of those people once they are there and people might say it would be typical the lawyer to say that we need more law.

    And I'm not necessarily saying that, but if it is that the traction has not been gained because we're asking people to think about it because they should, then there may be some argument that they now have to think about it because they have to and that that will drag or improve the culture in the way that that we want to see it improve.


    Thank you. Question online: Did your father share with you his thoughts on strategies and initiatives that have been implemented to address the historical disadvantage faced by Indigenous people within the public service? And if so I you able to share those with us today.


    And can you just repeat the first part of the question for me? Sorry?


    Did your father share with you his thoughts and on strategies initiatives that have been implemented to address the historical disadvantage faced by us today?


    And I don't have a specific example offer, but I would come back to the answer I just gave in part to the idea that institutions, organisations, the APS, has to start from the premise that we are core business, that our involvement in and our experience once we are in, is part of the core business of the organisation. 
    In terms of speaking to the historical disadvantage of our people I think Dad's answer to that would be the kinds of programs, including in relation to fostering leadership and capacity that he was a huge fan of.

    In fact, I think in the oration he speaks really specifically about the creation of training for First Nations people to be able to see a pathway to senior executive ranks and identify how they can build capacity within themselves to get that pathway. And that that was the responsibility of the apes to provide those pathways in order I’m connecting, but I think he would connect as well, in order to address some of those historical disadvantages.


    Thank you. I'm really conscious of time and how valuable your time is Louise. So, this oration is drawing to a close, or has drawn to a close. On behalf of AIATSIS, I want to extend our sincere gratitude to you and for your time here today, Your Honour, and how valuable that is, knowing that you sit on a bench and make deep and powerful decisions that impact people's lives.

    Your advice and observations have always obviously been drawn from personal experience. Personal experience of being raised by an amazing and inspiring man and the complexities of a life that you have lived learning from him, but also navigating the complexities of your career, including in the public service. 

    I want to mention that you talked about the challenges of not being quite Aboriginal enough, and I too have shared that and also understanding that there have been times when people have been told that I don't see colour and that is also offensive and it is something that I think that we have lived with for a long time and from one sister to another, thank you, Dhjan Yimaba. 

    You've spoken about and helped us understand some of the obstacles and the tools that you have given us in navigating a system that has not been designed to support our cultural values and identities. However, we can use your examples of your father's amazing career. Such a distinguished gentleman, a true gentleman. And I know that I look to him as I know that others do as well.

    As we look to you and what you provide to all of us, both from the Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous communities, you are highly respected both here in the ACT and beyond. I want to give my personal thanks, but also the thanks of all the staff here today, and thank you and your family for joining us. I'd like to acknowledge everybody in the room and those of you joining us online today and hope that you are challenged by Louise's oration.

    Hope you were challenged in supporting others to achieve their dreams. And they have been you have been ignited in your inspiration and challenge in taking the baton for closing the gap for our people of today and tomorrow. 

    Three words resonate with me from you, from your oration. And that, of course, they're about your dad, what he said, and that is imagining something better.
    And also, his words of our ways, our knowing and our thinking and the value of that in making a better society for us and for all.

    So, Dhjan Yimaba, Louise Taylor, Your Honour, thank you.

About the Russell Taylor Oration

In remembrance of the late Russell Taylor AM, the Russell Taylor Oration continues to honour the achievements and contributions of esteemed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in the public service. Originally established to commemorate the exceptional service of former AIATSIS CEO Russell Taylor AM, this oration seeks to ignite inspiration among the upcoming generation of leaders.

Having retired as the CEO of AIATSIS in December 2016, Russell Taylor AM, held a distinguished position as one of the most senior Indigenous Commonwealth Public Servants. Russell held various Senior Executive Positions within the public sector throughout a remarkable career that spanned over two decades.

Each year as we gather for the Russell Taylor Oration, we acknowledge and pay tribute to Russell's enduring leadership legacy, his unwavering commitment to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, his invaluable contributions to the Australian nation, and his remarkable service to the Commonwealth Australian Public Service. 


Mr Russell Taylor OAM was the longest serving CEO and Principal of AIATSIS having served two terms, the first from 1997 to 2003, and the second from 2009 to 2016.


Last updated: 20 October 2023