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Talking to 'blackfellas': Aboriginal connections to localities and regions in the Northern Territory Public Service



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18 February 2011

‘How can you make decisions about Aboriginal people when you can’t even talk to the people you’ve got here that are blackfellas?’   This question was addressed to the NT Public Service by an Aboriginal senior public servant whom I interviewed for my PhD research about representative bureaucracy in 2007.  Counter-posing the absent Aboriginal policy subject with the ever-present, idiomatic ‘blackfella’ public servant, the question critiques the expectation that an Aboriginal presence in the public service will represent the absent through Aborigines’ numeric sufficiency, their location in the corridors of power and their contributions to programs.  My interviewee was insisting she be heard, if her people were to be taken into account.

In this seminar, I explore something intriguing I observed in talking with 76 Aboriginal people who had been public servants at some time since NT self-government: that there was a high degree of correlation between their localities of origin and the broad regions over which they exercised responsibility.  I call it representation when any public servant, even unwittingly, draws on his or her social identity in the framing of advice.  It is no less representation when Aboriginal public servants draw on their connections in their work.  But do Aboriginal public servants believe the public service takes their representations seriously?  The answer to this question contains messages for any public institution which invites Aboriginal contributions but does not necessarily hear them.

Elizabeth Ganter has a PhD in History from the Australian National University (2010) under a scholarship with the Desert Knowledge CRC.  In her thesis, Elizabeth drew on theories of representation to understand her interviews with Aboriginal employees of the Northern Territory Government.  She conducted her PhD research under the supervision of Professor Tim Rowse and as part of DK-CRC’s Core Project 5: Services that Work.  Elizabeth has lived in the Northern Territory since the mid-1980s, when she first worked in the desert communities of central Australia.  An anthropologist originally, Elizabeth has crossed disciplines, borders and industries in her career. Elizabeth has 20 years’ experience working in Northern Territory Aboriginal affairs and has worked more recently in the field of research and innovation