Author: Daniel Lester
Originally posted on The Guardian on Thursday 3 March 2016 13.29 AEDT.
Economic prosperity is crucial to improving social outcomes for Aboriginal people
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Danny Lester is passionate about enabling Aboriginal people to reach their full potential. As @IndigenousX host, he’s discussing how he makes this happen
I am Daniel Lester, a proud Wonnarua man and a descendant of the Lester family, born in the Sutherland shire with strong family connections to La Perouse and the south coast of NSW. I’m the first deputy ombudsman (Aboriginal programs) in NSW and Australia.
The broader NSW Ombudsman agency in which I sit is an independent and impartial watchdog, overseeing most public sector and many private sector agencies to make sure they meet their responsibilities to the community. Loosely translated, the word “ombudsman” means “the citizen’s defender” or “representative of the people”. We are independent of the government and accountable to the public through parliament itself. Our mandate is to improve the conduct and decision making of agencies within our jurisdiction.
In two significant reports to parliament in 2011 and 2012, the NSW Ombudsman recommended the establishment of an independent mechanism to advise government on the progress of initiatives in Aboriginal affairs. This recommendation followed decades of experience working with Aboriginal communities, including 15 reports to the NSW parliament and a genuine commitment to protecting the rights of Aboriginal people.
Fortunately, the government accepted this recommendation and, on the advice of community leaders, it resulted in the creation of my role, providing independent oversight over Aboriginal programs in NSW to make sure they are working effectively and in line with community expectations.
- While my role is new, it rests on the strong foundations built by the NSW Ombudsman’s office. The Ombudsman established an Aboriginal unit in 1995 as a means of improving Aboriginal people’s access to the police complaint system, and a strategic projects division to examine critical issues emerging from our oversight of policing and community, disability, corrections and other services. Over the past 20 years, the Ombudsman’s work with Aboriginal people has evolved significantly, and we now oversee the provision of services to some of the most disadvantaged communities in NSW.
The Ombudsman’s focus has always been working with Aboriginal communities and recommending ways that the government can improve its service delivery to Aboriginal people. We engage with a range of stakeholders including ministers, heads of government agencies, program and policy staff, funded service providers and – most importantly – Aboriginal people. We place great emphasis on hearing from community members and regularly visit Aboriginal communities across the state.
My first job as deputy ombudsman is to monitor and assess Ochre, the NSW government’s plan for Aboriginal affairs. Ochre has a strong focus on education, economic development, language and culture, Aboriginal participation in the design and delivery of services, and strengthening governance and accountability.
It includes six key initiatives: local decision making; connected communities; Aboriginal economic prosperity framework; opportunity hubs; industry based agreements; Aboriginal language and culture nests; underpinned by a commitment to respond to community directions on healing.
During my week of hosting @IndigenousX, I’m going to be talking about what we’ve observed in our first 18 months monitoring Ochre. I was part of the original ministerial task force on Aboriginal affairs which toured the state, hearing from thousands of Aboriginal people about what they wanted to see changed, which led to the development of Ochre.
I am determined to see it deliver on community expectations for a stronger role in shaping government services; greater partnerships between schools, parents, elders and relevant services to meet student needs; respect for and renewal of language and cultural practices; improved support and opportunities for students transitioning from school to further study, training or work; greater employment and economic prospects; and genuine efforts to heal the trauma.
I’ll also be highlighting some other important work we’re doing with Aboriginal communities. For example, since 2010 we have provided advice to the state government on better targeting support to communities and individuals who need it through a “place-based approach” which centralises decision making about the planning, funding and delivery of services at the local level. Such collaborative service planning and funding requires agencies to be prepared to “give up their traditional turf”, pool their efforts and identify which agency can best support particular individuals and families.
We have also helped to progress justice reinvestment initiatives and housing reform strategies in Bourke, and assisted the Grandmothers Against Removals and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services to agree on, and develop, guiding principles to improve the participation of Aboriginal communities in child protection decisions.
I am passionate about enabling Aboriginal people to reach their full potential – by increasing access to critical information, broadening choices and opportunities, investing in capabilities, vesting communities with real decision making power and growing intergenerational wealth.
If implemented, resourced and monitored effectively, I think Ochre and other key government reforms offer significant promise. In particular, I believe the Ochre local decision making (LDM) initiative, which aims to progressively devolve power to direct government funding and service delivery to Aboriginal regional governance bodies (Regional Alliances), could be a real game-changer.
I’ll be looking closely at how the NSW government is giving effect to the LDM vision – including capacity building, sharing timely and relevant information, and negotiating power sharing in good faith – as well as how it translates into differences on the ground for local communities.
I have focused on improving economic outcomes for Aboriginal people for most of my career – including in the department of education, on the Tafe NSW advisory board, through work on the Australian employment covenant and as CEO of the Aboriginal employment strategy. I continue to advocate for relevant reforms in my deputy ombudsman role. Increasing the economic prosperity of Aboriginal people is critical to improving social outcomes in other areas, including health, education, child protection and community safety.
If economic development reforms are well executed in NSW – by increasing the investment in Aboriginal prosperity, harnessing mainstream strategies, targeting key barriers, taking advantage of existing opportunities and framed by strong accountability mechanisms – they could usher in real change and underpin true independence and empowerment. I will talk more about this in the coming week.
My work as the first deputy ombudsman for Aboriginal programs is inspired by my family; I get wisdom, strength and cultural reassurance from them daily. They teach me lifelong lessons and affirm what’s important: love, respect and friendship. My family has two touchstone sayings: “never give up” and “be respectful and honest”. These are our commitments to each other, to seize the opportunities before us, take responsibility and fulfil our potential.
As the first Aboriginal deputy ombudsman in Australia I dedicate myself to helping ensure government services and policies broaden the capabilities, choices and opportunities available to all Aboriginal people in NSW.
“Our stories, our way” – each week, a new guest hosts the @IndigenousX Twitter account to discuss topics of interest to them as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. Produced with assistance of Guardian Australia staff.